TWA Hotel, review

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Rear view of “Connie” bar

Does the first 500-room hotel on the JFK property require a fight, flight, or fright response from travelers who’ll do anything to get through security and onto their planes as fast as possible?

One of the many sacrifices of the golden age of flight was the democratization of air travel. In a world where pretty much everyone can travel anywhere, anytime they want, there is less and less incentive to celebrate the anticipation of the journey itself. Thanks also to automated check-in apps, strict loading and unloading zones at terminal entrances and the labyrinth of joyless security checkpoints, most modern airports have shaved the land-side facilities down to skycaps, check-in desks and a partridge in the pear tree. Which begs the question: can a nostalgic hotel, dripping in red retro, reconstitute that glamorous, old-world anticipation – despite our short attention span and even shorter disposable time?

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Solari signs

The whole point of an airport nowadays is to shrink an unpopular experience down to the absolute minimum. Therefore, the notion of a longer linger prior to security makes for an unlikely bet that non-travelers might be lured to an airport when they have better options. Or those who actually have a destination might want to front-load even more pre-departure time before finding their terminal, removing their shoes, fluids and laptops and hiking to their gates.

Let me put it another way: who wants to hang around the dentist’s office for any longer than absolutely necessary? Even if it’s in an architecturally relevant building? Even if they have a great view from the oral hygenist’s chair? Even if they have great reading material in the waiting room? The only people who loiter at airport terminals nowadays are janitors, security, and check-in agents. For everyone else it’s a high-stress, irritant necessity, about as much fun as root canal. And the sooner it’s over the better!

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Eero Saarinen structure

So, along comes visionary developer Tyler Morse with a brave and expensive plan to turn a neglected building on the endangered list into a time machine – convinced it will take us back sixty years with a new lease on life as a hotel. Like mold, hotels have parasitically mushroomed out of just about every conceivable host structure never intended for hospitality. These include train stations, office towers, churches, hospitals, prisons, caves and even giant blocks of ice. So, an airport terminal isn’t entirely out of the question, but that’s hardly the point. One of the biggest benefits of Morse’s endeavor provides a posthumous defibrillation of the TWA brand, along with Eero Saarinen’s curvaceous, pre-jet-age terminal, inspired by a bird taking flight – easily the quintessential architectural marvel of the sixties.

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Connector “tubes”

Long before architects like Zaha Hadid or Frank Gehry, Saarinen (hot off his St. Louis arch acclaim) forced plaster and steel to go where none had gone before, to create the largest column-less dome structure the world had ever seen. Restoring and converting the former Flight Center into the hotel lobby was obvious, but then Morse had to build 2 crescent shaped wings with 512 rooms that connect via the original suspended “tubes”.

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Valet parking attendants

Half of the one-way glass rooms have airside views with nonstop airliner action on two runways. The other half stare back at the Saarinen structure, where the TWA baggage-handler overall-clad valet-parkers provide most of the action, in exchange for what will no doubt become an after-dark exhibitionists paradise.

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Hughes Wing rooms

The rooms are nice and bright – but tight, with a handful of curious design choices. Being able to plane spot from a comfy king-sized pillow-top with runway views, just before the point of rotation, is pretty hard to beat, even if a traveler with multiple suitcases might have to decide between standing next to – or on – the bed. The in-room martini bar is a fun idea, but you can’t really make a martini without vermouth. Or olives. Or ice. Or a shaker. I would have happily traded mine in for the oddly absent Nespresso machine as promised on the hotel’s website. Instead of a garbage can, there’s a laminated table-top mat, with one half dedicated to recycling and the other for waste, thereby exposing your junk for the world to see and judge.

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Cupboard “hooks” and Martini bar

Instead of a cupboard, (are they worried I might overstay my welcome?) you can try your luck at the single drawer, deep enough to accommodate two X-rays, or one of the six brass hooks mounted far too close together to suspend more than one item at a time. The electric blackout shades are stellar, but the controls are hidden behind a soffit on the farthest edge of the room. The sugar-cube sized nightstand is just large enough to hold a mobile phone, but there are no USB charging ports in sight. And while the impressive 4-inch thick, floor-to-ceiling glass window wall successfully shields every GE, Pratt & Whitney or Rolls Royce turbine winding up or down, the walls are thin enough to grant me a point of view on an impending custody battle going on in the room next door.

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Main lobby

Speaking of sounds, the (charming at first) nonstop clickety-clickety-clack of the hand-made Solari informational signs in the terminal lobby eventually penetrates the brain like an unrelenting jackhammer. Even if the chili-pepper-red soft furnishing details contrast exquisitely with the ocean of dime-sized, white mosaic.

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Sunken Lounge

Despite all the hoopa-doopla regarding the restaurants, the Lisbon Lounge and adjoining Paris Café both boldly brandish Jean-George Vongerichten’s name as if he’s also about to join the Democratic Presidential race, but on closer inspection, the typical airport junk-food-adjacent menu is cooked by airport operator Tastes on the Fly. And while the mezzanine dining spaces are airy and mod, they enjoy a most unappetizing view of the Terminal 5 parking structure. Make no mistake, even for Queens, this will never become destination dining. The other “restaurants” are 5 shoulder-to-shoulder food truck vendors along a frigid check-in counter wing, that feel about as out of place as a live alligator wandering around Buckingham Palace.

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Gym

The massive gym is without doubt the largest of its kind in any hotel I’ve ever visited. In addition to multiple racks of free-weights and barbells, I lost count at 35 different weight training devices, 15 treadmills, 15 elliptical and stair machines and a 20-bike peloton classroom. The formal changerooms boast terrazzo floors with white marble and ebony details, and a litany of showers and lockers.

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Conference Center

Equally attractive is the subterranean (and hence windowless) conference center and ballroom with museum alcoves displaying dioramas of TWA’s 50’s and 60’s in-flight service. The mosaic, stone and steel finishes are remarkable, but I strongly suspect that every portion of charity chicken, tradeshow turkey or bar mitzvah bread-rolls will have to be trucked in.

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Self-service check-in

Despite high expectations, the May 15th opening turned out to be more bland than grand. It was astonishing to see such a tremendous mountain of PR melt at the woeful unreadiness of the staff and the facility itself. After completing the self-service digital check-in process, where you magnetize your own room key, I asked one of the cheerful front-desk attendants to point me in the direction of my room.

“Your…room…” she mused thoughtfully. “Hmmm. Let me just ask someone else.”

And so began a slow-motion relay race in delightful ineptitude. Even though there were a number of retro pay-phones throughout the terminal and a vintage rotary phone in each room, none were actually working. (And to make matters worse, there is no actual phone number listed for the hotel at all.) Adding to the list of “no’s”: no room service, no breakfast, no wake-up calls, no working bed-side lamp, no toilet roll holder, no shampoo, and the few restaurants that were actually operational were all fully committed. The next best options were the Halal Guys, Empanada Republic and the Earl of Sandwich, with deliveries from Uber Eats, Seamless and Domino’s Pizza as fallbacks.

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Negative edge rooftop pool

The first item on my “must-see” list was the giddying idea of an apron-side rooftop infinity pool facing two runways. Passing an entire trade-union of helmeted workers still hanging room doors on the uppermost floor, the pool turned out to be everything but infinite. The first clue was the sub-infinity water level, and the cornucopia of electrical cords and tiling equipment still very much in frantic operation. Before I could even snap a quick photo, one of (bar franchisee) Rande Gerber’s lieutenants lowered the lid on what was left of my waning enthusiasm.

“Sir. Excuse me. You can’t be here without a reservation?”

“For the pool?” I asked, vexed and perplexed in equal measure.

“Yes. You have to make a reservation.”

“OK. How can I do that?”
He produced a personal business card, and offered it to me with a knowing wink. “Just call this number and I’ll take care of you.”

So, I rushed back down via one of the 3 hours-old elevators with that uniquely addictive new-elevator smell of resin and glue, and quickly dialed the number.

“Didn’t I just speak to you a few minutes ago?” he quipped.

“Yes.” I confirmed. “I’d like to make a reservation at the Pool Bar.”

“I’m sorry, we’re not giving out any reservations at this time.”

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“Connie” Constellation Bar

The way I see it, the only real opportunity to realize Morse’s aspirations of a super-deluxe 5-star hotel on the tarmac would be to up the VIP ante considerably. Provide city-to-hotel vintage limo or helicopter transfers. Enable the front desk to check bags through to any airline at any terminal. Provide white-glove TSA security facilities, concierge duty-free shopping and room-to-gate chauffeur service anywhere across the tarmac. Instead, Morse expects to be at 200% occupancy by double-renting rooms for daytime or nighttime stays to crews, the stranded or early-bird travelers.

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Rear lobby windows

It’s highly doubtful that foreign airlines will accommodate their crews at these rates. Nor can I see any domestic airline putting up their marooned passengers in spitting distance to JetBlue’s Terminal. That leaves the affluent traveler with time to kill, or those aviation geeks who can afford a runway view. Even the avalanche of architecture students who are likely to march through the domed terminal and its adjoining tubes will never part with $260+ just to spend the night. I therefore predict that this elaborate, but static, amusement park ride will find a similar fate to the other no-frills, discount-rated, airport-adjacent Inns, Gardens and Courtyards that have accommodated the bored and bleary-eyed cancellation crowd for decades.

https://www.twahotel.com/

 

 

 

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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/

Tuome review

Although many have labeled it South-east Asian, to me, Tuome (pronounced tow-me) is more of an Asian-American micro-bistro with a micro menu serving some exciting twists to familiar dishes in two micro dining rooms tucked away in the nether regions of the East Village. When I noticed that (former-accountant-turned-chef-success-story-in-a-bottle) Thomas Chen offers only 6 appetizers, 5 mains and 4 sides without ever repeating a single ingredient, I knew I needed to settle in and make myself comfortable. The ambiance is romantic enough without any unnecessary fluff. There are a few recycled pieces of rustic bric-a-brac in and amongst the obligatory face-brick, with some interesting incandescent light-bulbs and a single wall of bamboo, but the main features at this 45-seater are the large picture windows…and of course the food.

Egg - Tuome

Egg

The Egg is not your regular fourth-of-July variety. This one comes with an international pedigree. After being boiled and shelled, the whites are fried in a deliciously crispy panko crust, while the yolks are deviled and topped with the most wonderful mixture of pickles and chilies.

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Octopus

I couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for the lonely tentacle of the Octopus with just a few crunchy crumbs of pork infused XO-sauce on the plate, until our server whipped out a red siphon and discharged a handsome mound of beige foam right beside it.  “Brown butter and potato espuma”, he declared. Not quite what I was expecting to keep an octopus company, but after tasting the combination of the crispy tentacles with a sweet center, flavored by the umami-rich sauce and velvety, buttery foam, he could have discharged some onto my snow boots and I would have happily lapped it up.

Chicken - Tuome

Chicken

The Chicken is cooked two ways: half of the breast slithers were astonishingly moist and ridiculously velvety – thanks to the gradual cooking of sous-vide, and the rest were fried to a delectably dry crisp. And both were balanced on a satiny porridge pedestal of garlic rice with a few swooshes of basil jus.

Short rib - Tuome

Short rib

I was still in two minds about expecting at least two beef options on the menu, but when the charcoal-colored portion of Chen’s Short-rib effortlessly flakes apart to reveal a moist and tender, dark-watermelon interior that has that slow-braised honey flavor, there simply is no way around the matter but to concede that it doesn’t get much better than this.

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Rice

Our side of luxuriously duck-fat infused Rice was bound in kale leaves and dotted with slices of fragrant Chinese sausage. One bite and I was instantly teleported to a street vendor in the Wan Chai district of Hong Kong.

As our server described the only dessert option, I couldn’t help but notice a half-knowing grin crawl across her face. She probably hadn’t had any takers for the odd marriage of a Chinese beignet with red bean paste all night (or perhaps all week for that matter), and so rather than break with popular appetites, we too abstained and enjoyed the rest of our Tempranillo from the modest – yet highly approachable wine list.

Tuomenyc.com