Review: Bistro 1521

Will this finally be the year of the Filipino food takeover?

bistro-1521
Chicken adobo, the Phillipines’ national dish. // Photo by Rey Lopez

In 2015 the food trend stories started piling in, naming Filipino food the next It cuisine. From the Washington Post to Los Angeles magazine to Vogue, Filipino’s funky, bitter, sour and sweet flavors were supposed to dominate menus. The next year Bon Appetit ranked D.C.’s Bad Saint, a 24-seat slice of modern Filipino dining, the No. 2 best new restaurant in America.

In predictions for what we’ll be eating in 2018, Filipino food was again named. “Often overshadowed by other Asian cuisines, the foods of the Philippines have not yet captured a broad U.S. audience. That’s shifting, as American palates have become more sophisticated and attuned to the complex flavors and bitter or sour notes of Filipino dishes,” was the prediction from the Specialty Food Association trendspotter panel.

It was looking good for Pinoy mania, and in Northern Virginia, the casual The Corner Q opened in Lorton in the summer of 2016 and last July, Arlington welcomed Bistro 1521. The ownership team includes Solita Wakefield, from the now-shuttered Filipino restaurant Bistro 7107 in Crystal City.

With almost 300 seats in nearly 7,000 square feet, this restaurant leaves a big imprint on Ballston’s main drag. The room feels spacious with floor-to-ceiling wrap-around windows and plenty of distance between oversized booths.

The menu offers Filipino staples, which run from lumpiang, a familiar egg roll that’s everything great about minced chicken and vegetables rolled into a log and fried, to crispy pata, a giant fried pork leg that is overwhelming in size and can be underwhelming in taste. The exterior meat tended to be dry and crackly, though some of the interior pieces, closer to the bone, are juicy and delightful.

Ukoy, fried vegetable fritters sandwiching head-on shrimp. // Photo by Rey Lopez

Fried vegetable fritters look like a cheerleader’s pompoms: shredded sweet potatoes, carrots and green beans, battered, fried and plastered together sandwich a head-on shrimp. We’re told to dip the whole thing, called ukoy, into the calamansi-soy sauce, but it’s built too big to work, and only if you’re comfortable with eating shrimp shell. Torn into parts, it’s a better, and tastier, experience.

Smoked fish flakes create a deep base of flavor in palabok, a noodle dish, also staring shrimp, ground pork skin and a creamy hard-boiled egg. It’s a dish inviting guests into the intricacies of Filipino flavors, with a well of porkiness that grounds the funky fish overtones.

Chicken adobo, a signature dish of the island nation, and one that nods at its multicultural, especially Spanish, influence is both homey and stunning. There’s boldness to the vinegar sauce, but also something inherently meaty, even though this is fowl, not red meat. It’s a must-order dish for Filipino newbies for accessibility and its spot-on taste.
Braised oxtail, more bone than meat, is lost under a one-note peanut sauce in kare-kare.

The shrimp paste, served on the side, is essential for adding any real flavor, and although Wakefield says it’s too salty to be incorporated into the sauce, it desperately needs its spunk to punctuate the dish.

Binagoongan fried rice reveals tough, dry pork and also doesn’t let the shrimp paste pop through with its dynamic dimensions.

With dishes both pleasurable and flawed, Bistro 1521 may not be the Filipino restaurant to catapult Northern Virginia into a full-fledged Filipino food frenzy. But it’s a start.

Notes:

Bistro 1521
900 N. Glebe Road, Arlington
Open daily for lunch and dinner and weekend brunch
Appetizers: $6-$15
Entrees: $10-$25

(March 2018)

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