Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Restaurant: Shouk (Washington, D.C.)

Shouk, Washington, DC

There's no shortage of fast-casual options in Washington, D.C. I have Cava, Taylor and Sweetgreen on regular rotation. I'm excited that District Taco and Beefsteak are opening soon in my upper Northwest neighborhood. Occasionally, for variety, I venture to Protein Bar, Merzi or Shophouse. Buredo is on my "to do" list. Lunch has never been tastier.

Shouk cauliflower pita
Cauliflower pita
Despite all those options, I'm more than happy to welcome Shouk into the fold. Pronounced to rhyme with shook or hook, it features a vegetable-focused menu that should attract Beefsteak and Sweetgreen fans, but its bold Middle Eastern flavors set Shouk apart from those popular vegetable-focused chain. Does the choose-your-own-adventure approach of some fast-casual restaurants make you nervous? Shouk's menu, designed by founder Ran Nussbacher and chef Dennis Friedman, does the work for you, presenting a shortlist of options for stuffing pitas or topping brown-rice and lentil bowls inspired by Middle Eastern market and street food.

Shouk fennel mujadra
Fennel mujadra (brown rice and lentil bowl)
I selected the roasted fennel for my first bowl, and it's been my favorite so far. Bite-size chunks of roasted fennel are nestled among fried potatoes and red peppers, topped with a generous dollop of pistachio pesto served over rice and lentils. I love fennel, and it's wonderful here atop Shouk's rice (so delightfully chewy). The spicy-but-not-in-a-hot-way pistachio pesto unites all these flavors perfectly. Shock's staff, who have always been quite friendly, encouraged me to stir the ingredients to get that pesto mixed in. I liked this so much, I would be happy coming to Shouk all the time and never ordering anything else, but, of course, that would mean I wouldn't get to enjoy all the other wonderful options on hand.
Shouk black bean mujadra
Black bean mujadra
If you like heat, go for the black bean option, which features a drizzle of spicy harissa over beans, sweet potatoes, red pepper, arugula and tomato. For something mellower, the roasted cauliflower with tomato, scallion, tahina and jalapeño oil is a nice combination. Next on my list to try is the sautéed mushrooms with cauliflower, spinach and tahina. With just six options, I'm a little afraid of running out of choices, but Shouk assured me by email to expect the menu to evolve over time. Already, I see a couple of debut items--lentil patties and an Arabic salad--slipped off the menu recently. As we approach the summer months, I hope Shouk takes advantage of seasonal summer produce. I imagine they could do wonders with ripe tomatoes.

Shouk salad
Shouk salad
In addition to the pita/bowl combinations, Shouk offers a small selection of salads. I recommend the Shouk salad as a great way to sample a little bit of just about everything on the menu: a flavor-bursting combination of roasted cauliflower, sautéed mushrooms, cucumber, red pepper, chickpeas, radicchio, arugula and kale, endive, sweet potato, pistachio and brown croutons draped with a slightly sweet tahini dressing. Eating so virtuously rarely tastes this good.

Sweet potato fries with cashew labneh
Don't let such virtue from trying a side of Shouk's sweet potato fries. They're awesome! Be prepared to get your fingers dirty: the large wedges of potato are doused with an earthy spice blend with plenty of finger-yellowing turmeric. The fries also cooked to a perfect texture--pliably soft yet firm enough to dip into the accompanying tub of cashew labneh, a vegan take on strained yogurt.

Vegan? That's right. You won't find any meat or dairy here. Shouk doesn't promote itself as vegan but rather as "100% plant-based," a subtle yet possibly important distinction for reeling in those people who aren't "vegan" but are trying to live by Michael Pollan's advice to "eat food, not too much, mostly plants." Vegan dining is a tricky prospect. Native Foods Cafe, which specializes in vegan re-creations of meaty items like fried "chicken" sandwiches, recently shuttered its Penn Quarter location. Yet, the lack of animal products shouldn't scare meat-lovers away from Shouk. I've left the restaurant perfectly satisfied each time. 

Shouk, 655 K Street NW (between 6th and 7th Streets), Washington D.C. (Mount Vernon Triangle). (202) 652-1464.

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