Restaurant Review: Bistro 1521
Filipino food comes to Ballston—with an edge.
Ever heard of sisig, ukoy and pinakbet? They are mainstays of Filipino cooking and part of the “new trend” in American dining—one that Filipinos and Filipino Americans know to be neither new nor trendy, but most definitely tasty.
In fact, these dishes are part of a rich, indigenous food heritage that has come to incorporate the flavors of many cultures that left their mark on the Philippines via trade, proximity or occupation. Spanish influences are especially prominent, given that Spain colonized the 7,641-island archipelago for more than three centuries, but one also finds Chinese, Indian and American accents at the table.
Bistro 1521’s name is a direct reference to the year Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, after sailing three-quarters of the way around the globe in the name of Spain, landed in the Philippines and then was killed. (Interpret as you will.)
The Ballston newcomer has welcomed throngs of diners ever since it opened in July, bolstered, no doubt, by D.C.’s current love affair with Filipino cooking and the success of other restaurants showcasing that cuisine, such as Restaurant Eve in Alexandria and Purple Patch and Bad Saint in the District. (The latter was named the No. 2 new restaurant in the country last year by Bon Appetit magazine.)
The spirit of Bistro 1521 is certainly a marked departure from the short-lived Applebee’s that previously occupied the same 7,000-square-foot space on Glebe Road. Now, the Filipino flag is centrally displayed in the 269-seat dining room, surrounded by accent walls painted to match its colors.
Acrylic paintings by manager and artist Myka Oconer include depictions of national hero José Rizal—a political reformist whose writings ultimately promulgated his nation’s 1898 declaration of independence from Spain—and a jeepney, a ubiquitous Filipino mode of public transportation that’s part jeep, part bus.
The team driving this venture has cred. Owners Manny Tagle and Solita Wakefield were the duo behind the erstwhile Crystal City Filipino restaurant Bistro 7107, which closed in June. Jo-Jo Valenzuela, former beverage director for Brine in the Mosaic District (he’s Filipino), was also part of the initial ownership group.
Valenzuela has since parted ways with the restaurant, though his bar talents continue to shine in cocktails like Tame the Tikbalang, a pleasantly tart blend of tequila, tamarind and lime juice, topped with jackfruit foam and a chili powder and salt rim. It’s named for a mythical creature that’s half-human, half-horse.
On to food: “Filipino food is all about the pork!” a server says brightly during one visit. She’s right—baboy (the Tagalog word for pork) is all over the menu, from leg and belly, skin and ears, to liver. Not a part, it seems, is wasted.
Interestingly, one Filipino snack that many Americans are familiar with, lumpiang Shanghai—cigar-shaped egg rolls made with thin, crepe-like wrappers—are made here with chicken instead of the traditional pork, an apparent concession to American demand for lighter fare. They’re crunchy and irresistible, so have some with your cocktail while you contemplate the rest of your order.
Ingredients common to Filipino cooking include vinegar, soy sauce, tamarind, and sugar in various forms (such as sweet chili sauce or banana ketchup), plus fermented flavorings like shrimp paste, anchovy paste and fish sauce. These elements intermingle in sweet, sour, salty, pungent, acidic and umami flavors, although unlike in other Asian cuisines, spiciness is not a predominant characteristic.
An exception is Bistro 1521’s sisig, a sizzling hash of chopped pork belly, crispy pig ears, onions and chili peppers, with a liver aioli drizzled on top. It’s a rich plate of food. So is the tokwa’t baboy, an appetizer in which similar meats—namely the pork belly and crispy ear—are drenched with soy, vinegar and chilies and topped with cubes of fried tofu. Both dishes are excellent, though it’s probably best not to order them in tandem.
I can also recommend the ukoy (fritters made with shrimp, long beans and sweet potato). Their tumbleweed shape makes them perfect for dipping in the accompanying sauce, although there is a logistics issue. The whole shrimp inside are battered with the head and shell on, which makes them difficult to peel. “Are you supposed to eat the shrimp as is?” I asked a server. “Sometimes I do,” was the answer. Hmmm…
Shell-on shrimp are also a problem in sinigang, a tamarind-laced main-course soup. Who wants to dip their fingers in hot broth to peel shrimp?
For a light starter, the chicken soup (tinolang manok) does double duty as a winter cure-all. Its rich broth is enhanced with slivers of chayote squash, watercress, ginger, lemongrass, poached chicken breast and a splash of fish sauce for extra body.
Main courses at Bistro 1521 also yield a plethora of goodies. Chicken adobo, a faithful rendition of the Philippines’ most well-known dish, finds thigh and leg portions braised in soy, vinegar, peppercorns and bay leaves.
An enormous braised (and then deep-fried) pork shank is a mother lode of crispy deliciousness, though it should probably come with a side of Lipitor.
The whole roasted and stuffed jumbo squid makes an impressive presentation, but its tomato-salsa stuffing, acrid from old onions, could use some work. The better choice is pinakbet, a colorful array of vegetables (okra, long beans, bitter melon, eggplant, squash, tomatoes, onions) perfectly cooked to tenderness in a broth that’s emboldened, but not overpowered by, bagoong dilis (anchovy paste). And be sure to order a bowl of Pancit Canton (egg noodles with shrimp and veggies) for the table to share.
Dessert-wise, the halo halo is pure fun. It’s a giant sundae glass filled with shaved ice, condensed milk and various treasures (green and orange jellies, beans, coconut shavings, plantain, cassava), then topped with a piece of flan, a scoop of mango ice cream, a dollop of mashed ube (purple yam) and a miniature parasol.
The leche flan, a caramel custard heavily thickened with starch, is more chewy than delicate. I was put off at first, but then realized I couldn’t stop eating it. The mango cupcakes are also a no-brainer.
The service at Bistro 1521 was up-and-down over several visits. But what’s lacking in polish is made up in eagerness, and a palpable sense of pride and excitement about spreading the gospel of Filipino cooking. Halo halo-lujeh!
What to Drink
Bistro 1521’s cocktails are intriguing and well-balanced, highlighting Filipino flavors. The opening menu, designed by mixologist Jo-Jo Valenzuela (who has since left), included the Julieta, which combines vodka, watermelon juice, white pepper and calamansi juice (made from a citrus fruit with a lemon-lime profile); and the Rizal, a Rickey riff named after the Filipino national hero. The latter blends gin with Valenzuela’s signature guava-and-calamansi (he calls it “guavamansi”) soda, spiced with lemongrass and Thai chili powder.
A 14-bottle wine list (10 are offered by the glass) includes one sparkling wine, one rosé, eight whites and four reds. Many are Spanish wines, given that the Philippines islands were a Spanish colony from 1565 to 1898.Only one bottle (a $60 pinot noir from Walnut City WineWorks in Oregon’s Willamette Valley) exceeds $50.
Beer-wise, 13 of the 16 draft brews hail from the Delmarva region, plus there are four bottled beers, all Filipino.
900 N. Glebe Road | 703-741-0918 | www.Bistro1521.com
Monday-Thursday: 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Friday: 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Saturday: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Sunday: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Appetizers: $9 to $15
Entrées: $14 to $25
Desserts: $3.25 to $10
Street and garage parking