restaurants

Nathan Miller: From Bean to Bar, Chocolatier Serves Up Artisan Chocolates with an International Flair

First published in Valley Homes and Style.

dsc_0050Chocoholics, take note: Chef Nathan Miller offers quarter-inch squares of chocolate nirvana to anyone who wants to taste the difference between cacao grown in Peru versus cacao sourced from Africa. Truth be told, he offers samples to all who want to try his fine chocolates.

Miller not only makes his own truffles, chocolate bars and pastries, but also sources his cocoa beans – three or four tons per year – from farm cooperatives throughout the world. The creative combination of flavors and of ingredients grown with sustainable agriculture practices netted Miller a win at the national Good Food Awards in January for his Ghana 70 percent chocolate.

Miller says there were about 1,500 entries in the Good Food Awards. He appreciates the challenge of competing, but he also likes to see what people are making and how chocolate is changing. For example, Miller uses a stone cylinder and wheel to grind his beans and bring out different flavors of the chocolate.

Some of his chocolates are comprised solely of organic cacao, organic cane sugar and organic cacao butter, a treat for those of us accustomed to mass-produced chocolate. The simple ingredients let the skill of the artisan chocolate maker – the bean roaster – shine through.

Other of Miller’s chocolates might have crushed house-made gingerbread or locally sourced Pennsylvania pretzels or coffee or chili in the mix. Many of his chocolate bars are named with the source of the beans – Ghana, Belize, Hispaniola, Peru, Madagascar – along with the percentage of chocolate in the bar. Others are named with the special flavor.

But the best part of his shop lies in the glass jars lined up behind the counter.

Halfway hidden by the counter, the glass jars – ranging in size from a gallon to a less than a cup – house chocolate samples. Miller serves up each sample with a long pair of tongs, happy to discuss his art with the samplers. He says it’s important for clients to be able to try samples of chocolates to taste the flavor and feel the “mouth” of the chocolates.

I indulged in many of the delightful morsels. The melt-in-my-mouth sweetness of the buttermilk chocolate, either the 45 or 55 percent varieties, is my choice for the perfect chocolate bar. Both are made from the Ghana cacao beans. Initially, when I slip the chocolate into my mouth, it is just another little lump, but as it warms and begins to dissolve, the flavor of the buttermilk sneaks through.

The gingerbread chocolate bar is made from the 55 percent buttermilk chocolate, the Ghana beans showing themselves in yet another bar. Miller starts by making the gingerbread, then grinds it up to add flavor to the chocolate. The effort to make fresh gingerbread, only to grind it up as an ingredient in a chocolate bar speaks to the commitment to quality ingredients. I am expecting little bits of gingerbread, but the reality is more sublime. The chocolate smells like it tastes – another of my favorites – with a flavor reminiscent of gingerbread at Christmas.

The pretzel and cherry chocolate is similarly subtle with a fine creamy texture, but with flavors of pretzel and cherry – even down to a bit of saltiness. The little chunks of cherry give a punch of flavor when I bite down on them.

Miller started creating his award-winning chocolates in his Chambersburg basement in 2010. He soon outgrew that mini chocolate factory, so he opened his first shop about 18 months ago. These digs have a large production area and a patio as well as a tasting and dining room, with savories, coffee and chocolates for sale.

Miller’s creations start with finding the best sources for cacao beans. He buys beans from small farmers’ cooperatives, where farmers may grow the cacao seeds or harvest them from the forest.

“When you choose to make chocolates, you don’t know that you’re getting into the import/export business,” he says as he goes into detail about how the farmers harvest the beans.

The farmers cut the pods off the plants. On the spot, they may pull the beans out of the pods filling sacks with the hulled beans. The sacks may go onto the back of the farmer’s animal – or if he’s wealthy – into his truck to take to the fermentation area. Fermenting may take place in bucket, in a pit covered with leaves or in a box, which gives the farmer better temperature control. After fermenting, the beans are dried, and then shipped.

Some of the beans end up in Pennsylvania, where Miller says it’s easy to tell the quality of the beans when he picks out moldy or rotten beans. Hand-sorting beans was time intensive, so a sorting machine was one of the first things on his “buy” list, crucial to a growing business.

Roasting is another area where Miller finesses the flavor of the chocolate. He roasts his cacao beans long and slow.

Miller steps into the production area to bring out spoons coated with his new chocolate variation that is still molten. The not-even-cooled-yet chocolate coats the spoons, dripping down the side. The warm chocolate skips the melting phase of other tastings, and instead sends an immediate spicy zing to my taste buds.

The 70 percent Belize chocolate is a sharp contrast to the 44 percent buttermilk chocolate. It’s stronger and darker, almost bitter. While the Belize chocolate is still the seemingly simple recipe of the three ingredients, Miller says he’s constantly tweaking how he roasts and grinds the beans to get the perfect flavor.

That is one of the advantages of being a small shop. Larger chocolate manufacturers have to be 100 percent consistent, ensuring that each bar is precisely like every other bar. The artisan can change recipes, looking for improvements and ways to enhance the experience of the chocolate.

Miller has the credentials to talk about food with expertise. After culinary school in Hyde Park, New York, Miller apprenticed in Germany, then on to New York City, eventually landing in Boulder, Colo., as a dessert and pastry chef. He’s a believer in learning the basics.

“If you have a good base of the classics, you can make anything,” Miller says. “It’s a foundation of creativity.”

The coffee-flavored chocolates are a testament to the nuance of his chocolates.

Miller finds complementary coffees from local roasters or from friends back in Boulder. Two of his coffee-laced chocolate samples reflect the difference between coffees – a difference as vast as the difference in cacao beans.

Named for the coffee companies that provide the beans, Greenstreet Espresso is another chocolate variation using the Ghana beans, but the espresso flavor is oh so different from Boxcar Coffee Chocolate – named for Boxcar Coffee Roasters. Miller talks fondly of sampling the coffees through his espresso machine before turning them into chocolates. He has to know the flavors.

His enthusiasm was inspiring, so after tasting chocolates, we tried the mocha, which was so thick it was like drinking a dark chocolate torte cake.

The centerpiece of the restaurant is a long communal table that seats 16. Almost everything in the restaurant is recycled. The metal ceiling came from a bar in Carlisle; the lights came from a local manufacturer.

After trying more than a half dozen chocolate flavors – and benefitting from the post-chocolate caffeine buzz – we tried two of the savory croissants. The ham and Brie had the perfect balance between bread, meat and cheese. The outside of the croissant was crispy brown, but melted as I bit into it. The inside flaky layers had more substance, well for a filling lunch. The spinach and goat cheese croissant had a similar balance, and Miller’s fiancé Chelsea Russo explained that the cheese was sourced locally from Pipe Dream Fromage.

Nathan Miller’s Web site has groupings of chocolate bars for sale, such as the “single origin inclusion” set that includes all chocolates made from Ghana beans and all with additions of some kind whether its gingerbread, espresso, chili/streusel, buttermilk or simply everything. His descriptions give a sense of the differences between the chocolates. As I read about the notes of caramel, coconut and dates in the Ghana chocolate and the hazelnut, heavy cream and brown sugar notes in the Belize chocolate, I realized how much fun it can be to learn to recognize those flavors, which isn’t easy for someone who thought they knew chocolate, but is now working to identify the nuances of cacao tastes from Belize, Peru and Ghana.

All chocolates are not created equal. The beans, the roasting and the care in fair trade sourced ingredients sets Nathan Miller apart from other chocolatiers. The samples may be an opportunity to learn to differentiate the subtle flavors of the artisan chocolates – or they may just be an opportunity to decide what you love before picking out a bar to take home.

Pam and her husband, Tim, travel throughout the Valley looking for their favorite restaurants, and are happy to share their finds with you. If you have a suggestion for a review, please email tplettie@visuallink.com.


Nathan Miller Chocolate

140 North Third St., Suite 3

Chambersburg, PA 17201

717-496-8229

www.nathanmillerchocolate.com


Other tasty venues in the area:

Trickling Springs Creamery

www.tricklingspringscreamery.com

The Creamery Store has a wide range of organic and small farm dairy products, including hand-scooped ice cream. Sample spoons are available, but I found that the pistachio ice cream was as smooth and rich as silk. So good.


Norwegian Codfather

www.norwegiancodfather.com

Nathan and Chelsea recommended this European food market, located in downtown Chambersburg. Sadly it was closed by the time we arrived, but it looks like there are plenty of yummy goods to tempt foodies.


Roy Pitz Brewery

www.roypitz.com

This boutique brewery shares a back hallway with Nathan Miller, making an easy transition from chocolate to beer, where an affordable four-beer sampler lets you try a selection of their specialty brews.


The Butcher Shoppe

http://www.mybutchershoppe.com

If Nathan Miller is closed and you need a chocolate fix, check out The Butcher Shoppe, a grocery store with a range of locally inspired foods such as perogies, sausages, homemade soups and, of course, Nathan Miller Chocolate.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Many Cups of Tea: Tales from Magnificent Venues Throughout the Valley

First published in Valley Homes and Style.

dsc_0035Tea is warmth. Studies may tout the tea’s health benefits, but tea is about warmth.  The teapot’s warmth is an ancient and tribal warmth – connecting friends and family, good conversation and the warm memories of cozy surroundings. Afternoon tea is taking a break, a pause in the day; calm minutes set aside to sip slowly, savoring the presentation of savory sandwiches, scones and pastries. In a go-go-go world, the peace and quiet can be a balm for the soul – even when we are on our own.

Coach & Horses, Tea-Lover’s Paradise

A tea lover driven by a desire to sip and sample has few places more appealing than the Coach & Horses Colonial Tea Room. Their focus? Tea.  The menu lists more than 50 varieties of black, green, white tea, oolong, rooibos, fruit, herbal and yerba mate teas; all of the tea is loose leaf.

The staff is a font of information about tea service, tea place settings and teas in general. The historic building has a down-to-earth feel with visible log cabin beams upstairs. The upstairs is worth a trip, even if you are seated downstairs. The log and plaster layers add even more charm to the rooms. Shelves display jar after jar of tea blends, all labeled with the Coach &  Horses brand.

It is one of the few teas we have found offering a “bottomless” pot of tea –meaning a fresh pot of tea with fresh tea leaves, at your request. Experimentation is encouraged. Every diner is welcome to try different teas.

dsc_0155Each pot is big enough for about three delicate china cups full of tea or perhaps one more cup if you add cream and sugar. The waitress or waiter steeps the tea upstairs, only serving the tea after it’s steeped to perfection for between three and seven minutes. They are willing to steep longer or shorter to meet your tastes. After steeping, the leaves are removed, so the taste is always right on target – never weak or bitter. The staff-intensive process works to the advantage of the diner.

Our waitress carries as many as six teapots at once, admitting that coming downstairs with full teapots is harder than going up with empties. Still, she said her coworker could carry eight.

She glowingly described the most popular teas. We tried two – the decaffeinated Darjeeling and the Pomegranate Pear – along with two others, the Chocolate Delight and the Yunnan, a black tea. We traded cups to sample more varieties.

The Pomegranate Pear looked red and fruity in the cup, while the Darjeeling was a nice rich brown, a duo that could suit almost every tea-loving palate. The Chocolate Delight had a stronger chocolate flavor than any tea we’ve tried; by adding milk and sugar, it tasted almost like hot cocoa, but not quite as rich.

As we moved into tea, round two, we generally stayed with our favorites from the first round. Linger, and your cold tea can be replaced with a new pot of hot tea. “Bottomless” really was a core value at Coach & Horses.

We experimented by trying a pot of the Lapsang Souchong, described as a smoky flavor created when the tea leaves were dried over pinewood fires. It’s intense smoky taste was unlike any of the other teas, bringing back memories of campfires. In the end, it probably wasn’t something we would order often, but it was interesting.

While the tea may take center stage, the food deserves attention.

dsc_0131About the same time that the first pots of tea arrived, the waitress delivered strawberry-banana scones. Full-size scones, with big hunks of early summer fresh strawberries were hot out of the oven. The scones barely held together as we sliced off wedges and slathered them with clotted cream and strawberry preserves. The scones were a highlight (after the tea of course). While there were many delicious items yet to come, the scones stood out with a crumbly yet moist texture consistent with some of the best scones I’ve had.

The presentation of sweets and savories appealed to our visual aesthetic, accentuated by the intimate décor and a grand piano in the corner and wall stencils that added to the ambiance. The few windows let in streams of light here and there. It’s a charming environment to sit for a couple hours, drink tea and catch up.

Our second course, after the mouth-watering scones, was a tiered tray of goodies. Sandwiches came in ovals, circles, rectangles and squares. The cucumber sandwich showed itself well with marbled bread.  Rounds of oranges, triangles of watermelon and elegantly edged circles of kiwi offered fresh alternatives to the sandwiches.

The ham croissant was a delicate mix of ham, cheese and mustard sauce. The croissant was flaky, on par with the European varieties, as one of several mini sandwiches – this was clearly not a safe place for someone on a low-carb diet.

Coach  & Horses serves high tea, as well as a regular lunch menu and a Sunday English breakfast, and a la carte items. All meals come with the “bottomless” tea pot. But, because the Coach & Horses chef makes everything to order for the tea, advance reservations are essential. The food tends more toward the sweet than the savory, but the flavors go beautifully with the tea and are filling. On our first visit, my husband opted for a lunch –  a flaky-crusted chicken pot pie – but came to regret that choice after seeing the tea treats.

In the end, we had to take a box of leftovers home. Even though the “tea” was our lunch replacement, there was more than we could eat.

Road Trip: Keswick Hall

dsc_0031The approach to Keswick Hall, near Charlottesville, makes you feel as though you are approaching a European villa. The lovely yellow façade sets the stage for the elegant interior and expansive views.

High tea is served in a rear dining room with a wall of windows overlooking the golf course and rolling rural Virginia hills. The tables are set with linens and silver, and beautiful yellow orchids, reminiscent of the entrance outdoors.

The tea menu is simple, with a nice selection of 15 or 20 loose leaf teas, plus an optional addition of wine or champagne. The waitresses gave us time to view the menu, but were always available to answer questions. There wasn’t any hurry as we considered our tea options. We were celebrating my mother’s 80th birthday, so the pacing was perfect.

Making the right tea choice – and coordinating choices with the rest of our party – was essential, since each of us would only get one pot of tea, which was a bit of a disappointment in an experience that was otherwise almost perfect.

When the tea came, however, the challenge of a choice was forgotten, as the waitress poured our first cup from a lovely, heavy silver teapot. The tiered trays of goodies included a bottom row of savories, a middle row of breads and a top tray of sweets and chocolates.

I had clued in the staff that it was a special event for my mostly vegetarian mother, and the savories included deviled eggs and bite-sized pimento cheese sandwiches that would appeal to her. The pimento cheese had a good blend of cheese and pimento, and the bread was perfectly fresh and soft.

The scones were savories. The texture was crunchy and a little dry, but the scone was a great vehicle for tasting the butter and jam. The madeleines, however, hit a home run with smooth texture and soft interior.

Fresh berries accompanied both the breads and sweets. A range of blueberries, raspberries, sliced strawberries and blackberries not only added visual interest to the platter, but were a delightful treat.

On the top shelf, the chocolates were a final hit of energy. Unlike the other treats, which had identical items for each member of our party, the chocolates were all different, some with a crusty shell, others with a creamy filling.

By now, our tea leaves had steeped for more than an hour, so our tea had a much stronger flavor, but we had swapped pots and had the opportunity to try different flavors. To the credit of the staff, we never felt hurried as we spent two and a half hours enjoying the tea service.

We thought we were done, but it turned out that they reservations department had really taken note when I mentioned mom’s birthday. They brought out a beautifully plated berries and chocolates, with “Happy Birthday” written in chocolate on the plate. With a surprised Mom, and a happy party, it was the perfect end to the tea, especially for my mom who has asked why she should eat anything that’s not chocolate.

Pam and her husband, Tim, travel throughout the Valley looking for their favorite restaurants, and are happy to share their finds with you. If you have a suggestion for a review, please email tplettie@visuallink.com.


Many Great Choices

As the holidays approach, many tea rooms offer special holiday teas, which we have attended at Salamander Inn and Rosemont Manor. The elegant surroundings and holiday decorations can only be described as stunning. Be sure to call to confirm times and make reservations.


Salamader Inn

Middleburg, VA

(800) 651-0721

http://www.salamanderresort.com

Two-story ceilings with a wall of windows looking out at the countryside make the main room a lovely setting. Tables line the windows, while sofas and upholstered chairs offer comfy seating in the center of the room. A box of bagged tea selections offers perhaps a dozen choices, with some caffeinated and some decaffeinated. While the staff is game to bring extra hot water, the setup seems geared for those who want a single pot of tea. The food selection is extensive, with open-faced roast beef sandwiches adding a meaty treat to the usual choice of finger sandwiches, scones, etc.


Historic Rosemont Manor

Berryville, VA

(540) 955-2834

http://rosemont1811.com/teas/

Rosemont Manor, in Berryville, has a structured tea, with specific seating times, and predetermined teas shared by the table. We’ve been to their holidays teas on two occasions and adore the gorgeous classic seasonal decorations. The spring teas have their own charm with the azaleas and spring flowers blooming throughout the property. The tea itself is served in light-filled sunrooms and parlors that feel as though you’ve been invited to a friend’s home. The beautiful and historically significant building, along with the manicured grounds adds to the special feeling.


Coach &  Horses Colonial Tea Room

Winchester, VA

(540) 323-7390

http://of-tea-i-sing.com

The traditional service, charming colonial surrounds and friendly staff contribute to Coach & Horses’ charm, but the “bottomless” teapot and the extensive tea selection are standouts for tea lovers – to say nothing of the large portions that are deliciously filling.


Keswick Hall

Charlottesville, VA

(434) 979-3440

www.keswick.com

The floor to ceiling windows, a silver tea service and tableware, delicate orchids and the option of wine lend a sense of elegance to Keswick Hall. The food selections were an excellent balance of sweet and savory.

Magnolia’s: Modern Cuisine a Highlight of Historic Mill Restaurant

 

First published in Valley Homes and Style.

20160408_magnolia-24Trending culinary menu options and historic atmosphere don’t often go together. Yet few of our country or Valley restaurants can rival the combination at Magnolia’s at the Mill in Purcellville.

The exterior is reminiscent of the building’s roots as an old mill. A sunroom and patio off to the side increase the seating capacity.  Our favorite rooms are the large and irregular historic interior rooms showcasing 12- to 16-inch rough-hewn wood columns and beams. Frank Lloyd Wright shaped the expectations of guests to the homes he designed with low-ceilinged entryways. A tight entryway foyer contracts your expectations. Then, entering the dining area, you are lifted with broad expansive access to light and natural materials.

Walking into the main dining area, you feel the entire footprint of the old mill. The heavy wood and the roof vaulting up three stories give a sense of the spacious seating beyond. Looking up, you can see details of the old mill, often subtly lit to add to the ambiance. The tables along the closer wall are curved booths, so all of the diners face into the main dining room.

Inside, the wood rafters and paneling add warmth and coziness with pulleys, belts, wheels, and pipes harkening back to the restaurant’s origins as a mill. The remnants of the mill serve as artwork for diners who look up toward the ceiling. A sunroom and patio off to the side increase the seating capacity, but our favorite rooms are the historic interior rooms.

Up a long flight of stairs is additional seating, including a separate room that can comfortably seat a larger group in a semi-private area.

The open kitchen and the hanging artwork along with the wood add a modern and hip feel to the historic building. During happy hour the bar hums with the sound of after-work chatter as the bartenders and staff move fast to get the evening’s libations to the clientele.

The waiter brought us the extensive beer and wine list. Ever interested in the local offerings, my friend selected a local merlot. The waiter offered his suggestion, saying that a less expensive Spanish bottle was the best deal going – great taste for a great price. We appreciated the cost savings and went with his recommendation. It was delicious.

We didn’t have bread with our meal, but on other occasions, we have indulged. The bread is a relatively thin bread with hints of salt. It melts in your mouth as you dip it in olive oil and sip your pre-dinner cocktail.

The menu mentions all of the local farmers who sourced the local products in the meal. During the summer and fall, the specials menu often features salads and entrees exclusively based on locally grown ingredients and locally raised meats.

One inviting and comforting element on the dinner menu is the availability of pizzas and burgers, in addition to the more elaborate entrees. Simple selections have no doubt contributed to Magnolia’s being a regular “go to” for the local clientele, as well as a destination for diners from further afield. With one member of our party gluten-free, this was our first look at the gluten-free menu – a rare option.

The special soft-shell crab was a temptation, as was a salad. We had tried the burgers on previous visits. They were cooked perfectly with a nice crispy bun. The shrimp and grits were another family favorite, but this time we decided to try something different: Cioppino and pizza with a gluten-free crust. We would split, to get the chance to try both options.

The cioppino came in a bowl piled high with seafood, swimming in a thick tomato broth. Two toasted pieces of French bread graced the top of the seafood, their buttery crusts glistening in the light of the dining room. The mussels, calamari and fish were tender and channeled the flavors of the broth. Two unusual additions to the classic cioppino were the asparagus and broccolini. I loved having a few extra veggies in the stew.

The gluten-free Kennet Square pizza had a downright brilliant combination of arugula, bacon, mushrooms and gruyere. The toppings were as indulgently decadent as they sound. But, the gluten-free pizza crust tasted a bit like cardboard. With so many outstanding menu items, that is one to avoid. The regular pizza is the perfect thickness with a crisp bottom and soft crust. The pizza offerings change regularly, so other pizza favorites – like a white sausage pizza – weren’t available any longer.

The salads are another highlight of the menu. The regular menu salads are classics, often with a bit of a twist.

For lunch, the Hickory Grilled Flank Steak Caesar is one of my favorites. The steak is tender, the dressing delicious and the salad toppings – French fries and blue cheese – stand apart from standard Caesar salads. My only recommendation here is to get the dressing on the side, since they give you more than you’ll need.

After dinner, the dessert wine and cordials menu is extensive with selections of brandy, cognac, port, sherry, scotch and rum to suit every palate, to say nothing of the range of coffee drinks and my after-dinner favorite, tea.

I went with the peppermint tea. Our waiter, always looking out for our needs, offered two tea bags for the little pot. It was a refreshing beginning to the end of our meal. Yet, the best was yet to come.

The dessert menu makes for tough choices. There had to be one chocolate dessert for the table, but that wasn’t enough. Would we choose something fruity? Or bready? Or creamy?

For our chocolate selection, the gluten-free Chocolate Story was just about perfect. Here’s the menu description: Flourless Chocolate Cake, Chocolate Ganache, Chocolate Mousse Toasted Meringue, Caramel Sauce. If anything, it was chocolateier than described. The different textures went well. The toasted meringue created a brown-tinged crown over the cake and ganache; its bit of crunch went well with the silky cake and ganache.

The Zabaglione also was a hit. A delicate crispy shell housed a very soft custard topped with berries. The combination of sweet and crisp was a palate pleaser.

Throughout the year, Magnolia’s hosts special events with wine dinners, beer dinners, fixed price menus and holiday specials. We went for our anniversary last year, casually let them know we were celebrating, and they had a menu customized with the date and a congratulatory message. At the end of our meal, they presented us with the menu nicely rolled up with a ribbon – a charming reminder of a special dinner.

Magnolia’s has such an extensive menu that it can fit many needs, whether it’s a special occasion or a quick bite or an after-work meeting at the bar.

Pam and her husband, Tim, travel throughout the Valley looking for their favorite restaurants, and are happy to share their finds with you. If you have a suggestion for a review, please email tplettie@visuallink.com.


Magnolia’s at the Mill
198 North 21st Street
Purcellville, VA 20132
540-338-9800
http://www.magnoliasmill.com/

 

Lucky Corner: Expansive Menu Offers Vietnamese Delights to Suit Every Palate

 

First published in Valley Homes and Style.

dsc_0068

The Vietnamese restaurant Lucky Corner is one of the most popular restaurants in Frederick, according to online rating sites.

In 1982, Pha Huynh strapped his baby daughter to his back, left his wife and son behind, and became one of the boat people – a refugee from South Vietnam. It was a time that he describes as “hard, very hard.”

Luck was with him, however, because he found work in the United States and earned money to send back to his family. A decade later, he was able to bring his wife and son to join him.

In 2006, Huynh made the leap to restaurant chef/owner, a natural transition for him, he says, since many members of his family back in Vietnam were restaurateurs. The location he picked after studying various venues was to purchase the Lucky Corner Vietnamese Restaurant in Frederick.

“I had to do something for myself,” he says, in English still accented by Vietnamese. His assistant manager, Tan Pham, expands on Huynh’s comments, pointing out the ideal location with low rent on the outskirts of downtown, and every city dweller’s dream, a parking lot.

Today, Lucky Corner is one of the top rated Frederick restaurants on the online restaurant-rating sites – not just the top Asian restaurant, but one of the top 1 percent of all restaurants. Huynh speaks with pride of the 45-minute wait for dinner on Friday night.

So what does this little Vietnamese restaurant do to attract so many fans: Is it the fresh vegetables, some sourced locally in the summer months? The authentic pho? Grilled meat salads? Rich French coffee or Thai iced tea? The curries?

The variety of food choices is certainly one reason for Lucky Corner’s popularity, while the friendly service has to be another. On an earlier visit, our waiter seemed delighted to offer recommendations and even chopstick training. He says that the trick is to hold one of the chopsticks stationary, then move only the second chopstick to grasp the food. Taught with a laugh and a smile, we all had out chopsticks in hand to try out the new technique, much to his amusement.

While the service might leave a lasting positive impression, the vast array of menu options will keep you coming back, whether you have an adventurous palate or prefer simpler flavors. This is not a one-trick pony.

In many cases, the entrées were flavorful in ways different from Chinese or Thai restaurants, with optional sauces to take the experience to a higher level adding a dash of flair, a bite of vinegar or a punch of hot pepper.

Huynh defines the Lucky Corner’s cuisine as “fusion” with Mexican, Thai, Chinese and French influences, while his roots are deeply Vietnamese.

“In my mind, I see my parents cooking,” he says, describing his youth, when many family members owned restaurants and shared recipes. The authentic Vietnamese food is saltier and sweeter than Americans would like, but Huynh learned to adapt international flavors to suit U.S. tastes when he worked for a large hotel in D.C.

For appetizers, the Crispy Crabmeat Cream Cheese Wontons are a creamy texture filling wrapped in a fried pouch. The crispy crunch is a nice contrast with the filling; the crab flavor is mild, but strong enough that it doesn’t dominate the cream cheese. The spice is minimal, the heat nonexistent, but it is still flavorful. The complementary mango fish sauce piques our interest with a hint of heat.

A more unusual offering is the Duck Pot Stickers, which have a distinct and refreshing cilantro flavor. Often duck announces itself with a distinctive and gamey flavor, but not so here. A well paired sweet sauce is more dominant and plays well with the darker tasting duck.

If you are only mildly hungry, an appetizer along with the small pho is enough for a meal. The traditional Vietnamese soup has a clear, yet flavorful broth and is only slightly salty and packed with noodles. A plate of add-ons on the side – hoisin or sriracha sauces, basil, jalapeño, lime wedges and bean sprouts – allows diners to embellish the soup to suit their tastes. The soup itself is deceptively simple, but the option of adding sauces or herbs, makes pho a kind of Asian comfort food.

For those who prefer less spice, the Seafood in Hot Pot has the Asian flavor profile, but little in the way of heat. Served in a traditional metal pot, the seafood flavor balances perfectly with the stir-fried vegetables. The vegetables bring fresh garden flavors to the dish, making it feel like a healthy meal while still being filling.

A very different seafood experience – also served in the charming metal pot – the Caramelized Catfish comes in a rich brown sauce, with steamed vegetables on the side. Although the menu specifically mentions the black pepper in the sauce, the peppery flavor isn’t dominant. The sauce is rich and makes for a satisfying dipping sauce for the vegetables, which are steamed perfectly: Done, but not mushy.

Yet another seafood dish, the Shrimp Curry – rating two out of three peppers for spiciness – came with green vegetables and wispy shredded carrots on the top and shrimp swimming along the sides. The inviting presentation didn’t telegraph the mild spiciness. The red curry and coconut sauce was a good carrier for the vegetables and shrimp, along with the steamed rice that was standard with most of the entrees.

The Cubed Beef Steak on the other hand, showed off the French influence. Sautéed with butter and red onions, and served with salad greens, the dish could have been served in a Paris bistro. The marinade left only a mild flavor in the meat, but a small dish of salt and pepper, along with a second dish of dipping sauce, were options to tweak the flavors to suit the diner.

No one in our party opted for the children’s menu, but the offerings were simpler or smaller versions of regular menu items – no chicken tenders or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches here. But, the tamarind chicken, a small pho or grilled chicken would appeal to many younger diners, and perhaps would offer a way to introduce Asian flavors.

Lucky Corner’s beverages are notable as well. Scents of hot jasmine tea waft across the table, adding to the warm atmosphere. The flavor is soft, with just a hint of jasmine. But the tea choice doesn’t stop there. There’s an iced delicacy as well.

The Thai iced tea, served in a tall drinking glass, looks red as the light shines against it. Sweetened creamer forms a separate layer on the top, but easily mixes into the tea. The resulting beverage is sweet, almost cloyingly so, but a wonderful complement to the spicy Thai food.

dsc_0039

Even the coffee was an unexpected pleasure. Our group tried the French coffee, which turned out to be thick and flavorful. Sweetened with condensed milk, it somehow wasn’t as sweet as I expected. The strong coffee flavor dominated. The French brought coffee to Vietnam, but the tradition of lingering over coffee continues.

Lucky Corner uses an old-fashioned brewing method for the coffee – no percolator, no espresso machine and no foaming milk.

The coffee brewing starts with a big dollop of condensed milk in the bottom of the coffee mug.

On top of the mug, the brewer sets a metal cup called a “phin,” the de facto coffee filter with small holes in the bottom. Then, the coffee goes into the metal cup, with a filter press on top. Next, in goes the almost boiling water. Oh so slowly, the water goes through the coffee, then drips into the mug below. More hot water is added, followed by more dripping. Eventually, the coffee and condensed milk are stirred, and then served, often over ice.

The coffee-making process happens in the kitchen, so the diner only tastes the final glass of rich Vietnamese coffee. Pham says the process can take an hour, as the coffee gets thicker and thicker. This is not a quick cup of Joe; this is labor intensive and meant to be savored.

The coffee was the perfect closing to our meal. We shared a flan, swimming in a caramel sauce, garnished with a flower cut from a strawberry. Presentation was a highlight, as the dessert was otherwise nondescript, although the flavors blended well.

Altogether dining at Lucky Corner is an adventure for the palate. And those far-reaching tastes, cultivated 8,000 miles from here, are likely to be cemented in your memory by the experiences of your other senses – the fragrances of steaming dishes carried across the dining room, the unique and colorful presentations, and the friendly smiles of the waiter.

As for Huynh, he works side-by-side with his son, Trung, testing out new recipes, switching up the menu to hold the interest of his regulars.

“It’s a long journey for him,” says Pham.

Pam and her husband, Tim, travel throughout the Valley looking for their favorite restaurants, and are happy to share their finds with you. If you have a suggestion for a review, please email tplettie@visuallink.com.


Lucky Corner Vietnamese Restaurant

301-624-1005

North Market Street and 7th Street in Frederick, Md.