Tim Ho Wan – review

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Tim Ho Wan

Given my proclivity for impatience, I have always admired the concept of Dim Sum. No sooner have you sat down, than the food starts showing up via a Formula 1 rally of tin carts, dodging and weaving between the tables, where dripping steamer baskets are distributed and score cards are stamped. If you don’t recognize the dish being wheeled past, you might not like (or believe) what you hear under the infernal din and acute language barriers. I once inquired what was inside some odd-looking dumplings, only to be told, “a European!” Never mind, it’s all part of the experience. And if you’re very lucky, all of your small plate preferences might be the first to show up, and you can be napkins down inside of twenty minutes.

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Tim Ho Wan

Thing is, as efficient as the experience might be, just getting seated can feel a lot like day one of boot camp as a military recruit. Lots of high-pitched yelling into walkie-talkies; being shunted into different snaking lines; having one’s name horribly mis-pronounced, or being given a ticket with a number that stretches into the next millennium. Or worse yet, the food itself can show up in dire need of a pit-stop – the oil can do with a change, the driving crew can do with a break and some of the ingredients can do with a major disposal.

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Har Gow, Tim Ho Wan

So to learn that Mak Kwai Pui, one of Hong Kong’s most celebrated dim sum chefs, decided to open a local branch of his mega-successful chain Tim Ho Wan, I had to indulge. Their claim to fame as “the cheapest Michelin starred restaurant in the world” is as bizarrely fascinating as it is annoyingly challenging due to their über-popularity yielding the longest wait times in the city. Curiously there are no actual lines outside the East Village corner establishment. That’s because after putting your name down, the hostess with smile and promise to text you in: “Two hours and forty-five minutes!” Zzzzzzzzz. So I set out for a vexingly early slot on a Monday morning and snagged a table in the middle of the cheerful room. The placemats are the menu, with familiar names, pictures and strictly single-digit price-points. Service is prompt, and before you know it, a steaming feast materializes magically before you.

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Siu Mai pork dumplings, Tim Ho Wan

It didn’t take the double order of Har Gow to realize that we weren’t in Manhattan anymore. Micro-thin rice wrappers bursting with plump, crisp, unexpectedly large prawns with a heavenly Shaoxing wine and ginger flavor. The Siu Mai pork dumplings with shrimp are a close second, but way fresher and meatier than any of their Chinatown cousins. And biting through the crispy, sugar-dusted surface of the Baked BBQ Pork buns revealed a dark, thick, smoky, silky sauce with mushrooms and pork bits within.

 

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Baked BBQ Pork Buns, Tim Ho Wan

Everyone loves Deep Fried Springrolls, but how many times have you bitten into an oil-drippy, doughy envelope of goo and old sprouts? Not these big boys. The wrappers disintegrate into dry, crispy flakes yielding steaming hot vegetables that won’t leave you with an oil-slicked chin.

 

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Deep Fried Springrolls, Tim Ho Wan

We didn’t have room or time to sample some of the other house specialties, like the Steamed Egg Cakes, and Beef Balls with Bean Curd, or the Pan Fried Turnip Cake. Have to wait for another free mid-morning mid-week, or perhaps another hurricane threat when no-one’s around, so we won’t have to be told: “Three days, six hours and eighty-five minutes!”

http://timhowanusa.com/

 

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Catching two elusive Dragons

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Mission Chinese Food, New York

It is with the utmost relief to finally indulge in two of New York’s hoopla hotspots that have been stuck on my “to-try” list for an annoying eternity. Pok Pok NY, the (at one time) Michelin-starred northern Thai import from Oregon (of all places), and San Francisco native Danny Bowien’s Mission Chinese Food.

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Pok Pok NY

Pok Pok NY is marooned in one of the most maddeningly inaccessible neighborhoods of Brooklyn requiring a car, a driver, nerves of steel and quite possibly two forms of government ID. When Andy Ricker opened Pok Pok Wings in Manhattan a few years back, I idiotically refused to trek all the way down to the Financial District to sample his über-celebrated chicken wings, only to have to settle for a 2+ hour waiting line instead. And just when I finally overcame my chronic impatience, he went and shut the place down. Karma.

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Thrice Cooked Bacon, Mission Chinese Food

And ever since Mission Chinese Food reopened to a tsunami of public gratitude in its current location (after an unmentionably embarrassing incident involving tenants of the rodent variety), tables have been as scarce as subtlety in Las Vegas. But to make matters worse, Mr. Bowien insisted on listing his Asian-fusion moneymaker on Reserve, the most infuriatingly eye-roll-worthy app of all time (who notoriously forget to remind you of your forgotten passwords!) And furthermore, 411 and Google still offer diners a “mystery” phone number that has yet to be plugged into an actual phone. So, if you have a few millennia to kill, I dare you to call (646) 707-0281 just so you can hear a ring tone that easily lasts longer than Cher’s multi-platinum career.

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Spicy Peanut Noodles, Mission Chinese Food

Despite the fact that Mission Chinese sits on the border of Chinatown’s glut of Asian dried fish stands and hole-in-the-wall noodle shops with inverted red ducks swinging in the windows amid incessant signs offering “Take-Out” (which smell as if they should have been “taken out” ages ago), it feels more like a Quentin Tarantino movie set. Not that a gunfight massacre wouldn’t be appropriate, but more so because of the funky red velvety booths under alien-star lamps with an unstoppable hip-hop soundtrack. You might find a dragon or two punctuating the raw brick walls, but you won’t find any standard fare on the atypically short un-Chinese menu. Most of the items carry one or more “fire” symbols that are by no means decorative. Take heed. These dishes might all be genuinely delicious, but they are certainly not for the faint of palate. We inhaled the Spicy Peanut Noodles with abandon, enjoying the many wonderful layers and flavors beyond the lemon-grass and garlic. Things elevated a notch with the Thrice cooked Bacon, which entirely deserves its own Instagram account. Smoky sections of soft, barbecue-y bacon strips clinging to sticky slivers of tender rice cake medallions, darkened by the most wondrous Szechuan pepper glaze.

 

 

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Mapo Tofu, Mission Chinese Food

I could go on and on, but by the time we drenched the bracingly spectacular Mapo Tofu over a puddle of rice, it was time to summon those brave gentlemen from the 15th fire truck precinct a few doors down. There was a moment when I began to worry about my teeth melting under the searing heat from my tongue, when I realized that “hot in” usually also means “hot out”, giving me something else to look forward to in a few hours time. Turns out that one of the reliable properties of Szechuan peppercorns is their numbing effect which thankfully – I’m delighted to report – lives up to its reputation for the duration of its lifecycle.

 

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Pok Pok NY

Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge has always been a daunting challenge for New Yorkers ever since its inauguration in 1883. One leaves the calm orderliness of Manhattan’s grid structure behind, only to be faced by backyards, drivers, hipsters and families with children. Quite literally a war zone. Regardless, once you’re through the worst of it and you finally pull up at Pok Pok NY, it somehow seems a bit more “cafeteria” than you expected. I know looks can be deceiving, but the quirky paper-doyly festooned aluminum bar, and the sensibly laminated Hawaiian-print table cloths with unbreakable prison-ware dishes redefines casual – even for me. But when our disarmingly engaging waitress brought a far-too-small bowl of House-roasted Red Peanuts with chilies and lime leaves, my table manners deserted me. Was I breaking a hunger strike or something? Were these the first peanuts I’d ever eaten? Was I always this ambidextrous? It was all a bit of a scrumptious blur that ended far too quickly.

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House-roasted Red peanuts with chilies and lime leaves, Pok Pok NY

Then things shifted down to a lower gear when the rather unmemorable minced duck and mint salad (Laap Pet Isaan) showed up with a plate of freshly plucked Thai herbs. And my entire dining party unanimous classified the tender chunks of Burmese pork belly curry, (Kaeng Hang Leh) in a nondescript broth as “nothing special”.

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Laap Pet Isaan, Mission Chinese Food

The Kai Yaang Tuua, turned out to be a spectacularly ordinary roast chicken (with both feet attached, and stuffed with an irritatingly thorny lemongrass and garlic stuffing) which were it not for the two dipping sauces, might have been even less popular.

 

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Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings, Pok Pok NY

But as expected, Ike’s Vietnamese Wings are still the smash hit that once turned a kitchen into a goldmine. This legendary chorus line of 6 auburn fish-sauce-marinated chicken shoulders, tossed in the most mouthwateringly sugary, smoky, sticky, garlicky, peanutty, peppery caramelized glaze with a subtle heat, came just inches from touching my soul. I’m talking about a finger-licking, mood-altering delight that makes the thought of another risk-to-life-and-limb journey to the far side of the East River entirely repeatable.

https://www.missionchinesefood.com/nyc/

https://pokpokny.com/

 

Ikinari – review

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Ikinari Steak

Nowadays gimmicks seem to come and go in less time than it takes to forget a login password. And no industry has a larger appetite for them than restaurants. And no country gets a bigger kick out of franchising them than Japan. While it might seem obvious for a mediocre chef to make eating more “fun” as a perfect distraction from inferior cooking, Ikinari – Japan’s popular standing steakhouse chain – is quite the opposite. So, what’s a standing steakhouse? An eccentric solution for über-impatient diners who are so obnoxiously busy that they just can’t spare the time to wait for a table, or wait for it to be cleared, or wait for menus, or water, or service… They don’t even have the luxury of time to bend their knees and SIT DOWN, for goodness sake!

 

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The first of 3 stateside Ikinari locations debuted in the East Village to a zoo of media and long lines of gimmick guzzlers. Here’s how it goes: You supervise the butcher who slices your preferred thickness of Japanese style (wet-aged) sirloin, rib-eye or filet mignon. If you can’t decide, you can try the mixed sampler of all 3.

 

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Your steak gets weighed, salted and flame grilled, and arrives at your table roaring, hissing and howling louder than a steam train slamming on the brakes to narrowly avoid hitting a well-fed country cow. While the swirl of roasted garlic butter gently melts over your perfectly seared rare cut, a “must-try” side order of Garlic-pepper rice gets tossed with a generous dollop of wasabi. Everything you need is at arm’s reach: steak knives and forks, mustards, Japanese dressings and sauces. There’s even a little rack to store your stuff and splash bibs to protect your clothing. Just no…um, chairs.

 

IMG_2134But you soon forget you are still standing as the tender meat succumbs easily to the bite, and the signature (warm) steak sauce mingles with a few drips of melted butter, collapsing your palate under a salty and umami sweetness you secretly pray will never end. No wonder there are only 5 or so items on the laminated menu. Quality over variety – in true Japanese fashion.

 

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Garlic-pepper Rice, Ikinari

For a city that emboldens impatience as table stakes, the concept of an 8-minute meal in a seat-free diner would be as obvious as odds that the M train will be delayed, but every gimmick has its Achilles heel. Despite being featured in the humor segment before the first break on practically every morning news show as yet another far-fetched oddity, New York’s first standing-only steakhouse buckled to public pressure and reluctantly snuck in a half-dozen chairs. But if you’re a gimmick devotee like me, try it standing up. It’s better for the digestion anyway.

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http://www.ikinaristeakusa.com/

 

 

Chefs Club – review

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I think the only thing more astonishing about former Ducasse chef Didier Elena’s idea of creating a menu based almost entirely out of career-defining signature dishes from some of the world’s leading chefs – is the fact that no-one else thought of it before. The concept is about as simple as a putting together a mix-tape of all your favorite songs. The hard part must have been trying to convince two dozen celebrated culinary masters to permit strange cooks in a foreign kitchen to loyally, faithfully and reliably deliver their coveted hits without the benefit of regular oversight, approval or rejection.

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In addition, the generously open kitchen at the NoLIta based Chefs Club had to be decked out with every conceivable kitchen appliance and gadget in order to facilitate the fastidious preparation of entirely dissimilar dishes. Whatever. What counts is that they actually pulled it off. But let me state quite categorically that anyone who thinks they can simply order something made famous by the likes of Eric Ripert (Le Bernadin), Daniel Boulud (Restaurant Daniel), Ori Menashe (Bestia), Margarita Manzke (Republique), David Kinch (Manresa), Curtis Stone (Maude) or Marcus Samuelsson (Red Rooster) without having to dine at any of their formidable establishments, is as unacceptable and unforgivable as spending a weekend on the Vegas strip satisfying the need to ever visit the real Paris, Monte Carlo, Venice, Egypt, the Bellagio or even New York for that matter. (Don’t get me started…)

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If you consider for a moment what a humungous asset it would be to open a restaurant knowing you already have 25 award-winning dishes by 25 highly accomplished chefs locked up, the rest should be easy, right? And by all means the gorgeously seductive Rockwell-designed room on the north side of the Puck building with its rustic brick ceilings, moody lighting, monochrome marble tops and a massive salt rock precariously suspended above the dining area, should pretty much seal the deal. I would also suggest that the meticulous crew do a masterful job of delivering on all the chefs’ expectations. How do I know? Only eight crumbs of our appetizers remained after a faster disappearing act than a litter of hungry puppies could have mustered. Can you blame us?

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Charred Octopus (Curtis Stone) – Chefs Club

Was it Curtis Stone’s heavenly saffron aioli that accompanied his tender and succulent Charred Octopus, or Diego Oka’s magnificent Lobster a la Piedra drowning in a scrumptiously spicy leche de tigre (tiger’s milk) that took top honors? And by how much did Alex Stupak’s innocent-enough-looking Vegetable Crudite with the most earth-shatteringly amazing smoked-cashew dip trounce Matthew Aita’s profoundly crispy and glorious Broccoli Pizzetta with just a hint of chili-walnut pesto? You’ll have to find out for yourself.

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Broccoli Pizzetta (Mathew Aita) – Chefs Club

But it’s the final stretch that gets in the way of this being a truly magical success story. I’m not referring to farm-to-table either. I’m talking about the final, final stretch. That last 50 feet: from kitchen-to-table!

As I pointed out several blogs ago, some of my pet restaurant peeves include when a waiter hasn’t yet mastered sufficient command of the English language to articulate and elaborate on the menu clearly enough for a guest’s comprehension – much less understand what it is they are trying to order. Or when a team of efficient bussers proudly delivers only 3 out of 4 entrees, leaving one of your guests with nothing but blank anticipation between knife and fork while everyone else is already harmonizing in a chorus of ooooh’s & aaaah’s.

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Paupiette of Sea Bass (Daniel Boulud) – Chefs Club

Or the biggest disappointment at trying to smile through chef Aita’s delectable Grilled Swordfish with tangy zucchini tapenade, or having to contend with a sublimely succulent and crispy Dry Aged Duck Breast over a lighter-than-air wheat porridge by Gavin Keysen, or enduring chef Boulud’s crispy wafer-thin potato-wrapped Paupiette of Sea Bass surrounded by a standing-ovation-worthy Syrah sauce, or gritting one’s teeth until the last bite of Ruby and Sather Duke’s wonderfully tender Smoked Pork Collar with pickled peaches for sweetness, grainy mustard for fire and toasted nuts for crunch – all regrettably served well below room temperature. And while genuine, heartfelt apologies (and comp’d desserts) are always appreciated in hindsight, one has to wonder what kind of magical talent it takes to make fifty degrees disappear – just like that!

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Blistered Shishito Peppers with Pesto butter – Chefs Club

http://www.chefsclub.com/

 

Unpacking Meal Kits

Now that the meal kit delivery business has sautéed into a $1.5BN industry, with room to rise threefold in the next few years, it’s no surprise that every few weeks another cook enters the already crowded kitchen. The first pioneer was Blue Apron, and then in less time than it takes to slice a hot knife through soft butter, we have Home Chef, Green Chef, Chef’d, Peach Dish, Purple Carrot, Takeout Kit, Terra’s Kitchen, Just Add Cooking, Sun Basket and of course Martha Stewart’s Marley Spoon. They all follow a similar premise: For around $8 – $12 a serving, you’ll receive a weekly kit with step-by-step photographic recipes and all the necessary fresh ingredients, pre-measured and portioned out (except for salt, pepper and oil).

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Budda Bowl – Green Chef

No shopping. No schlepping. No waste (aside from disposing of a deluge of packaging). And for 30+ minutes of deliberate action, virgin cooks have sprouted up all across the country. Some say it’s the choice of a new generation who want to be empowered to cook with confidence. But perhaps these kits are just as appropriate for any knife-skill-deprived newlywed as they are for every empty nester, or for those suffering from terminal recipe rut or incurable ordering-in-fluenza.

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Meatloaf – Blue Apron

In my case, it was the thought of pruning back my Saturday morning chores (planning the week’s menus, compiling a lengthy list, schlepping to two or more grocery stores, making on-the-spot compromises due to inventory issues, standing in endless check-out lines, schlepping everything home, packing it all away…) and my curiosity for how well these services deliver on what I refer to as the EFR: the effort-to-flavor ratio. Did all the chopping, stirring and zesting actually yield a delicious dish, or have I just spent the past half hour trashing my kitchen for a ho-hum prison yard meal?

Blue Apron

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While some of the other services were still being conceived of, Blue Apron cartons were already showing on doorsteps all across the country. Starting from a perfect score, big blue lost points in my book for burying steps within other steps. Just after I’d doused the entire contents of a perfectly darling little bottle of white vinegar onto the salad I was assembling, did I read further to notice that I needed to save half of it for step 8. Really? They lost another point when the spinach I was sautéeing shrank and shrank until I was left with a portion scarcely big enough for a Barbie picnic. And I found it more than irritating that my end-product didn’t come close to resembling the mouthwatering photograph on the recipe card. Two more points gone after taking well over 45 minutes to complete a 30 minute recipe, and the near-divorce inducing cleanup for requiring a pot, a frying pan, 2 chopping boards, a zester, a grater, a strainer and a handful of mixing bowls. (Not surprisingly, Blue Apron quickly put up a kitchen appliance microsite as an added revenue source. Duh.) The final straw was due to my own boredom with the über-reliance on lemons as the main (and sometimes only) flavor ingredient for meals 1 through 8.

EFR (Effort-to-flavor ratio): 8:3. Moving on.

Plated

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Responding to a promo coupon in the mail, I tried the more flexible alternative to Blue Apron. Plated permits more of a say in terms of what you prefer to cook and how many meals you might need per week. We also enjoyed the superior quality of the proteins, but once the newness (and the initial promo offers) wore off, reinforcements were sent in, in the form of an armada of carbs to crowd the plate, fill the stomach and grow the bottom line. Still way too many steps, with not much more than a limp handshake of a flavor profile.

EFR: 8:4. Next!

Hello Fresh

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So the big attraction with Hello Fresh was that Jamie Oliver was supposedly behind this service. Turns out, only some of his recipes materialized – nearly none of the time. But the upside was a larger variety of menu options with a 3-point sliding scale of difficulty, (i.e. mess, more mess and most mess!) Good news on the packaging though, these guys inserted all the ingredients required for each recipe into a single carton, reducing some of the environmental threat. But the only adjective I can call to mind that best describes the taste would be “unmemorable”.

EFR: 7:5 B’Bye!

Green Chef

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Although many of the other services claim to deliver pesticide (friendly), hormone (lite), (virtually) free-range and (scarcely) GMO produce – only Green Chef offers a guarantee that every single ingredient is USDA certified Organic. Here the meal options are for Ominvores, Carnivores, Vegevores, Paleo’s, Vegans or Gluten-freebies. Most of the packaging (and there is still a monsoon of it) is either compostable, reusable, recyclable or chewable. I was initially intimidated by the sheer number of ingredients I kept unpacking from the box, but when I started reading the labels, I realized that Santa’s little green helpers had taken care of a ton of the prep work for me already. Sauces, dressings, infusions, drizzles, toppings and dips arrive ready to cook. The various grains, flours and breadcrumbs all have secret spices included. The edamame are already steamed. So is the corn. The sweet potato turns up mysteriously diced, and the cabbage and carrots have already been shredded and wedded together. With less than 5 minutes of chopping, and a brilliant utensil re-use strategy, the entire ordeal is well under 25 minutes to dinner. We decided to start with the vegetarian meals, and will probably stick with them due to the incomparable dimensions of flavor, inventiveness and originality, (and to give my cardiologist a better night’s sleep). I had no idea how little I’d miss lamb after tasting a Portabella Souvlaki, or a Meatball made entirely from beets and bulgur wheat. The only downsides are the variety of fritters that require deep-frying, and the fact that none of the recipes reveal the actual measurements of each ingredient – keeping the recipes shrouded in unrepeatable secrecy.

EFR: 4:10 Now we’re talking.

Vegan-Alfredo

Vegan Alfredo – Green Chef

Not sure what my next step will be after this, but if I was pressed to pick an Act 5, it would probably be Martha’s Marley Spoon. After that…I’ll probably resort to the old school of sweating over a hot phone until I get my hands on that prime-time four-top at Le Coucou.

http://www.blueapron.com

http://www.hellofresh.com

http://www.plated.com

http://www.greenchef.com

http://www.sunbasket.com

http://www.terraskitchen.com

https://www.purplecarrot.com

 

 

 

 

American Flagship Dining – an aviation first

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American Airlines Flagship Lounge – JFK Airport

Is it just me who finds it rather bizarre that even though the Wright brothers pioneered flight on these very shores, or that the world’s first commercial airline began operations in this country, why then are US carriers so embarrassingly dominated and overshadowed by their international counterparts? Whether it’s the aircraft livery design, crew uniforms, cabin interiors and comfort, or service in the air and on the ground, United/Delta/American seem stuck in a decade-long taxiway before finally pulling up to match that ever-rising standard. There’s hardly a passenger who would disagree that the worst part of air travel starts and ends at the airport: You can miss at least one birthday standing in the bounty of lines. There’s nowhere to sit. None of the phone chargers work. Vintage dust abounds. There’s never anything to do when your flight is delayed. And who can tolerate those dysentery-inducing food-chain options?

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American Airlines Flagship Lounge – JFK airport

Well, there certainly is a better way to get through it all. For those flying first class on American Airlines transcontinental or international routes out of JFK, the airline unveiled their new Flagship Lounge today, which will elevate the nations’ largest carrier to share similar airspace with the popular British Airways Concorde Lounge at Heathrow, or Cathay Pacific’s The Wing at Hong Kong International.

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Semi-private pods – American Airlines Flagship Lounge

The Flagship Lounge is replete with the expected comforts and conveniences, like a separate check-in facility, charging stations never more than an elbow away, the latest in electronic barista stations, a self-service bar, a perpetually refreshed buffet with 5 hot and more than a dozen cold dishes, a quiet room, a fancy cocktail station and a wide variety of seating from loungers to diners to booths and even a row of adorable, semi-private beehive pods. But unlike some international lounges, you’re not going to find a private cabana, a shoe-shine, a haircut, a massage (or any other indulgent services of a personal nature).

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Showers – American Airlines Flagship Lounge

Despite the fact that the décor is almost entirely color and warmth deprived (would it have killed someone to shlepp in a palm or a vessel of succulents, or anything green other than that bottle of Chartreuse between the Campari and the Bourbon?), it certainly makes up for in space and light. The generous, but highly considered variety of textures and finishes from leather to mosaics, bright woods to shiny pressed metals are all offset by the pervasive plethora of durable fabrics (in what seem to be limitless shades of gray, fawn and brown), built to withstand the impending avalanche of traveler abuse. And while the 8 bookable showers are spotlessly modern, I challenge the design team to find somewhere to spread their belongings out, while washing away a virtual thrombosis after 13+ hours of mid-Atlantic turbulence.

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Flagship First Dining – JFK airport

But none of that should overshadow the real moment of truth in what is without doubt another aviation first: American Airlines has dared to install the first ever, fully functioning restaurant kitchen inside an airport terminal. In a nutshell, there is no better meal to be had in any of the 8 terminals surrounding JFK airport than Flagship First Dining. With (mostly) locally sourced ingredients and a menu that extolls the virtues of regional flavors with some international destination-inspired dishes, chef Scott Keats has created the first gourmet airline dining experience before you even leave the ground.
There has been endless dialogue about the state of our taste buds at 35,000 feet, prompting airline catering programs to introduce highly sophisticated flavor profiles that continue to push the envelope within the limitations of what can be re-heated in the galley of a 777. But let’s say your flight is delayed until the storm passes and you are stuck at the airport for another 3 hours. You snag one of the 10 single seat window-facing tables or a 4-person booth and sit down to real cotton linens and regular sized flatware as you peruse the menu of a dozen options – all complimentary, of course!

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Smoked Duck Breast – Flagship First Dining

It only takes one bite of the perfectly tender Smoked Duck Breast with a deep, rich, woodsy flavor, wonderfully accented by the fruity-jammy au jus and punctuated by the chef’s take on a colorful succotash to realize that this dish wasn’t cooked last month, flash-frozen and trucked in from Minneapolis. The roasted tomato coulis anchoring three Arancini is delectable, but the “rice balls” (as the waiter referred to them) could do with a sprinkle of seasoning.

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Arancini – Flagship First Dining

Chef Keats makes a passionate argument about environmental impacts and sustainable farming, but then the other shoe drops when the magnificent Loch Duarte Salmon gets flown in daily from Scotland! He presents it medium-rare with a splash of broth along a soft pudding he calls “cauliflower risotto”, which is nice and rich and indulgently cheese-laden, but probably requires more of a spoon than a fork to reach the mouth with any dignity.

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Lentil Cake – Flagship First Dining

While there is only one vegetarian entree, it’s a damn good one. I used the last remnants of what was one of four bread roll options (that were offered without name or description) to mop up the delicious ginger sauce surrounding the Lentil cake covered with sautéed mushrooms and baby corns.

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Flagship Burger – Flagship First Dining

And probably the most traditional of all entrees – the one that’s impossible to serve at altitude – will become the signature dish on all future Flagship First Dining menus in Miami, Los Angeles, Dallas and London – the Flagship Burger. “I really wanted it to be…unctuous,” Keats proudly declares of his moist, 1.5” thick sirloin patty, cave aged cheddar melt and immaculately sweet-and-spicy maple bacon marmalade.

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Flagship First Dining – JFK airport

Despite the unavoidable first day service jitters with wait staff who have yet to find their hands, feet, eyes and ears: when to refill a glass (before it’s empty), when to serve the condiments (before the dish has been consumed), or when to remove the silverware (not moments before they are about to be needed), this first foray into gate-side dining is bound to catch on at supersonic speed. I also predict some edits to the menu based on popularity and demand. (Did I hear someone ask for a pasta…?)

http://www.aa.com

https://www.aa.com/i18n/travel-info/experience/dining/flagship-first-dining.jsp

 

Does Philadelphia food ring a bell?

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Termini Bros. Bakery

You’re probably not alone thinking that Philadelphia and food have about as much in common as a rattlesnake and a baby. And if you asked anyone to name a famous dish that hails from the site of the declaration of Independence, you’ll probably hear about Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews – famously used as a World War I ration, or more likely the Philly Cheesesteak.

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Legend has it that South Philadelphia street food vendor Pat Olivieri got bored with selling hot dogs from his Italian market stall in the 1930’s, and started serving sliced beefsteak a and grilled onions with melted cheese in a soft roll instead. Instant success. And Pat’s is still around today, dolling out those ever-popular, clumsy, drippy, chewy, salty soberizers right around the clock, but more about them later.

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Pat’s Philly Cheesesteak

It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that the resident Irish made way for the influx of Italian immigrants clutching their culture, Catholicism and cooking skills. So, to really understand the largest chunk of Philadelphia’s longest surviving food influences, you really have to venture into the root neighborhood where it all began – Soufilly (South Philly). The local tribe has a uniquely extraordinary way of pronouncing things, like galamad (calamari), managad (manicotti) or prozhood (prosciutto), so I will throw in a few phonetics here and there for an extra helping of authenticity.

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Daily specials – Mr. Joe’s Cafe

Right in the midst of a sunny street of typical row houses – boasting highly competitive window decorations that include bent candles, ornate vases, faded plastic flowers, vintage tinsel, motionless cats, photographic dishware or gaudy crucifixes – is a lunch-only, mom and pop shop called Mr. Joe’s Cafe. The laminated menu might read like everyone else’s, but the daily special show-stoppers are worth swimming across the Delaware river for.

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Scripelle Soup – Mr. Joe’s Cafe

Hailing from the town of Teramo, Scrippelle soup is a clear and delicious hen’s broth with parmesan-filled, wafer-thin crepes rolled into short cigars, which release delightful little bubbles as you munch your way through them.

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Braciole with Gnocchi – Mr. Joe’s Cafe

While the house-made gnocchi are a mandatory staple, you are empowered and encouraged to swap and change pastas, sauces and meats to your heart’s content. I added them to a dish of Bra-zhôl (Baciole), which arrives with an ice-cream dish of fluffy, grated parmesan cheese – just begging to be scattered all over the world. The tender roulade of veal, flavored with garlic, basil and (more) parmesan is weighted down by a more-than-generous ladleful of what the locals call “gravy”. We medagones (non-Italians) would refer to it as “sauce”, but who gives a damn what anyone calls it, this masterpiece marinara is worth bottling, as are many of the other options including the crab and the meatballs.

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Termini Bros. Bakery

Conveniently located right across the street sits the Termini Bros. Bakery – still family-run and still baking Italian treats for 96 years. As you peruse the buffet of Biscotti’s, Canoli’s, Terroni’s, cakes and cookies, you are escorted by servers who compile your order on steel trays before packaging them up into little white boxes with string.

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Chocolate and Ricotta Cream Canoli’s – Termini Bros. Bakery

The Pignoli’s are legendarily soft with a marzipan-like Amaretto rush that underscores the thorny forest of toasted pine nuts on top. After taking a fascinating behind-the-scenes tour by one of the Termini granddaughters, I had to try a Canoli shell filled with rigûd (ricotta), and of course a bite of the rigûd-filled Sfoya-deel (Sfogliatelle), which is a ruffled pastry bundle of joy that crunches and crumbles into a million toasty flakes.

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Sfogliatelle – Termini Bros. Bakery

But the real heart of the immigrant neighborhood comprises a handful of blocks along 9th Street, designated as the Italian market. Here competing butchers, bakers, grocers, cheese & fishmongers offer local and imported produce from Sarasota to Sicily.

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Italian Market

And deep in the heart of all the action, the Rim Café, serves the most decadent cream-based Hot Chocolate ever poured. Using a litany of freshly shaved artisanal bars of varying cacao concentration and origin on a revolving platform, the process is as much a delight as the taste.

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Hot Chocolate – Rim Cafe

The neighborhood comes to a head-on collision at a cross-roads where the two competing Philly Cheesesteak vendors face one another: Pat’s and Gino’s Steaks. Both have equally impressive lines. Both have the identical menu. Both are open 24/7, and somehow both seem to survive. Regardless of which you choose, the most traditional cheesesteak to try is referred to as: “Whiz wit’-out”, which means you’ll have a cheesesteak with Cheez Whiz® (an artificial, yellow epoxy goo dispensed from a spray can), without the grilled onions. Grab a large handful of napkins as you dive headfirst into a speechlessly sloppy adventure of ridiculous yumminess.

You’ve probably never used the expression Water Ice in the same way most Philadelphians do. It refers to a very popular summertime treat, and a close second cousin to the Slushy. But many local vendor’s like Pop’s Ice go one step further by adding a dollop of soft-serve or hard-scooped ice-cream right into the middle of it, creating Gelati. The real adventure is the bombardment of combining different flavors of water-ice and ice-cream together. Ginger Ale & Butter Pecan, vs. Cherry & Mint-Chocolate Chip. (When the humidity rises above 80%, I doubt it really matters.)

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Cherry Water Ice with Vanilla Soft-serve – Pop’s Ice

And finally, one of the last remaining stalwarts of the city’s culinary history is Dante and Luigi’s. Founded in 1899, the multi-roomed converted townhouse originally welcomed immigrants who couldn’t speak English, and arrived with the restaurant’s name pinned to their clothing. They were offered lodging and employment until they were able to support themselves.

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Dante & Luigi’s

The menu is a lexicon of ultra-classic Italian fare starting with Antipastos, Pastas and traditional Flesh and Fowl. Standouts are the incredibly tender and flavorful Chicken Cacciatore deluged in “gravy”, the simple Pork Milanese topped with a crisp salad, and a special drum-roll for the signature Perciatelli Genovese – hollow pasta tubes you can whistle through, smothered in the most scrumptiously, creamy, white veal bolognaise – that will most certainly put a massive crack in anyone’s bell.

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Chicken Cacciatore – Dante & Luigi’s

http://www.termini.com/

https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g60795-d2365817-Reviews-Mr_Joe_s_Cafe-Philadelphia_Pennsylvania.html

http://rimcafe.com/

http://www.genosteaks.com/

http://patskingofsteaks.com/

www.popsice.com

http://danteandluigis.com/

Keep Calm and Curry On!

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It was very much within my lifetime that London’s most traditional meal switched from Fish & chips, to Curry & rice. By contrast, New York’s Indian fare is nowhere near the scope and scale of London’s, but the clutter of turmeric-awninged establishments up and down Lexington avenue in Manhattan’s Curry (Murray) Hill are just the preview of the larger story. Thanks to an incredible fellowship of chefs from all across the Indian peninsula, Michelin and the New York Times have been generously honoring Indian restaurants with stars, stripes and other accolades. Here’s how they shake down for me.

Chicken Kati rolls – IndiKitch

Categorizing from fastest to slowest (Curry in a Hurry notwithstanding), IndiKitch is the papadum and samosa version of Taco Bell. Good, clean, tasty and fresh. You build your meal from carbs to cattle with chutneys, sauces and rices on the side.

For in-home delivery I have Dhaba on speed-dial right below 911, thanks to their vast menu of all-time classic favorites, made just the way I like them: Tandoori, Korma, Paneer, Masala, Vindaloo…even a collection of British-inspired curry dishes. If you love Poori like I do (a hot-air filled, angry, blow-fish looking pillow of bread – the size of which remains curiously dependent on the weather) you have arrived!

Pondicheri

One of the newer kids on the block is Pondicheri. What the exposed-ceilinged, cavernous Flatiron space lacks in intimacy, with one teal wall and a massive gray mural with what looks like a couple of giant balls of wool quickly unraveling across another, or the head-scratchingly ominous tangle of cables and wires overhead, it more than makes up for in non-traditional, but authentic pan-regional fare. The Houston import is more of a “community concept” than just a restaurant. With a huge enviro-agenda, cooking classes, pop-up event dinners and a super-busy in-house bakery, where chef Anita Jaisinghani churns out the most extraordinarily yummy Indian interpretations on popular western confections.

Bakery Counter – Pondicheri

Donuts dripping with rose-water honey, Financiers with pistachios and cumin, Rice crispy bars with nuts and curry, coffee cakes, cookies and ginger snaps that populate the breakfast and lunchtime counter. Dinner is a bit smarter. Down goes the lighting, and out comes the wait staff. The best way to navigate the mainly street-food menu, is to go for one of the freshest and tastiest Samosa’s on the island, followed by one of the Thalis platters, that provide a half dozen different dish-lets of kebabs, soups, poultry, ribs, greens and more. I thoroughly enjoyed the one called Earth for its standing-ovation worthy Butter Chicken.

Paowalla

If you’ve ever wondered what happened to Tabla on Madison Park, turns out chef Floyd Cardoz is back, but this time he’s converted one of those typical West Village neighborhoodsy corner cafés into his next culinary canvas. Paowalla (named for the bicycle peddlers of traditional breads) offers so much more than just cumin/cardamom/chili delights. The carb-forward menu is a striking introduction to the real world of Roti and Naan, stuffed with cheeses, radishes, bacon and herbs. Cardoz also pulls together a few unexpected pairings, many of which make for happy surprises like Burrata submerged in a delicious puddle of Dal, or the tandoor-fried Black Pepper Shrimp, while others…not so much. The overly-soggy, coconut-laced Baked Crab might have been more comfortable under the protection of its shell, but I adored my first ever Dogfish curry, smothered in flavor, steamed in banana leaves and served with tart mango over brown rice.

Short and Saintly Rib – Tapestry

Going even further along the bridge toward experimentation, Michelin star winner Suvir Saran’s new downtown bistro is appropriately named Tapestry, in my mind suggesting the very fabric of what comprises our city, offering up a menu every bit as diverse as the kitchen staff, the clientele and the planet in general. Saran calls it “comfort food from around the world.” Maybe. I prefer: “The united nations of yum!” It’s where India whimsically intersects with Italy, Morocco, Mexico, Peru, Portugal and Louisiana – otherwise known as the F train.

Roasted Cauliflower – Tapestry

You can’t help smiling as you scan the remarkably affordable menu that has the chutzpah to combine a heavenly Arancini with green curry, or a tangy, sweet and crispy Okra salad with chaat masala. How about an irresistible Cauliflower roasted with hakka spices? Or the only time I can ever remember asking for left-overs to be boxed up: a super-tender Short Rib with cashew-poppy kurma. And the dish that just became my ultimate bribe ever – the utterly sublime Masala Fried Chicken. I still dream and drool about those flavorful sections of spicy, fried chicken tossed in a sticky, sweet and savory chutney, alongside a peanut slaw. And finally, almost triumphantly, a guava and passion fruit, flaming tribute to a baked Alaska called Fire and Ice. We’re not talking fusion here. This is pure kitchen magnificence.

Fire and Ice – Tapestry

That brings us to the northern end of the price/flavor scale. Indian Accent just celebrated its first birthday as one of New Delhi’s finest exports into Manhattan’s midtown maze. The dark, sleek and sexy interiors look, smell and feel nothing like your typical Indian restaurant. Almost formal – if you’re judging by the prix fixe options of 3 or 4-course menus, but casual enough to do without the tablecloths.

Indian Accent

Despite the litany of translations and explanations the poor wait staff have to decode – thanks to the lexicon of unrecognizable and unpronounceable items, there’s no collective sighing or rolling of eyes – yet. The plating is gorgeous. The flavors are remarkable. The cocktails are imaginative. The service is excellent. The prices are high.

Crab Claws – Indian Accent

Standouts (and judging by our neighbors on both sides who imitated us plate-for-plate) are the Potato Sphere chaat, which is a charming miniature birds nest of crispy potato shoelaces spun into a ball over a white pea mash, the utterly finger-lickingly delectable, butter-pepper-garlic baptized Crab Claws, the unsharably wonderful sweet and sour, fall-off-the-bone Pickled Ribs, the scrumptious Chicken Kofta (meatballs), and the magnificently tender Braised lamb with prune korma.

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Pickled Ribs – Indian Accent

Each main is accompanied by a choice of Kulcha (if an enchilada and a calzone had an Indian baby) stuffed with any number of interesting ingredients like hoisin duck or pastrami mustard. Yes folks, we’re a long way from curry in a hurry!

Potato Sphere – Indian Accent

https://www.indikitchtogo.com/store25/restaurant.php

http://www.dhabanyc.com/

http://www.pondichericafe.com/new-york

http://www.indianaccent.com/index.html

The Ying and Yang of Hong Kong

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Mott 32

Part of Hong Kong’s charm is the visceral contrast between a modern, vibrant and effervescent world city and its nostalgic heritage as a former British colony with ancient Chinese roots. It’s inescapable. Even as you gaze up at gravity-defying forests of steel and glass on streets named after British lords and ladies, you can’t escape the smell of fresh dumplings and steamed rice. And so to enjoy the total Hong Kong culinary experience, you have to spread your meals around as many influences as you can.

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Crispy Chicken, Fook Lam Moon

On the classic side, restaurants like Ho Lee Fook, Tim Ho Wan (who just opened a branch in New York) and The Chairman deliver the quintessential Chinese experience, but none more so than Fook Lam Moon. This city staple and a favorite among Chinese tycoons for over 75 years is more of an institution than merely a restaurant. Barricaded behind a shiny flotilla of Bentleys, Mercedes’ and Maybachs on a busy, neon-lit Wan Chai street, the nondescript access to a brief elevator ride plops you into a large, bright, windowless room dotted spaciously with square tables. An armada of firm (but friendly) white-aproned staff, whisks guests, wines, teas and trays laden with piping hot dishes around the room as if they were line dancers picking out and replacing partners in a hectic but inaudible ballet.

 

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Double sticks at Fook Lam Moon

Once landing at our white linen 4-top, I was vexed as to the need for the double set of silver handled chopsticks at each place setting. Turns out the white set are for grabbing portions from the strictly sharable dishes onto your plate, whereas the black set are for lifting eat morsel into your mouth. (Clearly taboo to employ the same chopsticks for both functions, which meant an evening of constant chopstick swap-a-roos.)

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Chargrilled Pork Belly, Fook Lam Moon

The first few pages of the elaborate menu proudly include some of the world’s most infamous restaurant no-no’s: Shark fin soup and Birds nest congee. (Oh dear!) Instead we selected a few equally famous – but more GreenPeace-acceptable options that all arrived inside of 9 minutes. Instead of that (often unpleasant) ¼ inch layer of unavoidable fat that normally surrounds any order of pork belly, this Chargrilled crispy pork belly had rendered its fat entirely during the process of becoming the most magically tender cut of crispy-skinned goodness, bathing in a maple syrupy sweet barbecue sauce. On the subject of impossibly crispy skins, no Oktoberfest rotisserie Brathändl could ever rival this deep red Crispy Chicken with eight succulent sections this side of a wish bone. On the blander side our order of Wok fried king prawns desperately needed that welcome side order of wild mushroom stew.

 

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Wok fried King Prawns, Fook Lam Moon

On the more modern restaurant front, my favorites include Yardbird and Duddell’s, but no trip to Hong Kong would be complete without at least trying to get a table at Mott 32. Named for the first ever Chinese convenience store dating back to 1851 at 32 Mott Street in New York’s Chinatown, this deep, dark, glam and impressively modern space is housed three floors beneath the Standard Chartered Bank building in Central Hong Kong.

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Mott 32

As you descend from the ruckus of honking cabs and double-decker trams grinding along rusty tracks, the dark mirrored staircase sets the scene for a very special and decadent experience. It’s as if an exclusive modern nightclub and an opium den produced a child. On one end of the wrought-iron framed clubby lounge, a wall of bright blue windows reveals a glimpse of the fuss, steam and energy inside the frenetic kitchen, while solo spotlights illuminated the black and gold banquettes, booths and a lengthy marble communal table, providing the perfect hideout for the next hour or two.

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King Prawn Har Gow & Crab & Caviar Hot & Sour Iberico Pork soup Dumplings, Mott 32

 

The cocktails are all home made delights and the menu offers a range of contemporary spins on some of the cuisine’s greatest hits, but the a la carte dim sum is what all the fuss is about.  Divided into six sections: Steamed, Siu Mai, Har Gow, Baked, Cheung Fun and Fried, chef Lee Man Sing reaches for ingredients far beyond the Asian peninsula.

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Assorted Dim Sum, Mott 32

 

The dark red Crab & Caviar Hot & Sour Iberico Pork Soup Dumplings are an incredibly delicious mashup of salty umami. And nothing I have ever sampled in Chinatown can rival the taste and crisp texture of the King Prawn Har Gow, nor the wafer-thin fur-covered breadcrumb Chicken, Prawn and Toro Croquette. But I challenge any wonky dim sum wagon that ever rolled passed your table to muster the show-stopping brilliance of their signature item: The Crispy Sugar coated BBQ Iberico Pork bun. Adding a candy shell to an evolved pork ragout, transformed a one note ho-hum bun into a Chinese rock opera.

 

 

http://www.mott32.com/

http://fooklammoon-grp.com/en#home

http://www.thechairmangroup.com/index.php?lang=enus

http://www.duddells.co/home/en/

http://hk.dining.asiatatler.com/restaurants/ho-lee-fook-hong-kong

http://yardbirdrestaurant.com/info/

http://www.timhowan.com/

 

 

Eating my way through Japan

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Bento boxes from Kyoto railway station

The myriad preconceptions about Japan and its culinary reputation are always consistent no matter who you hear them from:

  • It’s just as difficult to secure a reservation as it is to have a bad meal.
  • There’s much more to Japanese food than sushi.
  • Tokyo is home to more Michelin stars than anywhere else in the world.
  • Japanese chefs generally focus on one singular style of cooking before perfecting it.
  • Prepare yourself for a ton of seafood – even for breakfast!
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Steamed Beef buns

All true, but there is a whole lot more to it before you finally snap your hashi (chopsticks) apart. For the average westerner, the Japanese kitchen scores very highly under the following criteria:

Presentation – probably the most attractive and appetizing works of art you will ever see on a plate – from 3-star tasting dishes to pre-packaged bento boxes. It’s always absolutely, reliably, unbelievably Instagram-astic.

Ingredients – Everything you will ever eat in this country will be of the freshest and highest quality in the world. The notion of foodborne issues never crossed my mind – even if I was eating raw eggs. (See below).

The next few, however, are where things start to become a little iffy for the less-adventurous:

Location – It takes a little while to reconcile the notion of climbing down into a small, windowless, sign-less, basement box of a room to enjoy the most excessively expensive (and enjoyable) dinner you’ve ever eaten. Or that one of your more memorable meals might be found in, at – or under – a train station.

Flavor profile – Let me put this as simply as I can: it’s different. Foods that normally carry a bonfire of spice back home, tend to be oddly muted in Japan. Not that that’s bad – it’s just different. Conversely, when you prepare your palette for the subtle flavors of seafood you’re accustomed to, it could feel like you just bit into a 100-year old anchovy from the darkest recesses of the ocean. Again, not bad – just different.

Texture – while Japanese foods tend to run the gamut from “crispy to crunchy”, you’d do well to prepare yourself for “sticky to slimy” as well. (Hey, I’m just puttin’ in out there.)

Surprise – This is where we separate the men from the boys. In a world where English is rarely spoken (particularly by restaurant servers or market stall cooks), what do you do when you have neither the slightest recognition nor comprehension for what it is you are holding between your hashi? Hmmmmm.

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Traditional Japanese Breakfast

All my efforts to research a multitude of websites, blogs, articles, and personal recommendations to hand pick 4 good restaurants out of the 82,000 that Tokyo offers, were largely a waste of time. Those that were truly top of my list were either not bookable by foreigners, required multiple pre-departure phone calls well after midnight, were booked out more than 4 months in advance, or I am still waiting to hear back from them. And so I was left with my 2nd, 3rd and in some instances 4th tier choices. On the other hand, and without exception, every one of the spontaneous snacks and lunches I stood in line for at crowded train stations, noisy food markets or prolific department store food halls were so beyond exceptional, that in retrospect I regret not having taken even more advantage of them. But here are some of highlights (and lowlights) with my own star ratings.

Butagumi (Tokyo) 5-stars

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Tonkatsu, Butagumi

This charming little wooden house with moon-shaped windows and creaky floors, cranks out nothing but Tonkatsu (fried pork cutlets). The menu consists of several pages of an anatomy lesson in all things pig. Not just cuts of pork, but also the different breeds with details of their diet, size, exercise, fat content and heritage. As simple as our choices were, the table was then bedecked with sides, sauces, salads, curries and spices – not forgetting the ubiquitous Japanese pickles and rice. The cutlets themselves were sliced and served on a copper wire stand with an impossibly delicate, cotton-candy fir of crispy panko that literally melted on the tongue as the flavorful, tender and moist meat succumbed with ease. This is a perfect example of a single dish notched up to such a high level that any self-respecting Austrian Wienerschnitzel chef might hang up his apron for good.

Seizan-Mita (Tokyo) 1-star

A Kaiseki meal is a traditional sequence of several formal courses that includes an appetizer, a sashimi, a simmered fish, a grilled dish with rice, a steamed dish, a soup and a dessert. The fundamental problem with Kaiseki is that unless you are in reliably English speaking hands the surprise factor goes off the charts, which is precisely where we found ourselves in a quirky little sub-street-level, angular, disconnected and rather lonely room. Each time one of the servers would deliver us a plate, all he was told to say was something that sounded like: “Tsanchwangdo-ma!” Despite our litany of desperately probing questions, (Is it a river fish? Is it a sea-fish? Is it a fish???!!) all we got was “Tsanchwangdo-ma!” The only dishes that needed no translation (and which turned out to be the most memorable) were the raw shrimp over peanut tofu sauce and the delicate potato fritters stuffed with shiitakes. After the third or fourth nameless slither of fishy fish in an insipid broth, one couldn’t help but wonder when those two well-hidden Michelin stars might finally reveal themselves.

Sushi Tokami (Tokyo) 5-stars

Given that Tokyo is home to the Tsikiji fish market, the largest fresh fish auction and distribution center in the world, if you’re going to eat sushi in Japan, you have to do so in Tokyo. Chef Hiroyuki Sato is a toddler by sushi-celebrity ratings, but he has focused his formal training into a unique Michelin star experience in an intimate 9-seat basement space. After a delectable “welcome” Hand-roll of Tuna tartare, “…from behind the head!”, chef Sato proudly exclaims as he points to the back of his neck, there followed a series of small cooked items like grilled Baracuda, Bonito sashimi with three delicious mustard toppings, a wonderfully tart smoked Sardine and the almost sweet baked Lemon Fish. Then came the sushi. His signature red-vinegar-reduction soaked rice, served at body temperature, accompanies about 15 very different fish, from Kohada to Perch to Toro, Shrimp, Squid, Snapper, Smelt, Roe…to his unique Hot and cold Sea Urchin – yielding a thrilling salty temperature contrast between the left and right of the mouth. He rounds out the meal with what he calls a Japanese omelet, but is in fact a sweet, baked-custardy egg tart.

Craftale (Tokyo) 3-stars

Shinya Otsuchihashi’s formal French training under Joel Rubichon shows through his very detailed set menu dinner. Located on the 2nd floor of a building in the midst of a quaint suburban neighborhood street lined with cherry blossom trees and a small stream, the all-in-one-room restaurant and kitchen churns out a variety of meat and fish dishes, the gimmick being that each one is accompanied by a different type of bread or muffin to mop up the heavenly sauces. I could have done with a 19th helping of the delicious slither of Bonito sashimi with toasted shallots and a ring of black burned onion powder in a ponzu broth. Equally delectable were the slightly scorched Barracuda and the Spanish Mackarel with boiled peanut sauce. The medallion of tender rabbit with shaved freeze-dried foie gras flakes was pleasant enough but perhaps a tad too rich for one dish, and despite admiring the pork knuckle still roasting in its cast iron pot with nothing but straw and peanuts in their shells, it failed to deliver much flavor and was as tough as fresh bamboo.

Ramen Street (Tokyo) 4-stars

Who would have thought that standing in line to order Ramen via a vending machine in a crowded train station, and then waiting for the diners ahead of you to finish slurping theirs down until a seat became available would be such a runaway sensation? The deliciously rich and salty broth with hand-pulled wheat noodles, eggs, pork slices, scallions and croutons just so happens to be that amazing.

Kitchen Street (Tokyo) 3-stars

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Shrimp tempura, Kitchen Street

Also housed within Tokyo’s train station are a few bright and boisterous bistros that serve fresh tempura. Battered and fried in cottonseed oil right in front of you, everything from fish to vegetables to leaves to shrimp are all total home runs. (I can’t help salivating just thinking about it now.)

Abura Soba (Tokyo) 5-stars

Arguably one of the best lunches in all of Tokyo, the only options at this 15-seat noodle bar chain are the portion size and spiciness of their one-and-only fresh soba “oil” noodle dish. Once you manage to get a seat and grab your bowl of broth-less soba with pork and scallions, the instruction card tells you to first squirt three circles of rice vinegar, followed by three circles of chili oil, a spoonful of chopped onions and then thoroughly mix the contents to free up the secret sauce from the bottom of the bowl. The perfect texture of the noodles and the staggeringly rich flavor of the ingredients is beyond yummy and umami, rendering all of us speechless for 15 solid minutes of slurping.

Cafe de L’Ambre (Tokyo) 5-stars

For as much green and Matcha tea they serve in Japan (there is also an obnoxiously large industry that produces Matcha cookies, candles, soaps, chocolates and even soft-serve ice-cream) they sure do love their coffee culture too, and nowhere more so than this little post-war cafe in Ginza that roasts its own vintage beans in-house – some of them dating back two to four decades. Each of their specialty coffees involves careful weighing of beans and sugar (on a real scale with sliding weights), and a variety of other interesting additions, followed by patiently grinding, brewing, stirring and pouring through fabric sieves into non-matching, fine-bone china. The classic Royale is stirred into a cocktail shaker and then hand chilled alongside a large block of ice with a very careful topping of thick cream into a champagne glass, or the Cafe Oefs which involves a raw, beaten egg yolk poured into hot, sweet coffee that has to be drunk quickly before the egg starts to cook. #showstopper

Mikaku (Kyoto) 4-stars

Teppanyaki has always been an entertaining way to have your food theatrically tossed, seared and sliced on a steel griddle right in front of you. It somehow always seems to taste better after watching each ingredient wilt, sizzle and color right before your eyes. But when your chef uses wafer-thin, certified Kobe beef (and we were presented with the official paperwork stating the animal’s ancestry dating back three generations along with his nose print!) the process only takes 20 seconds, but the pleasure of enjoying the most marbled, flavorful, roasted-marshmallow tender steak will stay with me forever.

Iroha Kitamise (Kyoto) 1-star

The process of Sukiyaki is fairly simple: thin slices of Kyoto beef are seared in a heated pot built into the table. Sugar, soy sauce, scallions, sprouts, noodles and chilies get added and once ready, you dip it into a bowl of beaten eggs. I can now say that I have tried it, but the overly sweet glaze, combined with the raw eggs were two stops beyond my realm of personal enjoyment.

Okonomimuro “Ron” (Hiroshima) 3-stars

Hiroshima might be known for where the first A-bomb was dropped in 1945, but it is also home to a really tasty and fun local meal known as Okonomiyaki. Wedged in one corner on the 3rd floor of a 4-story building with nothing but Okonomiyaki grills side by side, “Ron” (with her curiously long eye-lashes) concocts a wide variety of this popular meal. First she pours a thin circular pancake onto the griddle with some fish spices. Then comes a mound of fresh cabbage, bacon, sprouts and scallions, before it all gets flipped over. Simultaneously she warms a portion of cooked Udon noodles alongside, before flipping the pancake on top of them. Next comes a fried egg on top of that before the final flip over and a sprinkling of cheese that gets flame-torched over a dollop or two of a salty brown sauce. Voila – your heavenly Japanese pancake-enchilada is ready.

Owariya (Kyoto) 4-stars

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Cold Soba Platter, Owariya

Owariya is Kyoto’s – and probably Japan’s – oldest restaurant serving the best Soba (buckwheat noodles) in the city for more than 550 years. The dish to order is their Cold Soba Platter with a tower of four individually portioned plates of the nutty, chilled, gray noodles, alongside a plethora of toppings like pickles, tempura vegetables, seaweed and sauce. The tray includes a teapot of some of the treasured Kyoto water that the noodles were cooked in, which has to be drunk as a broth with a little soy sauce “to enjoy for good health.”

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Ice-cream cake, Glaciel

Desserts in general tend to be even less familiar than other dishes, (with the exception of a few specialty dessert houses like Glaciel in Tokyo who have rewritten the book on ice-cream cakes). The most popular flavor or filling for pies, ice-creams, pastries (like the über-prolific, fresh-baked, maple-shaped Momiji Manju cakes) and (believe it or not) Kit-Kat varieties is red bean paste. If this is the ultimate in highly desirable sugary indulgences, then I guess it’s no wonder that no-one in Japan will ever be overweight!

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Momiji Manju cakes, Miyajima Island

http://www.butagumi.com/nishiazabu/about.html

http://sushitokami.3zoku.com/12about.html

http://www.tables.jp.net/craftale/

https://tokyocoffee.org/2016/05/29/cafe-de-lambre/

http://miner8.com/en/5551

http://www.okonomimura.jp/foreign/english.html

https://honke-owariya.co.jp/en/whatisowariya/