My favorite quarantine recipes Part X

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Shrimp Cocktail

70 dishes in 70 days. As the lock-down persists so does my challenge to never cook the same recipe twice. So far – so delicious. Why stop now?

 

SUNDAY

Just like certain songs that remind me of summer, the Heart of Palm and Peach salad is one of my own creations that conjures up the same sentiments of long, hot days that drag on for weeks. The contrast of sweet, pungent, soft and crunchy are as mesmerizingly seductive as floating around a pool on an inflatable lounger for 3 hours.

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Hearts of Palm and Peach Salad

HEARTS OF PALM AND PEACH SALAD

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 tin hearts of palm sliced into short thin sections
  • 1 large fresh yellow peach sliced very thinly
  • Mixed greens
  • Candied walnuts
  • Crumbled gorgonzola cheese
  • Balsamic vinaigrette with Walnut oil

DIRECTIONS

Mix all ingredients together and serve immediately. Serves 4.

 

MONDAY

The Spicy Mango Pork with Noodles is a relative newbie to my collection, but it was love at first bite. Nothing like pairing up mango with Serrano chilies. I mean, please!

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Spicy Mango Pork with Noodles

SPICY MANGO PORK WITH NOODLES

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 1/2 pounds pork tenderloin, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick slices
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon lime zest plus 2 tablespoon fresh lime juice
  • 1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper, divided
  • 2 teaspoons peeled fresh ginger cut into matchsticks, divided
  • 2 tablespoons coconut oil, divided
  • 1/4 teaspoon black or brown mustard seeds
  • 1 cup thinly sliced red onion
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons thinly sliced serrano chile
  • 3 mangoes, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch-thick spears
  • 1 cup hot water
  • 8 ounces uncooked thin rice noodles or vermicelli, cooked according to package directions
  • Thinly sliced scallions and pickled cucumber slices, for garnish

DIRECTIONS

Toss together pork, cumin, salt, lime zest and juice, garlic, 1 teaspoon black pepper, and 1 teaspoon ginger in a medium bowl. Cover and chill at least 30 minutes.

Heat 1 tablespoon coconut oil in a large skillet over high. Working in 2 batches, add pork; cook until browned on both sides, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate.

Wipe skillet clean; reduce heat to medium. Add mustard seeds and remaining 1 tablespoon oil; cook, undisturbed, until small bubbles appear on surface of seeds, about 30 seconds. Add onion and chile; cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 3 minutes. Add mango and remaining ginger; cook, stirring gently, until mango is just tender, 4-5 minutes. Transfer to plate with pork.

Return 1 cup mango mixture to skillet; add 1 cup hot water. Bring to a simmer over medium-high; cook, smashing fruit using back of a wooden spoon, until slightly thickened, about 3 minutes. Return remaining mango mixture and pork to skillet. Cook, stirring often, until pork is fully coated with mango mixture.

Serve pork mixture over noodles; garnish with scallions and pickled cucumber. Serves 4.

 

TUESDAY

I love salads but there are very few I actually pine for through the winter. Panzanella is probably number one on the list. It is my default, go-to “can I bring a salad?” salad, and when you try it – it will become yours too.

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Panzanella Salad

PANZANELLA SALAD

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 ¼ pounds very ripe tomatoes; a mix of varieties and colors is nice
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
  • ¾ teaspoon kosher sea salt, more to taste
  • 6 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon olive oil, more as needed
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • ½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 6-inch length of ciabatta or baguette (about 4 ounces), preferably stale, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 3 sprigs fresh thyme or 2 sprigs fresh oregano
  • Chopped fresh basil, for serving

DIRECTIONS

Cut tomatoes into bite-sized pieces and transfer to a large bowl. Using a large chef’s knife, mince 1 of the smashed garlic cloves. Add a pinch of salt and using the flat side of your knife, smash into a fine paste. Add garlic paste to the tomatoes along with 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Toss to coat and set aside in a colander to drip off the juice for at least an hour.
In a medium bowl, combine the lemon juice, mustard, 1/4 teaspoon salt and black pepper to taste. While whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in 3 tablespoons olive oil until the mixture is thickened.
In a 10-inch skillet over high heat, add 2 tablespoons olive oil, bread cubes, the remaining smashed garlic clove, 1 sprig of fresh thyme or 1 sprig of fresh oregano and 1/4 teaspoon salt.
Cook while stirring occasionally until toasted and golden, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool completely. When cool, discard the garlic and thyme and add bread cubes to the tomato mixture. Add the leaves of the remaining uncooked thyme or oregano, and toss to combine. Transfer to a platter or individual plates and serve garnished with the chopped basil, and freshly ground black pepper. Serves 4.

 

WEDNESDAY

What to do with leftover peaches and tomatoes? Throw them in a bowl with mint, shallots and a tangy lemon vinaigrette and say: “Oh, this old thing? It was nothing.”

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Peach and Tomato Salad

PEACH AND TOMATO SALAD

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 pound ripe tomatoes, cored, cut into 1/2-inch-thick wedges, and wedges halved crosswise
  • Salt and pepper
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
  • 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon grated lemon zest plus 1 tablespoon juice
  • 1 pound ripe peaches, halved, pitted, cut into 1/2-inch-thick wedges, and wedges halved crosswise
  • 1 shallot, sliced into thin rings
  • ⅓ cup fresh mint leaves, torn

DIRECTIONS

Perfectly ripe peaches and tomatoes are essential to this recipe.

Combine tomatoes and 1/2 teaspoon salt in bowl and toss to coat; transfer to colander and let drain in sink for 30 minutes.

Whisk oil, vinegar, lemon zest and juice, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper together in large bowl. Add peaches, shallot, and drained tomatoes to dressing and toss gently to coat. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to platter and sprinkle with mint. Drizzle with extra oil. Serves 4.

 

THURSDAY

So, this Lamb with Fig Balsamic glaze might be the only serious recipe for the week but it’s not just tall, dark and handsome, it has some pretty deep, rich Tuscan flavors that are beyond restaurant quality. Don’t skimp on the fig Balsamic. It’s the difference between good and great Scott.

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Rack of Lamb with Fig Balsamic Glaze

RACK OF LAMB WITH FIG BALSAMIC GLAZE

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 Racks of Lamb well trimmed.
  • 1/4 cup Olive Oil, separated
  • Salt & Cracked pepper
  • 2 – 3 Tbspn chopped rosemary
  • 1/2 cup minced shallots
  • 1/2 cup Fig Balsamic vinegar
  • 1 1/2 cups good quality beef stock
  • 1 head of garlic
  • 1/3 cup dried mission figs, halved lengthwise
  • 6-8 Tbspn unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 3 Tbspn chopped parsely
  • Salt & Pepper to taste

DIRECTIONS

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Place 15 – 18 cloves of peeled garlic in a small oven safe dish. Drizzle with 2 – 3 Tbsn olive oil and 1/2 cup water and roast in the oven for 20 – 25 minutes. Cool, drain and set aside.
Season the lamb racks well with salt and pepper and rosemary.
Heat 1 tblspn oil in a skillet and sear the lamb 2 – 3 minutes per side. (Lamb can be done ahead to this point.)
Transfer the lamb to a rimmed baking sheet and reserve the pan for the sauce. Roast lamb in a pre-heated 400 degree oven for 20 – 25 minutes. Let rest 10 minutes before slicing.
Degrease the searing pan, add shallots and cook 1 minute. Add vinegar and stock and bring to a boil. Reduce liquid until 3/4 cup remains. Remove from the heat and add garlic, figs and butter 1 Tbspn at a time until the sauce is thick and creamy. Adjust seasoning and add parsely, Serve over lamb chops.

 

FRIDAY

If you have a slow-cooker (and a ton of time), this Pork Ramen gets you as close to Tokyo’s Ramen alley that COVID travel will currently permit.

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Slow cooker Miso-Pork Ramen

SLOW COOKER MISO-PORK RAMEN

INGREDIENTS

  • 3 eggs at room temperature
  • 1/8 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp white vinegar
  • 3/8 cup mirin
  • 1/4 cup soy
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 1/4 cup white miso
  • 2 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and sliced thin
  • 2 scallions, white and green parts separated, green parts sliced thin on bias
  • 3 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
  • 1/2 (1½-inch) piece ginger, peeled and sliced into ½-inch-thick rounds
  • 1/2 (2½-pound) boneless pork butt roast, trimmed
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/2 (4-inch) square piece kombu (optional)
  • 3 (3-ounce) packages ramen noodles, seasoning packets reserved for another use
  • Furikake and Chili oil for serving (optional)

DIRECTIONS

Bring enough water to cover the 6 eggs to boil in a small saucepan. Add the baking soda and vinegar. Carefully lower the eggs and let them boil for 6 1/2 minutes. Meanwhile prepare an ice-bath. Plunge the eggs into the ice bath for at least 5 minutes until cool. Peel the eggs and then place them into a Zip-lock bag inside of a bowl. Add the mirin and soy and cinch the bag so that all 6 eggs are fully submerged. Refrigerate for 8 hours or overnight.

Whisk broth and miso together in slow cooker. Add mushrooms, scallion whites, garlic, and ginger. Sprinkle pork with pepper and transfer to slow cooker. Cover and cook until pork is tender and registers 195 degrees, 4 to 6 hours on high or 8 to 10 hours on low. Transfer pork to cutting board and let rest for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, add kombu, if using, to broth mixture in slow cooker and cook, covered, on high for 10 minutes. Using slotted spoon, remove and discard scallion whites, garlic, ginger, and kombu, leaving mushrooms in slow cooker.

Bring 4 quarts water to boil in large pot. Add noodles and cook until tender but still chewy. Drain noodles and divide evenly among serving bowls. Slice pork in half lengthwise, then slice crosswise ¼ inch thick. Ladle broth into bowls. Serve ramen topped with 3 or 4 slices of pork and scallion greens. Halve the eggs and lay two halves into each bowl. Serve furikake and chili oil on the side. Serves 4.

 

SATURDAY

What happens when Chinese Spring roll season runs out? Vietnamese Summer roll rolls in. This mostly raw, crunchy and oil-free cousin is as flavorful as it’s pretty – and with two sauces, it’s a party in every bite.

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Vietnamese Summer Rolls

VIETNAMESE SUMMER ROLLS

INGREDIENTS

For the lime dressing:

  • 5 tablespoons lime juice
  • 3 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 2 teaspoon sugar

For the Peanut-Hoisin dipping Sauce:

  • 1 Thai chile, stemmed and sliced thin
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • ⅔ cup water
  • ⅓ cup creamy peanut butter
  • 3 tablespoons hoisin sauce
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar

For the summer rolls:

  • 3 ounces dried rice noodles
  • 1 large carrot, peeled and sliced into matchsticks
  • ⅓ cup coarsely chopped roasted unsalted peanuts
  • 1 large cucumber, seeded and sliced into matchsticks
  • 1 medium daikon radish, peeled and sliced into matchsticks
  • 8 round rice paper wrappers (8 inches in diameter)
  • ½ cup loosely packed fresh mint leaves
  • ½ cup loosely packed fresh cilantro leaves
  • ½ cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves
  • ½ cup bean sprouts
  • ½ pound cooked medium shrimp (21 to 25 per pound), chilled and sliced in half lengthwise

DIRECTIONS

Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot. Remove the boiling water from the heat, add the rice noodles, and let stand, stirring occasionally, until the noodles are tender, about 10 minutes. Drain the noodles and transfer them to a medium bowl.

Whisk the lime juice, fish sauce, and sugar together in small bowl until the sugar dissolves. Toss 2 tablespoons of the lime juice mixture with the noodles. In a medium bowl, toss 1 more tablespoon of the lime juice mixture with the carrots, peanuts, radishes, bean sprouts and cucumbers. Save the remainder of the lime juice mixture for dipping.

Using a chef knife, mash Thai chile, garlic, and salt to fine paste. Transfer to medium bowl. Add water, peanut butter, hoisin, tomato paste, and vinegar and whisk until smooth. Set aside.

Use a large, flat dinner plate to work on. Fill a 9-inch pie plate with 1 inch of room temperature water. Working with one rice paper wrapper at a time, immerse each wrapper in water until just pliable, about 2 minutes, then lay the softened wrapper on the dinner plate.

Arrange a few cucumber, radish and carrot sticks horizontally at one edge of the wrapper into a small bundle. Add a few noodles and about 3 leaves of each herb. Then fold the wrapper over the bundle securing the ingredients inside. Fold it over once more and then bend in the two sides and lay 3 shrimp halves at the next fold of the wrapper thereby scooping them up in the final fold. Set aside and cover with a damp cloth until ready to serve. Rolls should not be kept waiting for more than 20 minutes. Serve with the remaining lime juice dressing and peanut dipping sauce. Serves 4.

Of all of Italy’s greatest meals, Affogato is probably their greatest fanfare to the end of a meal. It’s ridiculously simple, outrageously flavorful and sinfully more-ish.

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Affogato with Vanilla ice-cream and Nuts

AFFOGATO WITH VANILLA ICE-CREAM AND NUTS

INGREDIENTS

  • ¼ cup raw pistachios or blanched hazelnuts
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ⅛ teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1 pint vanilla ice cream
  • 8 tablespoons hot espresso or strongly brewed coffee

DIRECTIONS

Preheat oven to 350°. Toast nuts on a rimmed baking sheet, tossing once, until golden brown, 5–7 minutes. Let cool, then coarsely chop.

Mix cinnamon and cardamom in a small bowl.

Divide ice cream among 4 small serving bowls or coffee cups. Sprinkle spice mixture over and pour 2 Tbsp. espresso into each bowl. Top with nuts. Serve immediately.

 

Stay safe. Stay sane, and most importantly – stay at home!

 

Tokyo at (or below) street level

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Tempura on a stick, Mitzukoshi Ginza

Just because Tokyo has the most restaurants with the most Michelin stars in the world, the unknowing traveler might feel bullied into enduring a quizzically vexing and rather fruitless reservation maze in trying to secure high-brow, high-cost, high-demand tables – assuming that’s where the best food must be, right? Wrong! The overall standard and quality of Tokyo’s food is so high, that even low-brow options are quite simply and utterly magnificent. This includes street-side establishments and those several feet below.  For just a few Yen, you can enjoy the best meal you’ve never had.

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Ramen Alley, Tokyo Station

Subterranean food scares most people. And in most cities, it’s warranted. The carte blanche invitation for pigeons, rats and other vermin to indulge in the culinary trash of their choice so conveniently located next to the subway system is hard to ignore. But for Tokyo, not only do the spotless stations offer the freshest and best tasting options, the longest wait lines are actually one level below. Ramen Alley and Kitchen Street, both located beneath the train tracks of Tokyo’s main station are a hive of popularity from 11am to 11pm every day. Some of the countless establishments are so coveted that foreign travelers – still pasty and stale from an international flight – will endure the barrage of humanity to schlepp luggage down long corridors just for a bowlful of sheer deliciousness as their very first Japanese priority.

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Ramen vending machine, Abura Soba

If you’re in the mood for noodles, head down Ramen Alley. The line for each of the stalls ends at a giant ATM, where you insert cash, punch in your order and hand the ticket to the staff. Then, a steaming bowl finds its way to wherever you are sitting in under 4 minutes.

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Rokurinshu, Tokyo Station

After an eternity of inching forward in the longest line of them all, I finally noticed that I was standing on a large sticker that read: Rokurinshu Tsukemen30 minutes from this point!

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Tsukemen, Rokurinshu

Quick lesson: Ramen usually consists of noodles, meat and vegetables served in a clear or creamy meat or fish-based broth. Tsukemen, (a warm weather favorite) has slightly thicker, cold noodles served separately from the pork and chicken bone-based broth. The idea then is to dip the cold noodles into the hot broth, thereby warming them up as much or as little as you prefer, and then slurping them down with a symphony of surprisingly encouraged sound effects. Mouthful after mouthful of pure umami bliss.

 

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Shrimp, Cuttlefish and vegetable tempura, Tempura Keyaki

Kitchen Street on the other hand has a wider variety of Japanese (and some western) snacks. One of my favorites is Tempura Keyaki. The house-blend of sesame and vegetable oils gently cooks large shrimp, Japanese eggplant, beans, cuttlefish, eel and lotus root to a spectacularly crunchy and un-soggy, golden crisp right in front of you. After you baptize each steaming item into the dipping sauce, your taste buds get a delectable workout in contrasts between soft and crunchy, hot and cold, sweet and salty, yum and yummier.

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Bento Deli – Medium box, Tokyo Station

Still within the station campus but a little closer to the high-speed train platforms, are a warren of Bento Deli’s that produce the most ridiculously appetizing wooden lunchboxes of all shapes, colors and sizes that feature multiple geometric sections containing a bright and colorful smorgasbord of Japanese delights: Sashimi, pickles, edamame, omelet, sushi rolls, breaded meats…and an even more handsome variety of cookies and chocolates all smartly gift-wrapped for your upcoming voyage.

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Mixed Berry & Yuzu lemon vinegar toppings, Expre-su

After a veritable sampling session from east to west, we stumbled upon a rather peculiar dessert bar serving soft-serve ice-cream topped with your choice of something called Fruit vinegar. Expre-su offers a variety of sour dessert syrups including Yuzu lemon, Cocoa, Blueberry, Strawberry and something called Christmas. Talk about an explosive wake-up call for the taste buds when your sweet center recognizes (and appreciates) the ice-cream, but your sour center simultaneously goes into shock mode as the vinegar hits the back of your throat. Yet another sensory delight that had to be repeated. Daily.

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Chicken Yakitori, Mitsukoshi Ginza

Moving beyond the train station, but still well below ground level, are the food halls that anchor each of Tokyo’s major department stores. Daimaru, Isetan, Sogo, Matsuya and many others all compete for the most tantalizing display of fresh and cooked foods to lure the lunchtime crowd, but none are as opulent as the Mitzukoshi flagship in Ginza. Row after row of the most salivatingly cravable bites from abalone to yakitori and everything in between.

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Garlic and honey prawns, Mitsukoshi Ginza

Kimchi crabs, scallion crepes, Asian meatballs, petite sandwiches, beef salads, raw fish, cured fish, smoked fish, shellfish, designer chocolates and so, so, so much more. Our department-store picnic lunch took over an hour to select – but was gone in sixty seconds!

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Nonbei Alley, Shibuya

Just around the corner from the crush, noise and lights of Shibuya Crossing are a series of lantern-lit back alleyways called Yokocho, with 5-10 seat snack bars that date back to the second world war. Among them, the Golden Gai, Omoide, Harmonica and Sankaku Chitai often feature bars that only permit locals, but we ambled through Nonbei (drunkards) Alley to a room no larger than an elevator called Appre Yumiko Sasame.

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Fried rice dough with nori, Appre Yumiko Sasame

The two charming proprietors went to all sorts of trouble to try and translate the names of each dish of Kyoto style appetizers that included pickled Japanese carrots and sweet potatoes, the most delectable slither of fried rice-dough wedged between a strip of nori, and their house specialty – Pan fried duck with Japanese green peppercorn sauce. Fresh, flavorful, salty, umami and utterly amazing (even though we had to vie for some table space between all the pots, pans and other cooking utensils.)

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Abura Soba Shibuya

Aside from Ramen and Tsukemen, my all-time favorite noodle dish would have to be Buckwheat Soba, and no-one does it better than Abura Soba Shibuya. Instead of a broth, the noodles, veggies, shredded pork, scallions and bamboo shoots all sit on top of a thick, secret, spicy-soy sauce that you stir up after adding a few squirts of vinegar, a few squirts of chili oil, a few spoons of chopped onions and some black pepper. Suddenly the noise of the world disappears along with your manners, and you slurp up heavenly bite after heavenly bite of the most indulgent, unbridled food vacation your tongue has ever been on.

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Butagumi

While on the subject of indulgence, no trip to Tokyo would ever be complete without at least one slice of Tonkatsu (pork schnitzel), and the best place to find it is at Butagumi – a curious little wooden house with a moon-shaped window, that just so happens to be on every chef’s must-eat-when-in-Tokyo list. Don’t be fooled – while the building might look like a fairy tale, the Tonkatsu is more Superbowl than 3 little pigs. Here, in addition to picking a species of pig, or where it was raised, you can also select a particular cut (sirloin, tenderloin, shoulder etc.) and your preferred thickness and fat content as well.

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Pork Sirloin Tonkatsu, Butagumi

The result is a flaky, fluffy, crunchy panko crust (without a trace of oil), surrounding a few slices of the pinkest, juiciest, most tender cutlets you will ever encounter in your life. And that’s before you add the special sauce, mustard and slaw.

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Mille Crepe, Yoku Moku

So, never let it be said that only the best things come from above. Sometimes you might be standing right on top of them.

 

 

 

Mu Ramen – review

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Mu Ramen

Would you be bothered if people watched you eat? I don’t mind if people see me do a great many harmless things, but for some reason chewing for a crowd feels a little unnerving. Well, that’s the way it is at Mu Ramen, the 20 (highly coveted) seat room in Queens, where homesick Japanese ex-pats and lovers of ramen from all across the 5 boroughs perch themselves for hours on benches surrounding the brick walls, staring and glaring at the lucky few who have graduated to back-less stools at the single communal table. Every one of my attempts (both failed and successful) at coiling a thick noodle neatly into my wooden spoon, every use of my chopsticks (both adept and disastrous) and every time a nugget of smoky ground pork escaped my grip and splashed back into the deliciously dark and sublime broth, I could feel the daggers, sniggers and snorts from the audience behind me: “Novice.” “Space waster.” “Unworthy.” “Manhattanite.”

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Mu Ramen

The only thing that shifted my focus from the crowd to the food – was the food. New York native Joshua Smookler who did kitchen stints at Per Se and Buddakan before opening this mega-popular ATM in Long Island City, boils bones and other carefully selected animal parts for hours and hours yielding 4 of the most delectable ramen broths in the western hemisphere. But more about them later. His 9-item menu is super simple and to the point with Treats (appetizers), Ramen (the reason we crossed the East River) and Toppings (to take the Ramen up a notch or two), but if you flip it over, you find yourself time-traveled back to Queens with three steak options, a pasta and the Harlan hamburger. Who orders a hamburger in a Ramen shop? We did. It’s a medium-rare hockey puck of chopped short rib, smothered in a super-jammy onion relish with a nest of shoestring fries and a square of melted cheese under a sesame bun. Certainly does the job – but by no means the main event.

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Harlan Hamburger, Mu Ramen

We started with something called U & I. It’s a combination of sushi rice, nori flakes, spicy tuna chunks and 3 slithers of Japanese sea urchin with salmon roe and a dollop of wasabi. It looks like a Sunomomo bowl, but the trick is to try and get a smidge of each ingredient onto the same chopstick without mixing them in order to fully appreciate the salty crash of the ocean – meets a jellyfish sting of spicy heat – meets a creaminess that folds everything into total sublimity. Next, we climbed into a bowl of charred and smoky, citrusy, salty yuzu-lemon Edamame. After finishing my “fair” share, I began to suck the remaining grains of lemony salt from the empty shells. This is most likely the moment I forgot I was being watched.

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U & I, Mu Ramen

Tebasaki Gyoza was our third “Treat” and perhaps the only real miss. When I lifted one of the scalding chicken drumettes, I became aware of two things: they are heavier than your regular breaded, deep-fried wing and they are also miraculously oil-free. The drumette bone has been replaced with a large nugget of brioche and foie gras, but as fetching as it might look – all bronzed, puffed up and seemingly crunchy, the rather gummy breading hid whatever flavor might have come from the rather mushy, fleshy stuffing. If I had a wish, it would be for chef Smookler to come up with another crowd-stopper like U & I while leaving the brioche and foie gras poultry stuffing to Daniel Humm at The Nomad.

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Tebasaki Gyoza

We tried 2 of the 4 ramen options. The Mu Ramen (a beef broth from oxtail and bone marrow) was unfortunately not available. We also skipped the I’ll Shoyu duck-based broth in favor of the two pork versions. Tonkotsu Ramen (the most frequently ordered item by my shoulder-to-shoulder neighbors) is a delightfully creamy broth with thin noodles, pork morsels, egg and vegetables. Not overly salty, very lean and wonderfully silky. They could have just as easily served it as tea.

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Tonkotsu Ramen, Mu Ramen

On the steamier end, the Spicy Miso ramen features a clear, dark, rich and wonderfully umami broth with scallion, strips of corn, ground pork clusters, thick noodles, sesame and a tinge of heat thanks to the chili oil. Once the solids were gone, I lapped up the remaining liquid like a good little Hello Kitty. Speaking of Tokyo, most of their Ramen broths tend to be more fish-forward, but either of these outstanding contenders can certainly hold their own next to any of those I sampled in the corridors beneath the Maronouchi station.

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Mu Ramen

As I rose from my seat, I could feel the spectator glares behind me turn into eager and appreciative smiles. While maneuvering my way out between their knees and umbrellas, I couldn’t help wondering if it would be too much to ask for a round of light applause for my performance.

Mu Ramen. 1209 Jackson Ave, Queens, NY. No website. Cash only.

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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/