A Creature of Habit

A few years back, my orange tabby Kuzya really disappointed me. He was totally unexcited by Wellness Chicken & Lobster, Turkey & Duck, and Sardine, Shrimp & Crab flavors that I had lovingly picked out for him at the store (instead of his usual boring Chicken & Herring flavor). I thought he would be all over the new delectable-sounding entrées, but he plain refused to eat them. When I eventually gave up and fed him his Chicken & Herring stuff, he was in heaven. I was miffed and confused. How can he not want to eat lobster, duck, and crab? Even more importantly, how can he keep getting excited by the same dish every single day?

“Oh boy, it’s dog food again!”

When you think of it, we humans are not that different. Three of my co-workers eat the exact same thing for lunch every day (and we are talking about senior management, not starving college students). A real-life example: a turkey sandwich on white bread, a pint of milk, and applesauce for dessert. Every single day.

Heck, I am not all that different. I start every morning with coffee and a Balance protein bar (cookie-dough flavored). Granted, the actual coffee changes (today was  5 de Junio Maragojipe Microlot from Las Sabanas, Nicaragua; tomorrow will be Santa Elena Pacamara from Santa Ana, El Salvador, or perhaps Haru, an Ethiopian high-elevation heirloom coffee from Yirgacheffe(all of them freshly roasted by Counter Culture coffee) . But still…

I could eat good-quality tomatoes, bread and sea salt every day (actually, I do!). In our household, Odwalla Superfood shake and WholeFoods-brand lemon flavored sparkling mineral water are also consumed on a daily basis.

Les tomates mon amour

At least every other day, I eat warm whole wheat pita by The Perfect Pita and 365 brand Greek or Lemon hummus; 0% fat Greek yogurt with tangerine & clementine marmalade or Skyr (an Icelandic style dense yogurt); and scrambled eggs with tomatillo salsa. It is almost a rule…

Unless we are traveling, every Saturday, after the trip to the farmer’s market, I make Horiatiki, or Fattoush (Greek and Lebanese classic peasant salads, respectively). More often than not, they are repeated during the week, as well. Here is my version of Horiatiki made with tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, dried oregano, red wine vinegar, EVOO, mild banana peppers, olives, green bell peppers, and French goat or sheep’s milk feta:

At least once a month, I have to cross the state lines, and drive to Eden Center in Fairfax, VA to get good Vietnamese food.

And this is not even the end of the list…

It is rather ironic I almost never write about the things I love the most (and apparently, cannot do without). Instead, most of the time, I choose to write about deviations from the norm, – about things I make rather rarely, or even about once-in-a-lifetime food&wine experiences. But definitely about something food-blog-worthy, such as this pea shoots, fava bean, and shaved Pecorino salad dressed with EVOO and lemon juice:

Or perhaps, a memorable meal, such as dinner at Annissa on the most recent trip to NY featuring:

  • Fluke crudo with black lime and radishes

  • Eggplant with two Turkish chilis in yogurt water

  • Seared fois gras with soup dumplings and jicama (naturally, the dumplings are stuffed with fois gras as well :-)).

Alternatively, I go on and on about an interesting tasting, such as our self-guided aged European beer exploration at DC-own Churchkey this weekend. (Apparently, aged beer is all the rage these days, so beverage buffs, pay attention!). And of course, there are visually striking and delightful dishes I often come across in my travels, be it the simple house-made pickles at Cha-An Japanese tea shop in the East Village,

or a Grapefruit Givré at Boulud Sud (aTurkish-inspired concoction made with sesame halva, rose loukoum, and grapefruit sorbet):

And yet, when I return home, I keep craving tomatoes, bread, and sea salt…

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Skins

I have been lurking on the Chowhound France boards in anticipation of our upcoming eating and drinking trip in early April. In general, things seldom get very heated (partly because CH boards are heavily moderated); however, a recent Parisian restaurant thread got a little intense. The bone of contention, of all things, was vegetarian menu offerings: their sheer availability, excitement-worthiness, and overall chef attitudes towards vegetarians.

People eat vegetarian for a number of reasons, and have very different expectations of a worthy meal. If we were to put all socio-political agendas aside for a moment, and just focused on balance, flavor intensity, texture, etc., we would see that relatively few chefs cater to discerning vegetarians. For them, it is not enough for the meal to be meat-free, organic, local, sustainable, etc. They are looking for overall execution quality, inventiveness, and the kind of deliciousness that would excite vegetarians and omnivores alike.

I have found that in general, ethnic restaurants do a much better job turning out great vegetarian dishes. The most recent example was our experience with modern and traditional Japanese cuisine in the East Village involving yuba.

Yuba is tofu skin which forms during the process of making tofu and is obtained by skimming the top of the curding vat as the soymilk cools down. Yuba is ubiquitous in Japan and China, and is served as sashimi, enjoyed fresh in a rice bowl, used like nori or spring roll skin (for example, as a wrapper for Cantonese dim sum); it can also be deep-fried, dried for later use, etc.  Its texture and appearance run the whole spectrum from “old shriveled linen” to custard, such as in homestyle fresh yuba, which is supposed to give one’s complexion a satiny quality, according to Japanese grandmothers:

The eponymous restaurant in East Village does a fantastic job showcasing this fascinating ingredient; it was amazing to observe the chef produce such a wide range of experiences for a discerning foodie, starting with yuba sashimi and uni (sea urchin) with yuba, where it appears to be silky, creamy and almost milky, not unlike fresh silken tofu.

 

 

 

 

 

Other delectable variations were grilled miso yuba and yuba roll, and our favorite turned out to be layered yuba pouch with slow-braised yuba with mixed mushrooms. Here, it was rich and luxurious, with an amazing juxtaposition of sweetness and earthiness.

Besides the eponymous Yuba, we have discovered a whole “Yubaland” in the East Village (Cocoron, Sobaya, etc.). This is the kind of eating experience that is sure to excite any foodie, vegetarian or not. It sends even a lazy amateur chef like myself to the Japanese grocery store Hana here in DC, and then running to the kitchen. This time, the owners of Hana were out of yuba 😦 , but still provided me with plenty inspiration to put together a fun impromptu meal.

  • Assorted Japanese pickles (pickled plums, sesame pickled cucumbers, and eggplant)
  • Udon noodles with braised enoki mushrooms, nori, scallions, and miso grilled tofu in a dashi broth
  • Green Tea flavored Mochi Ice-Cream bonbons
I cannot wait for my tofu skins order to come in next week!

A Tale of Two Brunches

I am not a brunch person. Given a choice, I do not “do” brunch, as I cannot understand why anyone should take two perfectly good meals (breakfast and lunch) and combine them into one. However, I do like the savory/sweet aspect, as well as the longer serving hours. At the end of the day, we need to eat when we get to Manhattan; so if they want to call it “brunch”, it is fine with me.

ABC Kitchen 

It is a very, very trendy, locally sourced farm-to-table place, loud and crammed even by NYC standards. Actually, the space itself was huge and beautifully designed (in a universally likable “shabby chic” style), but the individual tables (and guests) were almost on top of one another.

I really did want to love it, as it came highly recommended by somebody I trust implicitly as far as food is concerned.

However, I liked it but did not love it for a few reasons. First, I always have to be excited about the menu, and the only items I was excited about were the salmon tartar toast special (with the fantastic addition of zest!), and the lentil soup with celery root, parmesan and herbs. The wine list by the glass was unoriginal and way overpriced, so we opted for some tasty beers (Rare Vos, a Belgian-style ale available on tap (see photo below) and Fire Island Red Wagon IPA (bottle).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The bottom line is that everything was solid, but it did not blow me away. These days, being locally sourced is almost an expectation, so that, to me, cannot really be a selling point. It was a difficult reservation, perhaps, not quite worth the effort.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Locanda Verde

As a former food service professional, I have a huge appreciation for the timing and precision of service; and I was immediately impressed by Locanda’s perfectly run kitchen, and the server’s focus and sensitivity. It is a much lower-key place with a nice neighborhood feel, and I felt right at home. I was pleased that it was not too full of itself despite the superior food quality.

But enough said; let the food speak for itself:

  • Tre–Stelle house made juice of pomegranate, blood oranges and Valencia oranges
  • Sheep’s milk ricotta with truffle honey and burnt orange toast
  • Steak Tartara Piedmontese with hazelnuts, truffles and crispy guanciale
  • Wood-Fired Uova Al Forno with corona beans, mozzarella and black Tuscan kale

Add to that a fun by-the-glass wine selection, along with many other exciting options on the menu, and I was utterly satisfied. I cannot wait to eat there again! No pictures, though, as the morning after Nocturne, I could not hold my camera steady enough to produce anything worthwhile.

The point of the exercise was not the Jean-Georges Vongerichten/Andrew Carmellini showdown, but simply trying to understand what it is that I value and look for in a meal (not trendiness but understated quiet confidence).

P.S. I must admit that both brunches were reasonably pricey, so here is a cheap and fast brunch idea (“pre-theater”, if you are, like me, a Sunday off-off-Broadway matinee fan) at Grandaisy Bakery in Tribeca :

$11 buys you two slices (pieces) of Roman-style pizza (we really enjoyed Pizza Cavolfiore (cauliflower and gruyere) and Pizza Pomodoro (tomato; the name on the menu really should have been “pizza rossa”), a Sicilian-style ricotta and orange peel pastry, and Moroccan mint tea.

Buon appetito!

Tasty Little Brains, or A Halloween Special

One of my very favorite dishes at Maialino, a Roman-style trattoria in NYC, is Frittura Romana. This dish is also known as “fritto misto alla romana” (a mixed plate of “fried things”, – traditionally, fried suckling lamb or veal brains, sweetbreads, and artichokes, sometimes with a few substitutions). The organs and artichokes are deep fried in olive oil, and served with lemon wedges:

tasty little brains and artichokes at Maialino, NYC

It is no secret that Romans’ penchant for deep frying knows no bounds; and neither does their love of offal, the so-called quinto quarto (“5th quarter”). According to Wikipedia, in Roman slaughterhouses, the meat would be divided up in quarters: the prime quarter would go to nobility, second best to the clergy, third – to the bourgeoisie, and forth – to the soldiers. The remainder (the rejected, nasty bits such as heads, intestines, hearts, livers, feet, etc.) went to the working class. As a result, it is hardly surprising that quinto quarto is just as important to the Roman cuisine as the other four quarters.

Before you say “euh gross!” to offal, consider that it is responsible for the existence of such delicacies as fois gras and paté. Of course, offal also includes tripe (stomach lining), and a number of other organs and unmentionable animal parts… I admit that I have to be in the mood for tripe, and have only truly enjoyed it on two occasions (at Checchino dal 1887 in Rome, and Barbacco in San Francisco), both prepared traditionally (stewed in supertasty tomato sauce). But I do adore hearts, livers, brains, tongue, and sweetbreads (thymus or pancreas) on any occasion, and I will mourn forever the closing of NYC-based Convivio, with its incredible, melt-in-your-mouth sweetbreads, testa, and tongue.

R.I.P. Convivio! Till (I hope!) it comes back from the dead, perhaps, as suddenly as it disappeared last March…

Happy Halloween!

Oh là là!

While planning our monthly NYC weekend, I was very proud of myself for willing to look ahead (to our Southern France trip in May), as opposed to being hopelessly stuck in the past, in my beloved Italian cuisine :-). As a result, the eating itinerary combined a chic French Saturday with the casual Italian Sunday…thank God for the hard-working American spirit which makes it possible to eat at virtually any restaurant in the US on Sunday, – not so in Rome, for example!)I still remember the horrors of neglecting to make a lunch reservation on Sunday (our second day in Rome) for any of the few open worthwhile restaurants, and walking in the heat for hours around Fori and Circo Massimo, without a semblance of a plan… only to be saved by the unexpected appearance of Cristalli di Zucchero and their delicious miniature artisanal savory and sweet pastries (and fresh apricot and blood orange juices)…but I digress.

Un (I).

Jeff and I had fond memories of having tea and macarons at a premier pastry shop Maison Laduree in Paris,

http://www.laduree.fr/

Maison Laduree, 21 Rue Bonaparte, Paris

and I was pleased to discover that their newest location opened in Manhattan (Upper East Side) just a couple of months ago. I cringed at the prospect of standing in line for an hour (or more realistically, at the prospect of Jeff refusing to stand in line for an hour, and therefore, at the prospect of not eating macarons on our short trip); but thankfully, it all worked out “for the best in the best of all possible worlds”. Some thirty minutes later, we were already tasting the fabulous macarons in lemon, pistachio, coffee, rose petal, orange blossom, and the ultimate treat, sea salt caramel.

it is not blurry...it is impressionistic... ok, maybe Jeff's hands were shaking a little with anticipation...

Deux (II).

Our evening plans involved a SoHo French-Vietnamese fusion place called Rouge et Blanc (which I kept calling “Rouge et Noir” throughout the night, till I figured out that I needed to think “rouge” and “blanc” wine, as opposed to Stendhal’s mysterious color scheme). I had heard of the place before, and had vague interest, but never acted upon it, till last week, my friend Alex told me that the food there was “exquisite”. Now, you have to understand that the highest epithet Alex typically uses to describe food is “decent” (by the way, he is a dedicated and experienced foodie) So, needless to say, when I heard that kind of language from him, five minutes later, I was already making the Open Table reservation for Saturday night dinner.

And it did not disappoint. Moreover, I was lavishing praise all night: the bone marrow  & charred baby octopus and en papillote forest mushrooms small plates; fall vegetables in green curry with monkey bread; caramelized fois gras dessert were all pretty amazing, as well as the Domaine Charles Joguet Chinon Les Varennes du Grand Clos Franc de Pied 2006.

The interesting thing about the pairing is that typically, a Cab Franc would be too heavy for vegetables, especially given their method of preparation (Cab Franc and green curry???)  But, at 12.5% alcohol, this low-yield Chinon is both rich and elegant & earthy. Also, the higher level of acidity of that particular cuvee makes that marriage even stronger. As for the food, the common theme for this chef seems to be subtlety and earthiness.

I was looking forward to sharing pictures of the dishes we ate (which I diligently took), but they turned out to be disappointing, due to my utter lack of skill and low lighting. The presentation of the bone marrow small plate was especially dramatic, with a very impressively sized bone across the plate, and the baby octopus piled on top of the bone marrow… I will leave you only with a somewhat interesting, if totally unrealistic, picture of our curried vegetables entrée:

the wonders of flash...

A Lesson in Subtlety

“Amplitude” is the word sensory experts use to describe flavors that are well integrated and balanced in a given product. When a dish is said to be high in amplitude, it means that it gives one an overall impression of balance, unity, and harmony, with no one individual flavor note jumping out above the rest. What it really means is that the dish is designed to hit the primal points of the sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami, all at once.

Amplitude is not necessarily indicative of high quality or hedonic characteristics (a good example is Coke, or Heinz ketchup, both of which are amazing, high amplitude products (see Malcolm Gladwell’s essay “The Ketchup Conundrum” http://www.gladwell.com/2004/2004_09_06_a_ketchup.html).

It would also seem that high-amplitude, universally liked products tend to fall into one of the two categories: full-flavored & balanced, or subtle & balanced. The American palate certainly favors the former, – intense, rich, heavily extracted, powerful flavors. Think commercially produced American basil pesto versus Italian homemade pesto…

I will take this further and say that the combination of balance and subtlety (which is so hard to come by in the US) signals a serious commitment to quality. One such place (visited on our most recent NYC trip) is Sakagura, one of the top izakaya in this country housed in the basement of a Midtown office building.  An izakaya is a drinking establishment serving good food (essentially a Japanese wine bar); therefore, the menu at Sakagura is supposed to play a mere supporting role to the 200+ sakes on its list. To me, these simple, pure, understated dishes do more than that…

Here is a sampling of what we ate:

ONSEN TAMAGO :  Soft Boiled Egg Topped with Sea Urchin and Salmon Roe in Cold Soup 

TAMAGOYAKI :  Sliced Egg Omelet with Bonito Broth, Half Served Wrapped Around Grilled Eel

HIRAME CARPACCIO : Fluke Sashimi Drizzled with Olive Oil Topped with Plum Paste, Salmon Roe, and Shiso Leaf

ONIGIRI Rice Balls with a Choice of Topping (Pickled “UME” Plum and Spicy ” Takana” Leaves) 

HISUI NASU SOBA :  Homemade Cold Plain Buckwheat Noodles Special

KUMIAGE –YUBA: Silken Homemade Tofu Sashimi with Ponzu Sauce and Salmon Roe

http://www.sakagura.com/

Featured Food: Perilla (Shiso) Leaf

Our recent trip to Sakagura in NYC sparked my interest in perilla (or, as Japanese call it, shiso) leaves. It is a very aromatic (and I am a sucker for aromatics :-)) jagged-edged plant from the basil and mint family widely used in Japanese savory dishes as an ingredient or garnish:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perilla

At Sakagura we tried it in several variations: as a counterpoint to fluke carpaccio, alongside with salmon roe and plum paste, with silken homemade tofu sashimi, alongside ponzu sauce; all fabulous.

Naturally, I was inspired to experiment on my own, and shiso leaves were added to our shopping list at Hana, a unique Japanese grocery store on U Street in Washington, DC. They have a nice selection of fresh Japanese vegetables from local farms, as well as from a Japanese vegetable farm near L.A. (flown in every Thursday).

To keep things simple, I decided to pair my shiso leaves with sliced adorable baby cucumbers that we had picked up at a farmer’s market the day before, and briefly pickled in rice vinegar, salt, sugar, and minced fresh ginger:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Result: a crisp, mouthwatering palate cleanser!