A Restaurant More People Ought to Know About

 Uni

A couple walked into Donguri the other night. It's a tiny restaurant, it was freezing outside, and half the tables were empty. 

"Do you have a reservation?" asked the young woman who greeted them.

They shook their heads.

"I'm sorry," she replied, "but we're fully booked."

They looked around, slightly baffled, and then walked sadly, slowly, back out into the sleet.

More customers drifted in, throughout the evening, and the tables began to fill up, but there was never a point when an extra couple could not have been accomodated. But this is Japan, where walking into fine restaurants without reservations is frowned upon. 

Donguri is very Japanese. The menu is small and slightly quirky, but every offering is excellent.

The signature dish, above, is soba. It is topped with grated yama imo, the strangely wonderful mountain potato that resembles porridge when it's grated. And excellent uni, along with a scattering of scallions and a bit of seaweed.  It's one of my favorite dishes in New York. 

Donguri also makes its own tofu, denser than most, which is served in this severely pristine fashion, with just a pungent bit of broth and nothing else.

Tofu

Ohitashi, rarely more than pressed spinach when it's served in the States, varies here. The other night the cool salad was made with broccoli raab, its bitterness nakedly pronounced, as if it was saying, "this is what I am.  Love me or leave me." I loved it. 

Ohitashi

There is no sushi here, but there's always a selection of sashimi. The star on this particular plate was the wild pickled mackerel, saba. (The other fish were salmon, yellowtail and fluke).

Sashimi

Another signature dish:

Risotto

Japanese seafood "risotto" made with squid ink and speckled with salmon roe. I've never tasted anything quite like it: rich, funky and very satisfying.

Donguri is an unusual restaurant. Small, brightly-lighted, rather expensive and very sedate, it's unlike anything else in New York. Each time I eat there I have the impression that I've somehow found a little corner of Tokyo on the Upper East Side.  

 

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Things I Love: A Tiny Bowl

Bowl

I love the color of this little bowl, which is just large enough to cradle in the palm of my hand. Small but mighty, it's one of the most useful objects in my kitchen, and I find myself reaching for it again and again.

The bowl, from Davistudio, is the perfect place to plunk the soy sauce when we're eating dumplings.  At cocktail time it's happy to hold olives, pistachios, or a bit of pate.  It's just the thing when I'm separating eggs. And at the end of the evening, when I'm tempted to throw away the last few spoonfuls of mashed potato, I scoop them into the little blue bowl instead.  

You never know when a leftover bite is going to be exactly what you want to eat. 

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The Savory Side of Rhubarb

Rhubarb

Slightly Spicy Rhubarb Compote

“$15 worth of rhubarb?” I asked the cashier at Fairway.  “Really?”

“Well,” she replied, “it’s $6.99 a pound.”

They had glowed at me, the long, thick ruby red stalks, in the gloom of the store. I’d gathered as many as I could hold.  I couldn’t help myself.  I kept thinking how delicious rhubarb would be with the ham I was about to cook.

I wasn’t sorry when I got it home; just looking at that bright red heap sitting on the counter made me happy.  I went to the refrigerator and peered in, wondering what kind of condiment I might make.

I had ginger.  I pulled that out. Capers!  They’d be a lovely counterpoint. Especially if I threw some raisins in as well.  And then, I thought, some red pepper flakes, for a bit of punch.  

I began by chopping an onion fairly fine, and softening it in a bit of grapeseed oil, along with two inches of fresh ginger that I’d chopped.  When that had turned soft and fragrant, I put the mixture in a bowl and set it aside.  

I added a couple cups of brown sugar to the empty pan, along with a cup of red wine vinegar, stirred it all up, brought it to a boil and let it cook for 5 minutes or so, until it was reduced by half. Then I added a cup of golden raisins, a couple tablespoons of rinsed capers, a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes and a few healthy grinds of black pepper.  I sliced the two pounds of rhubarb into half inch crescents, tossed them into the pan, gave it all a good stir, added the onion and ginger and cooked it for about ten minutes, until it had turned into a tasty, tender deep pink compote.

Served at room temperature it was fragrant, savory, slightly sweet and slightly spicy.  It was a wonderful addition to dinner. But I've just eaten some with cold slices of ham - and it's even better. 

I'm off to buy more rhubarb.  I really love this stuff. 

 

 

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A Dream of Sushi

Fish

One of the great joys of working at Conde Nast was that Sushi Zen was just a block away. And, of course, that I had an expense account and could afford to go there. Although this wonderful restaurant flies beneath the radar, I think it's one of the truly great sushi bars of New York. Once Chef Suzuki gets to know your tastes, eating there is pure pleasure. 

I'm no longer a regular, but when I have something to celebrate, Sushi Zen is the first place I think of. Last Friday, when we had some wonderful news, we went out for a feast.

It began with this elegant and very Zen arrangement of vegetables:

Ferns

In the front, a dish of marinated ferns topped with a dice of yama imo.  A tumble of textures and flavors, leaping across each other, waking up the mouth.  In the back, burdock root rolled in sesame seeds and topped with a single goji berry.  Eating these two dishes you imagine yourself high in some Japanese monastery; close your eyes and you can almost hear the wind blowing.

Next came that lovely arrangement of raw fish at the top, sitting on its own bed of ice.  At the far left, raw octopus, more texture than flavor, a bite that really slowed us down.  A rose made of tuna. A curl of hamachi. The freshest pickled ginger. Diced spanish mackerel, tossed with scallion. And that is only the front; give the basket a twirl and you find a few fantastic bites hidding in the back.

Shiraku
On the left, a dish of shirako (milt, or cod fish sperm). Like little clouds, all soft tenderness.

Next to it, snuggled into a shell, its edible opposite. The red clam is all brine and chew - and totally delicious.

Eggplant

A cooked course. Eggplant. Shiraku tempura.  And a little uni handroll, wrapped in batter and deep-fried.

This was followed by one pristine piece of sushi after another:

Tuna

Sushi

Squid

Shiny

to demonstrate just a few.

And finally, a delicate little dish of dessert, one shimmering round fruit suspended in a shining cube of aspic.  

Apricot

 

What I love about Sushi Zen is not only the superb quality of the fish and the artistry of the presentation, but the quiet pace of each meal.  Leaving, I felt refreshed, happy - and eager to come back. 

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My Dinner at Alinea

 Caviar

Any meal that begins with osetra caviar garnished with brioche (foam), egg (custard) and capers and onions (clear aspic) that is served with the suave 2005 Special Club Champagne is fine with me. More than fine. 

But what makes Alinea such a fabulous experience is the sheer exuberant fun of the place.  It's a carnival of food delight that takes you on a journey around the world; I found myself laughing throughout the meal. This is food as performance, food as surprise, food as you've never seen it before.  I loved every minute - and the meal lasted more than four hours!

Ice

Who could resist this huge block of seaweed-draped ice, which arrived singing gently, murmuring of the sea (there was dry ice beneath the ice). On top, delicate little bites of sushi - abalone wrapped with green almond, ahi with avocado, kampachi mixed with quail egg yolk to spoon on crisp kombu crackers. A tiny oyster. A little bite of green almond, with its surprising softness.

Frog

Frog2

Over the top? Silly?  Definitely. Inside that log with the metal straws was a cold nasturtium soup: its rather austerely prickly flavor seemed like a contradiction, the opposite of its presentation. On top, a tiny little bite of frog's leg to wrap up with more nasturtium. The tiny tangle of flavors reminded me of nothing so much as the Thai appetizer, miang kam. It was especially lovely with the S.A. Prum 2009 Riesling, all sweetness edged with acidity.

Twig

More silliness here, but great fun.  Hidden in this twig basket are two strips of salsify jerky. For a moment I was afraid we wouldn't find it. In the end, it was a purely tactile search: the jerky was softer than the branches. 

 Lobster

For this dish we're in India. But it's a gentle India, the curry of the lobster tempered by little dots of coconut and cubes of Earl Grey aspic. My favorite flavor on the plate was the almost candied cauliflower in the back and those little pearls of grapefruit.

Wine: Vin de Pays de L'Herault Mas Julien 2008

Truffle

This is black truffle - lots of black truffle - resting on a bed of bone marrow and the first asparagus of spring.  Served with a 2006 Puligny Montrachet from Benoit Ente it was, hands down, one of the most luxuriously delicious dishes I've ever tasted. I think I actually said wow!, although I'm sure I did so under my breath.

Sweetbread

Now we're in China - sort of.  A little take-out box containg tiny bits of fried sweetbread with ginko nuts in an orange sauce.  The fun here? Eating it with "chopsticks" made of two long cinnamon sticks. 

Wine: Vouvray Domaine du Viking 2011

Ebi

And back to Japan.  Ebi. Celtuce, the beloved lettuce stem of Asia. Yuzu.And lovely little sea grapes, popping gently in the mouth.

Charcoal2

Fire

Charcoal?  Yes and no. Hidden in that pile of binchotan is a cube of wagyu beef and another imposter, a rectangle of parsnip. Rescued from the fire, the charred lumps are carved, at the table, to reveal a heart of red in one, a pristine white interior in the other. Pure delight.

Junmai Ginjo Sake, Sudo Honke Shuzo

Lily

A little palate cleanser of sliced lily bulb with rambutan and tiny little beads of finger lime, each one a single squirt of juice. Extremely refreshing. Afterward we're handed a heap of newspaper (it was even my hometown paper), and asked to create a tablecloth. And out comes....

Fishfry

and 

Packets

which brings us right back home. We're solidly in Chicago now, eating lake Michigan smelt.

To drink: a sparkling Riesling Brut Sekt from Von Buhl. 

All night a branch of rhubarb has been circling just above our heads, suspended from the ceiling on an almost invisible wire, twirling silently. Now it is cut down, and we get this lovely little dish...

Rhubarb

crisp rhubarb, gentle celery, and tying them together, an almost invisible slick of licorice that makes this more salad than dessert. With it, the loveliest candy-pink rose from Arnot-Roberts in Clear Lake. 

Pigear

 A tiny bite. An edible pun. Wood ear and pig ear, with a frisk of cracker, a squish of black garlic puree, some garlic blossoms. The joke here is that the pig ear is, by far, the most delicious morsel on the plate. 

Wine: Priorat Clos Figueras 2006

Truffle explosion

"Truffle explosion."  Need I say more?

There was a duck dish before that, all smoke and fire spreading across the table, but my pictures, I'm sorry to say, do not do it justice.   And then, just a few desserts. This, for starters

Pistachio

The flavors are pistachio, strawberry, black walnut. The bites are tiny. The wine is a Sauterne, Chateau Tirecul la Graviere.

And then this...

Balloon Balloon2

A balloon made of green apples and helium, that turns every diner in the place into an instant child. 

This would have been a perfect ending to the evening. But wait! There's more! This show never seems to stop.  The chef came striding into the dining room and right there, at our table, constructed a chocolate tart.  It was an astonishing performance, Grant Achatz using the table as a canvas, dotting it with cream and violets, making a painting and anchoring it with a tart, much in the fashion of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. It was so beautiful, and so delicious that I found that I did, in fact, still have an appetite. 

And that, in the end, is the genius of this restaurant. Eating at Alinea is so exhilarating that you find yourself eager for just one more experience, one more flavor, one more moment of being completely and utterly in the moment - and happy to be exactly where you are.

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Things I Love

Leaves

The other day, at the New York Culinary Experience at ICC, a woman brought me this fantastic box of living microgreens. Tiny pea greens, sweet and sassy, over there on the far right.  Radish greens, with a bit of bite. Tiny mustard greens, their flavor hinting at wasabi. Dark red shiso greens, with a distinctively minty, musty flavor. Upland cress reminds me of watercress, a taste so sharp and pointed it almost snaps your head back. And on the far left, borage greens, which carry a faint and piquant hint of oysters.

The plants are still growing, and I'm told that, kept at room temperature, they'll still be good two weeks from now. Produced by a company called Koppert Cress on Long Island, they're sold only to restaurants. Which is a shame; I'm thrilled with this present and would love to be able to offer it to other people. Can you think of a better hostess gift? 

 

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A Bite at Charlie Bird

Uni

Met Doc Willoughby for dinner last night at a sweet tiny new restaurant.  It was cozy and friendly, and we really wanted to like it, but the service was so clueless that after telling us the special the waitress had no idea how much it cost. That would have been okay. But the food wasn't very good, and we poked around at it a bit and then gave up. We left hungry and wandered around for a while, searching out something good to eat.

When we passed Charlie Bird I looked wistfully through the window. The place is always packed, reservations impossible to get. But the one time I was there I loved the food, so we went in and asked if there might be a seat at the bar. 

No wonder people love this place so much! The hostess greeted us as if we were just the people she'd been wishing would come walking through the door.  The waiter was equally welcoming. The sommelier offered to serve us a half bottle of any wine on the list. And every single item on the menu looked appealing.

We'd already nibbled around one dinner, so we restrained ourselves. We started with this light little plate of raw fluke sliced into silvery, shining sheets and scattered with slivered almonds and tomatoes. 

Fluke

I couldn't resist "tripe lovely style." The two little toasts heaped with tomato-stewed, cheese-strewn tripe were fantastic: funkily flavorful, satisfying and just enough. 

Tripe

We had a dish of broccoli raab too, tossed with olive oil, a few secretive chiles underlying the vegetable's bitter edge. 

Raab

The food at Charlie Bird has a joyful exuberance that makes me happy. But what made me happiest was that pasta at the top: made with duck eggs, it was tossed with sea urchin and hints of lemon before being topped with crisped guanciale.  Pure delight.

Chefs clearly love this place.  Nick Kim, the wonderful sushi chef who worked with Masa before opening Neta a couple of years ago, was sitting at the bar.  Nick's no longer at Neta; he and his partner are opening a new restaurant this summer.

I can hardly wait. 

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The Ten Most Important People in Food History?

The Daily Meal has asked an intriguing question: Name the ten most important people in the history of food.

I’ve been struggling with my answers for the past couple of days, and keep changing my mind.  The first person I thought of was Christopher Columbus, who completely changed the way the world eats. Before his voyage there were no horses, pigs or cows on the American continet.  He also took a whole slew of plants to Europe from whence they traveled to Africa and Asia.  Without Columbus there’d be no tomatoes in Italy, chiles in Thailand, peanuts in Africa or potatoes in Ireland.  And that’s just for starters.

But before Columbus there was Alexander the Great, whose tutor Aristotle encouraged him to take botanists on his journeys of conquest.  In the third century, BCE, he changed Greek society by bringing them citrus, peaches, pistachios and peacocks.

In between, of course, there was Marco Polo.  He may not have brought noodles back from Asia, but he returned with many other foodstuffs.

Then there are the cookbook writers. Careme, Escoffier.  The English Robert Mays, who wrote a much-read English cookbook in 1588. The author of the extremely influential Le Cuisiner Francois, which disseminated the principles of French cooking in 1651 and was widely translated into other languages. (It was in print, in English, for more than 200 years.) And of course the great Chinese scholar of the Ch’ing Dynasty, Yuan Mei.

What if we concentrate only on America? Even so, it’s hard to narrow down the list, which would probably have to start with Thomas Jefferson, who was responsible for bringing us so much of what we eat today.  He even tried planting olive trees in Virginia. “The olive," he wrote, "is a tree least known in America, and yet the most worthy of being known.  Of all the gifts of heaven to man, it is next to the most precious, if it be not the most precious.  Perhaps it may claim a preference even to bread; because there is such an infinitude of vegetables which it renders a proper and comfortable nourishment.” (Jefferson may have been the Michael Pollan of his time; he was a great believer in eating vegetables.)

I’m imagining that the Daily Meal list will concentrate most heavily on contemporary influencers. Even so, I worry that the great Angelo Pelligrini, who pretty much invented Slow Food 60 years before its time, will be overlooked.  And what about Fanny Farmer, who made cooking “scientific”?  Or Chuck Williams, who brought us most of the tools we now consider necessary, thus reinventing the way we cook?

Thinking about this has been a lot of fun. Who’s on your list?

 

 

 

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The Richest Dish...

Luchows
I've been thinking about my father as I flip through the old copy of Luchow's German Cookbook I just found.  It was his favorite restaurant, and I was searching out the recipe for that sauerbraten he always ordered. Then I stumbled across this fabulously old fashioned dish

It's hard to imagine stuffing this much richness into every bite. I'm intrigued.  It's almost shad roe season, and this is definitely on a future menu.

Luchow's Stuffed Shad Roe

2 good-size shad roes

2 hard-cooked eggs, chopped fine

1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg

2 or 3 tablespoons Bechamel Sauce

1 tablespoon chopped chives

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon pepper

1 cup boiling broth or bouillon

1/4 cup Veloute Sauce

2 tablespoons Hollandaise Sauce

2 tablespoons whipped cream

Rinse roes.  Pat dry.  Place each on a squre of waxed paper.  Make a cut lengthwise in the roe to form a pocket for stuffing.

Mix the chopped eggs, nutmeg, Bechamel Sauce, chives, salt and pepper. Stuff the roes with the mixture. Fold the waxed paper over each; close tightly at both ends by turning it under twice.  

Place in boiling broth, cover and boil 10 minutes. Remove roes from paper to a warmed serving dish. 

Cover with sauce made by mixing the Veloute, Hollandaise and whipped cream.

Place unter broiler and heat a few seconds until lightly brown.

Serves 2. 

(Veloute Sauce, incidentally, is basically a bechamel made with broth instead of milk.)

 

 

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Learning to Love Natto

Natto

The first time I ordered natto in a Japanese restaurant my server eyed me skeptically and said, “Are you sure?”

It only made me want it more. 

Then the fermented soybeans arrived, and I instantly understood. The stuff looked like a swamp and smelled like old socks. Each bean seemed to be held prisoner in a thick, slimy, metallic-tasting membrane. And the taste? The first rush on the tongue was sour and earthy. Then came a lingering bitterness that not even rice could temper.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. How could so many of my Japanese friends revere something I found so utterly disgusting?  It was a challenge. I began ordering it all the time. When a chef told me he was convinced that every natto-loving white person was a liar I was all the more determined to learn to love the stuff. 

Legend has it that natto was created by accident. Japanese soldiers stored boiled soybeans in straw and forgot about them for a few days. When the straw was unwrapped, the beans were covered in their classic stringy film—the magic of bacillus natto, a wild bacteria prevalent in wheat and rice straw. Maybe it’s true: until the bacteria was isolated in a laboratory, natto was a strictly seasonal food. 

I kept eating funky fermented soy beans, and one day I discovered that I not only liked natto, I craved its nutty quality, its strangely appealing texture, its umami-rich flavor. Last week, at the little izakaya Yopparai I discovered homemade natto on the menu.  When I ordered it the server eyed me skeptically. "Are you sure?” she said.

I was. 

 

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About this journal
Where am I eating? What's for dinner tonight? And what books have I been reading? For a look at what's going on in my life lately, take a look at this journal, which I try to update on a regular basis.