Four of us met for lunch at A&J Restaurant in Annandale yesterday: Roe Panella, James H, rif (who are brothers James and Reid Hoofnagle) and me. It felt a little bit like a blind date at first, but we had so much in common to talk about, and we had a great time getting to know each other as we perused the menu and ordered. It turns out that James is a former sous chef at Addies, among other places, and Roe has taken cooking vacations in France and Italy. All three of them have lived in this area for a long time and have an encyclopedic knowledge of the local restaurant scene, which was a great learning experience for a relative newcomer.
We passed the menu around, checking off the small dishes we wanted to try. Cold noodles in hot and sour sauce was the first to arrive - thin, pale yellow wheat noodles in a bowl with a spicy, cold broth of soy, vinegar, sesame oil, ginger and scallions underneath. Clean and tart, it was a refreshing starter on a hot, muggy day. Other dishes appeared quickly. Cucumber salad in hot garlic sauce was a big hit--simultaneously crunchy, spicy, salty, sweet and tart. Pickled cabbage was a Chinese version of half-sours, still fresh and crisp. Shredded bean curd with celery and carrot salad was a fool-the-eye expereince, since the bean curd had the appearance and texture of cold noodles. It had a wan, tofu taste, however, and was forgettable among the other flavors and textures on the table.
Pan fried pork potstickers were the best of the various dumplings and hot dishes we ordered, juicy and gingery. Steamed beef dumplings scored higher than the vegetarian ones, but both kinds were delectable, with tender wrappers. I couldnt say the same for the scallion pancake, which was heavy, oily and gummy inside. The sesame biscuit with sliced beef, and the sesame bread were both heavy and dry.
The surprise favorite was sliced pork ears with hot and spiced seasoning, aerved cold. I was expecting larger chunks,but they were tiny, paper thin slices that looked like miniature pieces of bacon. There was a nice crunch to them, and a complex, delicate flavor dominated by black pepper, but also with soy sauce, sweet, and slightly smoky notes. Interestingly, when I went into the amazing Kam Sung Market next to the restaurant, after lunch, I found similar-looking sliced pork ear in a vacuum package, called Dim Sum King Sliced Soy Sauce Pork Ear, from T & B Food Corp. in College Point, NY. I bought some, but havent tried it yet. Its a see through package, and based on the ingredient label, all that seems to be missing is the black pepper.
A & J is small, but light-filled and modern, it looks as if its been recently redone, with a wavy, tiled counter between the dining room and kitchen. Its apleasant, comfortable space. The biggest surprise, however, was the check. Four of us had quite enough to eat, ten dishes and tea, and the bill was $28.30. Everyones chin hit the floor, we said Unbelievable! a few times, and added a nice tip.
We had a great time together, and it confirmed my sense that Chowhound is a community of bright, witty people who are knowledgeable and passionate about food, and many other things as well. Ive often felt envious of the Bay Area hounds, who have regular get-togethers and seem to be an in-vivo community as well as a virtual one. Id definitely like to go out for chow with Roe, James and Reid again, and there are lots of other DC area hounds I hope to meet-and-eat with in the future.