Sensational dishes of 2013- Japan

Instagram and the iPhone have killed my blog. In this digital ‘social media’ age of immediate upload and instant feedback, my intended goal of writing at least 1 post a month in 2013 has been completely demolished. How many of these 12 posts have I managed to write in 2013? Zero.
What has finally motivated me to emerge from my blog slumber is the incredible year that I had. The adventures, the inspirations, the creativity and growth that encompassed every day of 2013 was something I wanted to share.

Izumo Shrine

Izumo Shrine

2013 was a year of renewal. It was the year that I moved from Los Angeles to Tokyo. There was a window of opportunity that presented itself at exactly the right time in my life- a new career, a new environment, a new lifestyle, a new perspective- what would life be if I wasn’t willing to follow my heart? I got to explore the country that I grew up in, calling Kagurazaka, my favorite part of Tokyo, my new home. Living in Japan has given me more opportunities to experience the culture that defines who I am and learn its complexities, its depth and its history. I took countless trips, met a lot of people and enjoyed a ton of food. There were many life changing meals and meaningful friendships that blossomed through those meals. Food connected me to more people than I could have ever imagined, every person enriching my life with their unique splash of colors.

Consequently, it was a year of renewal for Japan too. The year began with a pilgrimage to Izumo Grand Shrine in Shimane Prefecture, known as ‘the realm of gods’. Then a visit to the most sacred Shinto shrine in Japan, Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture. 2013 was the year of the Shikinen Sengu, a rebirth and renewal ritual where the entire shrine is rebuilt from the ground up with new materials- cypress, copper and gold. The tradition, which goes back more than 1,200 years, occurs in 60 year cycles for Izumo Shrine and 20 year cycles for Ise Shrine. 2013 was just that year when the cycles overlapped for these two most sacred shrines in the country. It could not have been a coincidence that I decided to move to Japan at a time in my life and in Japan’s history that signified new beginnings.

Ise Shrine

The Isuzu River, at Ise Shrine

I explored many facets of Japanese cuisine. Street food in Osaka. Mountain vegetables of Nagano. Contemporary kaiseki in Tokyo. Japanese knives in Gifu. Traditional wagashi desserts in Kyoto. Seafood in Hokkaido.

I was introduced to new foods that I had never even heard of, and new flavors that excited my palate. I ate out almost every day, taking in with my eyes and my appetite the incredible range of delicious food available at my fingertips. I was taught by Japanese chefs both young and old on the history of Japanese cuisine and given an intimate glimpse into the magic that happens in their kitchens. The dedication, verging on obsession, with which the Japanese treat every aspect of gastronomy is simply fascinating. There is a sincere intention behind every step of food preparation- one that simultaneously pays respect to the product and coaxes out its pure flavors. Discipline builds perfection, and reverence fosters beauty. It is no wonder that Japanese ‘washoku’ cuisine has been declared a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Here are some of the gastronomic highlights of my incredible 2013 journey through Japan.

ITALIAN BLACK TRUFFLE RICE- KADOWAKI かどわき (TOKYO)

IMG_8335 IMG_2577Chef Toshiya Kadowaki works quietly behind the quaint 6 seat counter at his 2 Michelin star restaurant in Azabu Juban. His movements are also quiet- more like, precise. He moves through his kitchen with grace and ease, demonstrating not a millimeter of unnecessary superfluous movement. He is a master at incorporating Western ingredients into his cuisine which generally follows a traditional kaiseki sequence and style. The energy in the restaurant crescendoes when he prepares the grand finale of the meal- Italian black truffle rice. Kadowaki’s excitement for his signature dish is palpable in the way that he vigorously and unabashedly shaves copious amounts of black truffle over steamed white rice. That distinct truffle aroma fills the air and diners respond with oohs and aahs. It tastes just as one would imagine- like heaven.

SUPPON (SNAPPING TURTLE) LIVER AND SOUP- SAKUMA さくま (TOKYO)

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There are many places in Japan to enjoy suppon cuisine, where snapping soft-shelled turtles are prepared in a bubbling broth that is said to have incredible health benefits. Sakuma in Akasaka is perhaps the most exclusive of them all, using a 330 year old traditional method of turtle preparation for their famous suppon nabe, cooked in a special Shigarakiyaki clay pot. The seasoning is simple- soy, sake and a smidgen of ginger- for the turtle meat infuses its intense flavors into the hearty broth that is rich with amino acids. The meat, incredibly tender, falls off the bones, and the quivering skin, popular amongst the ladies for its high collagen content and beauty benefits, melts like butter. For me, the highlight is the light and airy turtle liver, a delicate piece of foie that easily succumbs to my bite like meringue.

FOIE GRAS SANDWICH- L’AS ラス (TOKYO)

IMG_2760 IMG_2775Chef Daisuke Kaneko’s 1-1/2 year old French restaurant in Aoyama was like a breath of fresh air in the Tokyo food scene. Diners immediately took to the casual vibe of L’As where the chef ditched the white tablecloths for simple sleek wooden tables, and offered affordable prix fixe menus that would be brought out from the beautiful open kitchen, course by course, by the chefs. The concept was simple but the flavors certainly were not. His signature foie gras sandwich, an ode to the famous Häagen-Dazs ice cream treat loved by all, was, for me, even better than the original. A thick block of rich foie gras sandwiched between crispy thin wafers and coated on the side with red wine and lemon cream still makes me scream for more.

MOROKO FISH- SHIGEYOSHI 重よし (TOKYO)

IMG_2817 IMG_2806Shigeyoshi is, quite simply, my favorite restaurant in the world. The food stays true to traditional Japanese ‘washoku’ and nobody else does it quite like Chef Kenzo Sato. He depicts the very soul of Japanese cuisine, never steering from what is in season and never tampering a second more with an ingredient that is already a perfect creation of nature. I have been eating at this 2 Michelin Star restaurant for about a decade or so, and every single meal teaches me something new about Japanese cuisine. This year I enjoyed moroko, fish the size of my finger, only found in Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture. Moroko are hard to come by these days, as the growing colony of black bass that have overpopulated Lake Biwa love to eat these little delicacies as much as I do. There’s a distinct bitterness to moroko that I absolutely love, and eaten whole from head to tail, it makes for a most wonderful ‘sake no tsumami’.

DEEP FRIED FUGU- YUKICHO 有希銚 (TOKYO)

IMG_2947 IMG_2952January and February are the best months to enjoy fugu, pufferfish known for its lethal tetrodotoxin. One requires rigorous training and a special certificate to have the privilege of preparing this ocean delicacy. The flesh itself doesn’t have much flavor when prepared traditionally as sashimi, but it takes on a wonderful succulent texture and juiciness when battered and deep fried. Yukicho, an exclusive Japanese ryotei in the heart of Ginza with private ozashiki dining rooms, has been preparing fugu for more than 80 years. The current chef, Chef Ishii, carries on the restaurant’s tradition of unrivaled excellence in fugu cuisine. Better than fried chicken, a bite of this fried fugu will completely change your world. It changed mine.

ROASTED PIGEON WITH LIVER JUS- L’EFFERVESCENCE レフェルヴェソンス(TOKYO)

IMG_3975 IMG_3978Chef Shinobu Namae has trained with some of the world’s best- Michel Bras in both Hokkaido and Laguiole, and Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck. Now, in his Michelin-starred Azabu restaurant, he infuses his unique flair into beautiful dishes that marry classical French techniques with seasonal ingredients. Vendée pigeon roasted to perfection was served with an intense savory liver jus, with pea purée, broad beans, spring onions, Kiyomi mandarin marmalade and wood sorrel leaves. The icing on the cake when enjoying this memorable dish was the silver tray of Laguiole cutlery from which we could choose our knife du jour.

DENTUCKY FRIED CHICKEN (DFC)-  DEN (TOKYO)

IMG_4020 IMG_4022Michelin starred Den quickly became one of my favorite restaurants in Tokyo for many reasons. First, the creativity. Dining out should be fun, interactive and memorable, and Chef Zaiyu Hasegawa makes sure that every guest that steps foot inside his Jimbocho restaurant enjoys the experience from beginning to end. He brainstorms daily with his staff about new ideas that could surprise and delight his diners, and loves to incorporate playful elements into all of his dishes. Dentucky Fried Chicken, aka DFC, is Den’s signature dish, presented in a specially designed ‘take-out’ box with a photo of Colonel Hasegawa. Out comes a mouthwatering deep fried chicken wing stuffed with seasonal ingredients- on a summer visit, my DFC wing was stuffed with almond, cumin, cinnamon, turmeric and raisins. On an autumn visit, my wing was stuffed with a variety of mushrooms. This succulent chicken wing sure is finger lickin’ good.

DRIED AYU WITH LIVER- DEN (TOKYO)

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Another reason for loving Den? The flavors. The overall vibe during a meal at Den may be playful and fun, but there is a reason why this popular restaurant maintains its Michelin stars. I still dream about this ayu course during a summer visit to Den, with ayu dried for 6 hours then grilled and eaten whole from head to tail. Tade (water pepper) leaves, which are usually paired with ayu, were incorporated into warm rice flour bread which I thoroughly enjoyed with the most delightful ayu liver pâté. To this day, I still talk about this dish and hope to experience it again next summer.

SANMA RICE WITH LIVER – DEN (TOKYO)

DSCF0686 DSCF0720Den gets 3 spots on this year’s list for all of the times that I made a visit, and for what I love most about this fantastic restaurant- the hospitality. The staff at Den takes Japanese hospitality to a whole new level, treating every diner like family and going way above and beyond. When I dined here in the fall with The Spanish Hipsters to celebrate their nuptials, it quickly became apparent that the staff had been planning a special celebration for weeks. A lot of thought went into every detail of the meal to personalize it for the Hipsters, and we had a night to remember. Our experience included this sanma gohan, steamed rice with saury pike at its autumn peak with a luscious rich liver paste. We laughed, we ate, we toasted and drank, and the house mascot Puchi even came to join the party.

ROASTED ABALONE WITH LIVER-  MILLE CARESSES ミルカレス (OSAKA)

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Mille Caresses. Where do I even begin. I stumbled upon this exclusive wine bar in Osaka by chance, and it felt like I hit the jackpot. There are tables in the back of the restaurant, but the action is at the bar counter where Sommelier Kibi works his magic. He wears special white gloves to handle truffles, keeps his wines cradled in padded baskets, and treats his customer with just as much respect- a true professional. I’ve had a lot of great abalone dishes in my life, but this one by Chef Youichi Kaito takes the prize. Roasted abalone from Shimane prefecture in abalone liver sauce was fantastic beyond belief. The abalone- tender, juicy and succulent with an ever so subtle char at the fringed edges- and that decadent liver sauce- buttery, rich and creamy with a depth of flavor too incredible for words- brought tears to my eyes.

WAGYU KATSU SANDWICH- MILLE CARESSES ミルカレス (OSAKA)

DSCF0057 DSCF0050The pure awesomeness that is Mille Caresses in Osaka was also felt in their signature dish, the wagyu katsu sandwich. Miyazaki wagyu tenderloin, breaded and deep fried to a perfect rare, then sandwiched between toast with a lovely sauce made from onions and fruits, was as tender as room temperature butter. The course even came with a certificate indicating that our cut of Miyazaki beef came from cow #13349653555. A dish to remember.

ATSUKAN (HOT SAKE) & REISHU (COLD SAKE)- RYUGIN 龍吟 (TOKYO)

IMG_5274 IMG_0141Ryugin keeps getting better and better, living up to its promotion to 3 Michelin stars. Chef Seiji Yamamoto runs a tight ship at his Roppongi restaurant where the service and the courses seem to flow effortlessly. A recent revisit was right up there as one of the best meals of my life, and the highlight for me was their autumn harvest sake dessert. I went back and forth with my spoon, enjoying both the silkiness of the cold amazake soft serve and the warm fluffiness (and such enticing aromas!) of the sake soufflé. The juxtaposition of temperatures and textures was both pure genius and pure pleasure.

HAMO IN ICHIBAN DASHI- RYUGIN 龍吟 (TOKYO)

IMG_5239 IMG_5235There is no ingredient that tests the knife skills of a chef more than hamo, pike conger eel, which has rows of tiny coarse bones that are impossible to remove. Only an experienced chef with superior knife skills can perform honegiri (which means ‘bone cutting’ in Japanese), a process of making precise incisions into the bones without cutting through the skin or destroying the flesh. When a properly incised piece of hamo is blanched in hot water, it should blossom like a chrysanthemum flower with perfectly even sections, and create a light and fluffy texture. The hamo by Chef Yamamoto at Ryugin was the most perfect demonstration of hamo workmanship that I have seen to date. It was stuffed with sweet caramelized kamo-nasu eggplant and served in a wonderful bonito ichiban dashi.

DEEP FRIED AYU, DAIKON, GINGKO- ISHIKAWA 石川 (TOKYO)

IMG_5329 IMG_5288Ishikawa, right in my neighborhood of Kagurazaka, has maintained its 3 Michelin star status for some time. Located on a quiet cobblestone side street behind the famous Bishamon Temple, the food here stays true to traditional Japanese kaiseki style, honoring seasonal ingredients and treating them with great care and utmost respect. Chef Hideki Ishikawa mesmerized me with this dish that symbolized the transition of summer to autumn- crispy deep fried ayu at the tail end of their season, mixed with grated daikon mizore ankake and plump lime green shin-ginkgo at the very start of their season. The overlap period of these 2 beautiful ingredients is very brief, and Chef Ishikawa created a successful and delicious mariage.

HARI HARI POTATOES WITH TOBIKO- TAKADA HASSHO たか田八祥 (GIFU)

DSCF0557 DSCF0603Many of Japan’s finest chefs have trained with Chef Haruyuki Takada at the legendary Takada Hassho in Gifu Prefecture. A trip to Gifu during the fall proved to be an incredible cultural experience for me, attending the knife festival in Seki, observing the ancient art of cormorant fishing on the river at dusk, and sharing a fabulous kaiseki dinner with friends at Takada Hassho. The signature dish is called ‘hari hari’, made with extremely thinly sliced potatoes (by hand, of course), lightly blanched, mixed with tobiko and rolled into a sphere like a ball of yarn. My tongue was absolutely delighted at the playful textures of this dish- the crisp sharp bite to the potatoes, interspersed with little pops of tobiko eggs. It was a perfect way to end a perfect weekend in Gifu.

TORO MILLE FEUILLES- SUSHISHO MASA すし匠まさ (TOKYO)

DSCF0870 DSCF0872Of the thousands of sushi restaurants in Tokyo (did you know that there are more then 200 sushi restaurants in Ginza alone?) Sushisho Masa has quickly become one of my favorites, and the place that I recommend the most for visitors to Japan. I love the intimacy of the small space and the friendliness of the staff, but most of all, the mind blowing diversity of sushi that one gets to experience in one sitting. Chef Masakatsu Oka whips out more than 40 to 50 perfect little bites, taking the time to explain where each slice of fish came from and how he prepared it. His signature nigiri is what he calls the ‘Masa-feuille’, 3 thin slices of pristine o-toro with a generous dab of wasabi in between, creating a triple layered mille-feuille that magically lightens the fattiness of the tuna while enhancing its exquisite flavors. The toro melts so quickly that it almost evaporates, leaving you begging for more.

GRILLED ABALONE WITH LIVER- GINZA MIYAMA 銀座みやま (TOKYO)

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DSCF0782Prize winning Miyazaki wagyu from Iki Island is the specialty at Ginza Miyama, a teppanyaki steakhouse in the heart of Higashi-Ginza. We even got to see the special trophy that our cow had won prior to its slaughter. The marbled beef was incredible. However, what took my breath away that evening was the meaty abalone from Iki Island, still very much alive and squirming as it hit the sizzling hot teppanyaki plate in front of us. We watched in awe as the chef showed us the plump abalone liver- a deep magical green color so intense and bright that it was practically turquoise. ‘It’s the color of the seaweed in the waters around Iki Island that the abalone feed on’, the chef told us, as he sliced the abalone with his sharp knife and made a sauce with the liver and butter. The warm sauce, infused with the essence of this rich seaweed, was slathered over the tender abalone and served in its shell. Perfection.

MATSUTAKE TEMPURA- MIKAWA ZEZANKYO みかわ是山居 (TOKYO)

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Chef Saotome has been perfecting tempura for as long as many of us have been alive, and he has been collecting art for as long as he has been alive. His restaurant, in a quiet residential neighborhood in Monzen-Nakacho, displays beautiful sake chokos, ceramic plates and calligraphy, of which he himself is a master. During the meal he stands under the cowboy hat vent, silently focused on frying each seasonal ingredient to just the perfect degree. Matsutake mushrooms bigger than my palm, with a spritz of sudachi and a dab of salt, were meaty, juicy and aromatic. Saotome is a man of few words but he speaks through his food, his calligraphy and his art- all of which convey his charisma and vivacity.

ROASTED BRETAGNE VEAL- ANIS アニス (TOKYO)

DSCF1051 DSCF1066Chef Susumu Shimizu just opened this quaint adorable restaurant in Hatsudai a few months ago. The U shaped counter surrounds the open kitchen where he demonstrates the classical French techniques that he honed at L’Arpege for many years. 6 month old veal from Bretagne cooked in hay was sweet, milky and superb. His cuisine and style are both still evolving and I can’t wait to see what happens when he really hits his stride in 2014. He is, for sure, a young talent to keep an eye out for.

ABALONE LIVER RICE- SUSHI YOSHITAKE 鮨よしたけ (TOKYO)

DSCF1085 DSCF1092The shari, the neta, the prep, the ambiance. Everything is flawless at 3 Michelin star Yoshitake in Ginza. I especially love Chef Masahiro Yoshitake’s shari, made with akazu vinegar that gives the rice a brown hue and a subtle unobtrusive flavor that harmonizes well with the seafood. It was highlighted in this course that came paired with a generous serving of tender steamed abalone from Karatsu. The abalone liver, with a vivid forest green hue, was made into a silky paste and served with a mini portion of shari. It was a joyous and delicious moment in my life.

GARGOUILLOU- MICHEL BRAS TOYA JAPON  ミシェルブラス トーヤジャポン(HOKKAIDO)

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I had been meaning to visit Michel Bras in Hokkaido for a long time, and the stars aligned when I found out, when finally making my reservation, that it was the exact week when Chef Michel Bras himself was to make his annual visit. Ah, serendipity. Michel Bras cooking with Hokkaido ingredients was a true match made in heaven, and a food lover’s dream. His signature gargouillou of young vegetables, a celebration of Michel’s love for vegetables and herbs, was simply a joy. The ‘Terre’ dinner menu, a celebration of Laguiole, featured gargouillou with acacia oil, while the ‘Mer’ lunch menu, highlighting the seafood from Hokkaido, presented it with sansho oil. Both renditions were equally inspiring and lovely, like the maestro himself.

ICE CREAM CART- MICHEL BRAS TOYA JAPON  ミシェルブラス トーヤジャポン(HOKKAIDO)

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DSCF1455 DSCF1270No matter who you are, what age you are, or how fancy of a restaurant you may be dining at, when an ice cream cart pulls up to your table, it has the same universal effect- our hearts flutter and we squeal with delight. At 3 Michelin starred Michel Bras in Hokkaido, the ice cream cart came with a killer view of Lake Toya and 5 different flavors- apple sorbet sprinkled with anise powder, walnut mousse with hazelnuts in a chocolate covered cone, herb sorbet with balsamic reduction, white chocolate mousse with crumbled pistachios in a chocolate covered cone, and mikan sorbet with crystallized mint. Needless to say, I had a moment.

KEIJI SALMON SUSHI- SUSHI HIDETAKA 鮨ひでたか (HOKKAIDO)

DSCF1601 DSCF1576Where to have my one sushi dinner on a recent winter trip to Hokkaido was possibly one of the biggest dilemmas of the year. Hokkaido is a treasure box of seafood, and many delicacies are at their peak during the cold winter season. Choosing the right sushi restaurant for this trip was crucial. Thankfully, I chose well. Sushi Hidetaka in Sapporo is only a year old, but already quite the popular place. I sat next to a diner who flew from Tokyo just to eat here. Chef Hidetaka Yamada pampered me with the most incredible keiji salmon nigiri, a rare delicacy. Keiji, which means ‘infant salmon’, is a sexually underdeveloped salmon with an extremely high fat content (20-30%) but a light sweet flavor and silky smooth texture. Only 1 per 10,000 salmon caught are considered keiji, and they are usually only available during the end of November. Did it live up to its hype? Oh yes, yes indeed. It was the best salmon I have ever tasted.

GRILLED GINPOU- SHUBO SHINSEN 酒房しんせん (HOKKAIDO)

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For my last dinner in Hokkaido, I chose this tiny old izakaya in the rowdy Susukino district run by Chef Shigeki Echigo. The darn cute smile of his greeted me as I walked through the front door, and I immediately knew that I was in for a treat. One would never guess, from the outdated decor and the down-to-earth casual vibe at the restaurant, that this place was awarded 2 Michelin stars in the 2012 Hokkaido special edition. I felt right at home with the Shinsen family who fed me with the best of Hokkaido’s bounties. He whipped out a beautiful piece of grilled ginpou for me; something, he said, he only does for special customers. Ginpou (which means silver treasure in Japanese) is an extremely rare fish, only found off the coast of Kushiro in southeastern Hokkaido, and only 200-300 are caught per year. The texture was light, airy and fluffy. The flavor, due to its extremely high fat content, was sweet yet delicate. I have never tasted fish like this before- it was phenomenal.

IMG_4306My culinary journey through Japan in 2013 was educational, inspiring and downright delicious. I got to really explore the complex maze of Tokyo- the nooks and crannies- and make new discoveries on every street corner. I saw the countryside, the lakes and oceans, and reveled in the stunning beauty of this country. I tasted, I learned and I absorbed a whole lot of new information, and I met some amazing people along the way. It was a year of renewal and personal growth for me, and I am thankful for all of the friends, both old and new, who shared these memorable meals with me. I look forward to continuing this adventure in 2014.

But first, I’ll be writing a post of my most memorable dishes of 2013 outside of Japan.

Kodama- Tokyo, Japan

Once in a while a miracle happens when you least expect it, and a full spectrum of magic and wonder graces an enchanting evening.  Such is the case on a cold winter Saturday evening when I walk into Kodama to find 3 place settings on the counter and the chef, Tsutomu Kodama, alone in his empty restaurant.  We are the only reservations for that evening- a rare occurrence at this highly acclaimed 2 Michelin star restaurant in Nishi Azabu- and the chef had sent all of his staff home.  It is just the 3 of us and Chef Kodama with nothing to disturb our private tête-à-tête, an intimate experience that melds earnest conversation, cooking demonstration and delicious meal into one unforgettable night.

There is a quiet confidence about Chef Kodama, one charged by passion and blanketed in humility, inspired by curiosity and illuminated with creativity.  Having never apprenticed in a restaurant before, this young self-taught talent carries himself with the maturity and discipline of one who had been put through his fair share of rigorous kitchen trials under Japan’s notoriously daunting hierarchy. Perhaps it is this independence that makes him stand out from any other chef I have encountered- an honest, pure and relaxed approach to cooking- an untainted innocence almost. Or is this the beautiful consequence of our very private affair that we are blessed with this evening?

‘Good food should not weigh you down’ he says, as he prepares the first zensai course- a sincere intention that he puts into planning his meals, wanting to nourish his customer’s palates with well balanced seasonal ingredients, vibrant flavors and easily digestible garnishes without fatiguing the body.  I appreciate his healthy purist approach to dining after experiencing one too many physically and mentally exhausting meals of gorging on thick sauces and extravagant fatty cuts of protein.  This meal is emphatically different.

A refreshing tossed salad of wild torafugu at its winter peak blossoms with bright stimulating flavors, its lacy black skin skillfully sliced into gelatinous slivers and its pearly white flesh prepared into tender paper-thin cuts.  A strong yuzu aroma wafts through each successive bite that introduces delightful layers of titillating textures- the wonderful crunch of fugu skin and little pops of masago juxtaposed against a moist cushion of grated daikon.

A vivid green fuki no tou (butterbur sprouts) gratin, still bubbling under the darkening crispy char on its surface, in a cast iron bowl- a calling of spring as forests and mountains awaken to the birth of a new season.  A bright delicate bitterness fills my palate, just bordering on the verge of sweetness, as I savor every tender cut of warm butterbur coated in a luscious sauce made with little more than puréed butterbur.  It is fantastic in its simplicity, a celebration of savory bitterness and a tribute to nature.

It is with finesse and tenderness that Kodama handles his food, and the respect that he holds for his seasonal ingredients comes through in his creations.  He does little to the flavors- such beautiful flavors are not to be tampered with- and instead plays with textures and form. Sashimi, in what would traditionally be served as the tsukuri course, is surprisingly difficult to digest, Kodama educates us. So he layers fresh slices of succulent sea bream on zakkoku rice mixed with black beans, sesame, barley and azuki. The grains, along with tobiko roe and a deep green seaweed sauce of a slimy consistency (in the most pleasurable manner) add a carnival of textures and flavors.  Even the karasumi, Japanese bottarga, made in-house, is palatably low in sodium and full of roe flavor.  I feel the nutrients permeate into my bloodstream and I sigh, ever so contently. This, I could eat every day.

Rich creamy sacs of fugu shirako float in a lacquered bowl, suspended in a thick hearty broth of grated Shogoin kabura (large Kyoto turnips) seasoned with a touch of yuzu and ginger.  The shirako bursts with its sweet milky sap, a tincture of heaven that elevates this comforting bowl of soup into a decadent and spectacular elixir.

I realize with the next course that it has taken Chef Kodama years to prepare this meal.  Days, of course, to prep each ravishing component of our meal- from the karasumi that at the very least requires 10 days, to the pickled vegetables that we will encounter in the finale- but decades to master precise skills for fugu butchering and soba making. It is the abalone soba that first piqued my interest in Kodama and prompted me to make a reservation.  It does not, unsurprisingly, disappoint.

Elegant soba noodles, a brilliant matcha green hue, are mixed with seaweed and kneaded, rolled and cut by hand.  Kodama’s soba, tossed with thin slices of tender abalone, glides effortlessly across my tongue, full of deep ocean aromas and a pleasant koshi texture.  The phenomenal sauce made with abalone flesh and green innards that coats the noodles remains in the shell, and as if reading my mind, he hands me a plate of freshly baked rice flour bread, soft, plush and steaming with rich warmth, for me to lap up the sauce with.

Marbled slices of tender wagyu rib eye cook slowly over a bubbling broth of earthy mushrooms and grated renkon loosely packed into airy fluffy manju.  The bitter tang of powdered sansho keeps the heartiness of this divine dish in check where Kodama presents the beef not as the main course but as an exquisite garnish to highlight the beautifully prepared lotus root.

Every course is an extension of Chef Kodama’s thought and intention, poignant haikus that paint the colors, flavors and aromas of the seasons- but it is the comfort and simplicity of the last savory course where his soul shines through.  Homemade shibazuke, pickled cucumbers and eggplants, are especially crisp in texture, exploding with the brightness of ume and shiso flavors without the unpleasant saltiness that often weighs down commercial brands.  It harmonizes with the tai-meshi, a warm serving of moist sea bream and crusts of burnt rice that have caramelized along the edges of the stone pot- the left overs of which he lovingly prepares into perfect little triangular onigiri for us to take home.

Dessert is a revelation- I cannot remember, in all honesty, the last time I was ambushed by such originality and creativity in a sweets dish.  Ice cream made with Junmai Daiginjo sake lees is creamy and rich with a waft of fruity aromatics unique to fermentation.  It is layered with an amazake gelée that lends a hint more of sweetness and on the very top, hoshigaki (dried persimmon) wrapped strawberry cream cheese that bursts with an intense honey sweetness, bringing it all to a climax.

Kodama successfully and seemingly effortlessly integrates elegance, beauty and flavor into one unforgettable meal, from each ingredient that is carefully prepared with the diner’s health and well being in mind, to the lacquerware and ceramics that are designed by the chef himself in collaboration with local artisans.  Thoughtfulness and attention to detail create a perfect balance- and on that night, I am given exclusive access to quietly coexist in that state of perfection.  It is a sincere washoku experience where character and peacefulness preside over pretension. I bow in deep respect to this exceptional chef who has pampered me with an unforgettable private feast and I leave, smiling, riding high from this meal that has nourished my body and my soul to its very core.

Kodama

1-10-6 2F                                  Nishi Azabu, Minato-ku                            Tokyo, Japan                                                                                                                   (03) 3408-8865

Random trivia: Sake lees, rich in amino acids, are highly praised by Japanese women for their beauty benefits. They are used in hand creams, facial packs and creams for their skin brightening and whitening effects.

Sensational dishes of 2011

It was the year of craft beers, gastropubs, pop-ups, ramen, foraging, Asian street food, infusions, smoking, duck fat, fried chicken, Peruvian food, Nordic cuisine and pies.  2011, the year of the rabbit, was another exceptional year of fruitful culinary adventures around the world, new friendships that blossomed through memorable meals and gastronomic treasures inspired by passionate chefs who poured heart and soul into their craft.

My year, as usual, started off in Japan where I celebrated the new year with family and friends and enjoyed winter delicacies in the best restaurants in Tokyo.  Then across the globe I went in spring, to New Delhi, India where I sampled Indian street food and ventured down to Kerala for Southern Indian cuisine. It was then that the tragic news of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami struck, and I took an unexpected and bittersweet return home to Japan for medical volunteer work. It was wonderful to see numerous chefs in the US and Japan stand up for the occasion and donate their time and services to raise money for earthquake and tsunami relief.

Later that spring I took my first step into the South where a casual weekend road trip through the Carolinas and Virginia turned out to be one of the most memorable and fun gastronomic trips of my life.  I never knew that there was such history, such energy and so many beautiful flavors in this region of the US, and I quickly fell in love with Southern food.

The end of the summer was spent in Haiti for a cholera outbreak project, where my biggest impression, from comparing it to a year and a half ago when I first went after the big earthquake, was that there was very little progress.  Millions of dollars worth of donated pledges have not come to form yet in this developing country where many still live in tents with no access to clean water and sanitation.

Then autumn came, the leaves turned yellow and I found myself infatuated with the restaurant scene in San Francisco.  I spent many hours at the Ferry Building eating burgers, drinking coffee, lining up for pastries and buying charcuterie. Where else can one find amazing food right now? Baja California. I took 3 trips south of the border this year with the last one in October for the first Baja Culinary Festival where I was spoiled with fresh sea urchin, octopus, clams and fish from the Pacific.

Then winter came, I made my pilgrimage back to Japan, and just like that- 2011 was over.  Through it all there were some exceptional dishes that left a lasting impression on my palate and my heart- dishes that I can still taste and smell as if it were right in front of me, and will forever be engrained in my life as a delicious memory. Some flavors were new to me while others were familiar and comforting, but all were beautiful and full of life.

Saint-Sever foie gras- Chef Yoshihiro Narisawa, Les Créations de Narisawa (Tokyo, Japan)

My first restaurant meal of 2011 was at the acclaimed 2 Michelin star Les Créations de Narisawa in Tokyo, Japan, where Chef Narisawa draws inspiration from nature.  The Saint-Sever foie gras dish was poêléed in red wine vinegar and fond de veau, then finished with balsamic vinegar and strawberries- a perfect balance of acidity, sweetness and the rich savor of foie gras.

Naruto Tai Nitsuke- Chef Kenzo Sato, Shigeyoshi (Tokyo, Japan)

My favorite restaurant in the world is Shigeyoshi in Tokyo, a 2 Michelin star establishment that has maintained the same level of service and excellent food for the last 40 years.  This is what I look forward to the most when visiting Japan- sitting at the counter in front of Chef Sato and watching him prepare each dish as we engage in conversation.  This year a traditional tai no nitsuke, sea bream head from Naruto gently simmered in a soy ginger sake broth, captured my heart.  The flesh was tender and the flavors were comforting- something that I could eat every day of the year and smile after every satisfying bite.

Awabi no kimo- Chef Taira, Kyubei Sushi (Tokyo, Japan)

There are many stellar sushi restaurants in Japan- how does one choose the best?  It’s about finding 1 or 2 favorite places and establishing a long lasting relationship with a sushi shokunin.  I’ve been going to Kyubei in Ginza every year since I was a teenager, and Taira san understands my palate like no other.  He always makes this dish for me- abalone innards simmered in abalone broth with rice, sake and a splash of mitsuba for texture and freshness.  There is something about the bitterness of the abalone innards that I absolutely love and I simply cannot imagine starting off the year without this dish at Kyubei.

Konju tiger prawns- The Backwaters of Alleppey on a Houseboat (Kerala, India)

A visit to Kerala in Southern India is not complete without a relaxing houseboat tour on the backwaters of Alleppey.  The boat slowly traverses through the murky waters of Alleppey, gliding past quaint villages and lush jungle-like vegetation.  We picked up some Konju tiger prawns along the way from a local fisherman, giant prawns the size of my face with impressively long emerald blue claws.  They were marinated in Kerala spices of cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and turmeric and flash fried in the pan to a crisp.  A lazy afternoon sprawled out on the deck of the houseboat, staring out onto the vast waters of Southern India while noshing on meaty prawns is an experience that I will never forget.

Crispy fried pig ears- Chef Sean Brock, Husk Restaurant (Charleston, SC)

A visit to the South this past spring was an eye opening experience for me.  With Chef Sean Brock as my trusted tour guide at both of his restaurants, my adventure into Southern cuisine was educational, memorable and downright delicious.  My dinner at Husk was my favorite meal of 2011 thanks to many sensational dishes that highlighted Southern ingredients, including crispy fried pig ears, soaked in tangy vinegar and served in a lettuce cup with preserved butter bean chow chow.

Beef cheek with hay-smoked milk- Chef John Shields, Town House (Chilhowie, VA)

Many chefs played around with hay and wood this past year, smoking, charring and burning them to extract unique aromas.  It was John Shields’ Pastoral dish at Town House during my road trip through the South that demonstrated the allure of this trend the most successfully.  Tender beef cheek was drizzled with hay-smoked milk and decorated with edible herbs and flowers, a well thought out dish that was both visually and conceptually inspirational.  The smoked hay lingered on my palate for what seemed like an eternity, perfuming each cell in my body with the beautiful aromas of nature.

Sanda wagyu beef tongue dango- Sanda (Tokyo, Japan)

Only in Japan can a restaurant specializing in beef offals elevate organ meats to Michelin star level.  At Sanda, they char Sanda Wagyu pancreas, poach tendons, steam lungs and braise cheeks.  Sanda is a culinary temple for offal aficionados, and I became enamored with their beef tongue and throat cartilage dango soup, a soft airy meatball made with succulent tongue and crunchy cartilage for added texture.  I experienced a moment of peace and serenity as I sipped the savory broth to its last drop.

Uni, junsai, yuzu- Chef Koji Koizumi, Kohaku (Tokyo, Japan)

A newcomer to the Tokyo restaurant scene but already awarded 2 Michelin stars, my kaiseki meal at Kohaku in Tokyo was a breathtaking demonstration of finesse, understated beauty and harmony.  The first course was a study in textures and flavors- diced cucumbers, slippery junsai, and yuzu gelée that enveloped and highlighted the buttery sweetness of summer uni.  Kohaku is a culinary oasis in the middle of Tokyo where one can experience true Japanese hospitality.

Smoked steelhead roe with French toast- Chef Craig Thornton, Wolvesden (Los Angeles, CA)

Chef Craig Thornton’s Wolvesden is no underground secret anymore, although reservations for his private dinners are still notoriously difficult to score.  At one such dinner this past year, he challenged the traditional and classic concepts of a meal and reversed the order of his dishes. He started with dessert, served meat before fish and even incorporated breakfast inspired courses throughout the dinner.  French toast drizzled with maple syrup and a side of smoked bacon sounds like the perfect morning meal- here Thornton decorated cinnamon ice cream with pearls of bright orange smoked steelhead roe, green apple slices and a side drizzle of maple syrup.  The result? An explosion of climactic flavors- smoky, sweet and savory, all at once.

Heirloom rice porridge- Chef Jordan Kahn, Red Medicine (Los Angeles, CA)

Red Medicine is where I like to take out-of-town food aficionados so I can prove to them that there is something to be said about the Los Angeles dining scene.  Chef Kahn’s desserts are without question some of the best in the city- and the country- demonstrating his unique style of sensibility, beauty and grace.  Although he is a renowned pastry chef by trade, his savory dishes at Red Medicine are quite incredible as well.  I can still remember my first bite into the heirloom rice porridge served with a bright orange ‘Kelley’s mom’s’ farm egg, Santa Barbara red uni, hazelnuts, ginseng, brassicas, liquid ginger, fried shallots and broccoli purée.  I was hesitant about eating rice porridge at a non-Asian establishment, but that first heavenly bite almost brought tears to my eyes.  At once comforting and familiar but also new, interesting and refreshing, this is one dish that everybody should eat.

Earth’s deep perfumes- Chef Roberto Cortez, CR8 dinner (Los Angeles, CA)

My first of 3 meals at Chef Roberto Cortez’s private CR8 dinners was quite an experience.  Textures, flavors, music, aromas and tactile sensations came together for a well orchestrated meal that touched me on a deep emotional level.  Food can evoke memories and make us feel in ways that we haven’t in a long time, and Cortez’s risotto with crunchy ground coffee and Syrah glaze did just that for me.  Shiitake mushroom cappuccino coupled with the bitterness of coffee took me down memory lane to a place of love and sorrow.

32 and 70-day aged pigeon, cherry blossoms- Chef Joshua Skenes, Saison (San Francisco, CA)

One of the most exciting restaurants in the US right now is Saison in San Francisco where Chef Joshua Skenes concentrates flavors through aging and roasts proteins over hot embers to extract its fine essences.  This past autumn I indulged in an astounding tasting menu at the chef’s table inside the kitchen where he presented a 32 day aged pigeon, its cavity salted and roasted over cherry wood, and a 70 day aged pigeon, left unsalted, likewise roasted and served with a glass of rosé infused with salted cherry blossoms.  So much work for just a sliver of pungent breast meat, but worth every delectable bite- the 70 day aged pigeon meat was a surprising sensation for me, dark concentrated crimson meat with a thick waxy texture that tasted just like Epoisse, aka heaven.

Tuetano de Res Rostizado- Chef Javier Plascencia, Mision 19 (Tijuana, Mexico)

When I tell people about my trips down to Tijuana, people always ask why. ‘For the food’, I reply, to which I am met with skeptical and quizzical looks.  There is a budding culinary scene in Baja California with Chef Javier Plascencia at its forefront, and on a recent trip down south of the border for the 1st Baja Culinary Festival, he amazed me again with his innovative and exquisite cuisine.  Roasted bone marrow topped with generous chunks of tender Yellowfin tuna, brightened with the popping textures of tobiko roe, a side of crunchy salicornia and Serrano foam was just brilliant.

Pear, Quince, Sage- Chef Dominique Crenn & Pastry Chef Juan Contreras, Atelier Crenn (San Francisco, CA)

Autumn turns to winter, and soft powdery snow blankets the dying autumn leaves in this outstanding dessert served at the end of an exceptional tasting meal at Atelier Crenn, one of my best and most memorable meals of the year.  While I wish that I could list every single dish of Chef Dominique Crenn’s tasting menu on this ‘best of’ list, I choose this dessert, made by her pastry chef Juan Contreras.  Edible hibiscus leaves mingle with yogurt sage powder, pink quince granité and crunchy phyllo dough around a pear sorbet that is shaped into a perfectly frosted miniature pear.  It is served with a dessert consommé of vanilla beans and spices that are infused into a broth on a tabletop siphon coffee maker- love at first sight and until the last bite.

Peruvian Cau-Cau- Chef Ricardo Zarate, Picca (Los Angeles, CA)

Chef Ricardo Zarate’s new restaurant Picca was a breath of fresh air in the Los Angeles culinary scene this year.  Anticuchos of beef heart and black cod charred over hot Japanese coal and signature ceviches spiked with aji amarillo have become standards in my weekly dining repertoire, but there was one comfort dish that he made during a special themed dinner that captured my attention and my heart.  Peruvian potato and tripe stew, cau-cau, with braised honeycomb tripe that melted in my mouth like butter was a bowl that I would like to eat over and over again.  Earthy hearty flavors with a touch of turmeric, dressed with piquant salsa and a drizzle of cumin yogurt was just what the doctor prescribed, and what this talented and amazing chef provided on that unusually chilly evening.

During 2011 I was introduced to new cuisines, impressed by new flavors and intrigued by new foods.  I met some amazing chefs who inspired me to continue exploring the world and the possibilities of how food can enhance and complement our lives- from Sean Brock to Dominique Crenn to Roberto Cortez, and I am truly thankful for the continued friendships with exceptional chefs like Ricardo Zarate, Craig Thornton, and Javier Plascencia.  2011 was an amazing year, as you can see, but I have a feeling that 2012 will be even better as I write this entry from Tokyo, Japan and plan for some delicious trips to Europe and beyond.  May your 2012, the year of the dragon, be a fulfilling and delicious year!

Atelier Crenn- San Francisco, CA

There is a place in San Francisco called Atelier Crenn.  It is a restaurant, a gallery and a workshop where a gifted artisan creates edible landscapes of ocean, forest and garden- breathtaking plates of ‘poetic culinaria’ where one journeys not only through metaphoric compositions of vibrant colors and shapes, but also through literal translations of intense ripe flavors.  It is a place of beauty and splendor, much like its chef Dominique Crenn, whose creations show us an honest appreciation of nature’s bounties while confidently impressing with her unique gift for stunning artistry.  Intricate arrangements of perfectly prepared elements reflect deep thought and careful intention, drawing us into its alluring imagery that ultimately intoxicates with bold flavors and seductive aromas- each plate, a sonnet that celebrates life, and each bite, an elixir of life.

I have been graced with Chef Crenn’s presence a year ago when she took me by the hand and led me into her world of provocative wonder at, what was for me, the best of the Test Kitchen dinners- a poached egg blanketed in a coat of winter truffle snow, lightly fired venison frolicking in a meadow of pea shoots and buckwheat, and a sloping hillside of quinoa and quince, all a thought provoking inspiration.

This time she leads me down, down into the rabbit hole, to another one of her enchanting fairytales. The journey begins at Table 21, the best table in the house with a direct view into the kitchen where Crenn orchestrates magical symphonies of hot and cold, vegetables and meat, and savory and sweet.  In the minimalist dining room, service flows effortlessly by a tight team operation that elevates the experience to supreme excellence, attention given to each wanton crumb that may threaten the perfection of the poetic fantasy.  There is a palpable feeling of genuine love for the craft by all working at Atelier Crenn, an infectious love that emanates from its inspirational source, the chef, which transcends throughout the evening to create one of the most memorable dining experiences.

Pear, Pumpkin, Foie Gras

An amuse of fall flavors descends onto the table, cold foie pearls tickling our tongues and mingling with the sweetness of pear cubes.  There are spiced pumpkin seeds and crispy bread, textural contrasts to the luscious creamy pear custard.

Trout Skin, Caviar, Rouille

Nestled within a carpet of fallen autumn leaves is a crispy trout skin chicharrón, curled at the edges, crackling with delightfully unrelenting vigor with bursts of salty trout roe and saffron rouille flavors.

Yuba, Daikon, Orange

There are more playful textures for our palates to take pleasure in, a fragile frame of crispy yuba that shatters into a million delicious pieces around pickled daikon ribbons that are tightly bound like balls of knitting yarn.  There are orange aioli dots and edible flowers of purple and yellow, signature adornments that find their way throughout the tasting dinner to remind us of the grace and finesse of this gifted female chef.

Kir Breton

Three perfect white orbs are served for the next course, delicate thin spheres of white chocolate with crème de cassis reduction nipples, worthy of a centerpiece at a Mad Hatter’s party.  Dainty little morsels they are, Crenn’s rendition of Kir Royale in a mouthful- liquid filled chocolate so delicate that we are instructed not to grasp them with our fingers, but to raise the slate up to our mouths- yet an explosion of sparkling draft cider from the collapsed chocolate shell is anything but.  It is at once shocking, exhilarating and arousing.

‘Le Jardin’

A terrarium of vibrant vegetables comes next, some pickled, some fresh, some erect and some draped, an elegant microcosm interspersed with pearly puffed quinoa and crispy wild rice that gives the root vegetable medley a touch of playfulness.  There are parsnips, beets, radishes and carrots, a real life garden almost too beautiful to eat, but once consumed, demands a nod to the chef who has treated these vegetables with the utmost love and respect.

Oyster ‘Japonaise’- Sake, Mirin, Tapioca, Sea beans, Crème fraîche

Kusshi oysters are poached in sake and beurre blanc then served, still warm, under a cloud of Meyer lemon foam and tarragon leaves.  The briny treasures dance in a splashing ocean of slippery tapioca pearls and sake cubes while on land, just by the shore, a crunchy twig of salicornia releases subtle nuances of salinity.

Soba gnocchi, Ginger, Ume, Galanga

Buckwheat soba flour rolled into bite sized gnocchi are pillowy soft, saturated with a hearty ginger consommé that is accented with droplets of ume purée, a salty but comforting broth that we sip, quietly, to the last drop.  Crenn has a way with her dishes, a style of relaxed confidence and subdued ingenuity that I really love, where every detail is a thoughtful character in a romantic fable- from the scallion that is seared just the right amount to enhance the broth, to the shrub of crispy fried scallion root that sways like fan coral.

‘Ocean and Land’- Wagyu beef, Smoked sturgeon, Red Onion, Capers, Cornichon

Crenn’s rendition of beef tartare strews its components across the plate- shaved cornichon curled ever so gently, a black sesame chip resting at a perfect slant to catch the light and red onion gel cubes placed just so- movement and migration from ocean to land.  Each bite of Wagyu beef is a different experience depending on which components find their way onto the fork- it may be a jolt of horseradish custard that pierces upward through my nose, poached mustard seeds and fried capers that elegantly crunch under my bite or a potent smokiness that melts, then permeates into my palate from the smoked sturgeon pearls.  It is a splendid dish that dances on the plate and comes to life in my mouth.

Carrot Sorbet, Aloe, Quinoa, Micro Thai mint, Pansies

Just when I think that the dinner cannot get any better, Crenn serves a glass plate of carrot sorbet, a creamy quenelle with the sweetness of a hundred carrots and the brightness of a thousand summers.  It is augmented with contrasting textures of slippery aloe gel and crunchy fried quinoa, an altogether delight of intense flavors and joyful textures that finds its way into my sweet spot and lingers, lovingly.

Foie Gras ‘Log’- Apple, Vanilla, Cocoa Nib, Balsamic Vinegar

Foie gras is poached in milk, flash frozen, shaved and allowed to slowly melt to form a fine network of miniscule cracks on its surface that resembles a tree bark.  The longitudinal shavings continue to melt in my mouth into liquid gold, mingling with tart balsamic gelée and dots of apple and vanilla purée that are ever so perfectly sweet.  Crenn, in signature style, keeps the textures alive by garnishing the foie with a crispy coconut wafer sprinkled with cocoa nibs in this dish where I find the only criticism of the entire tasting dinner- that there is too much foie (quantity, not quality)- which speaks volumes about the experience.

‘Walk in the Forest’- Champignons, Pumpernickel, Pine, Hazelnut

Crenn takes us on a walk through a serene forest where a medley of mushrooms rests on a soft carpet of burnt pine meringue, bruléed to exquisite bitterness.  There is a tinge of vinegar in the background, just the perfect amount to balance the intense concentrated earthiness of the tossed fungi- chanterelles, maitake and royal trumpets.  Follow the markers of purple pansy petals along the woven path to the majestic king of the forest, a dehydrated royal trumpet mushroom sliced paper thin, standing tall and proud over the only forest that I wouldn’t mind getting lost in.

Trou Normand- African Rooibos

Suited waitstaff with serious expressions appear like a funeral procession bearing heavy stone coffins that are set on the table with a deep thud.  Yet once opened, there is life inside, and it is a beautiful life, one that evokes childhood memories of a creamsicle with sweet orange granité, African rooibos tea sorbet made light and smooth, and honey sweet chunks of winter persimmons at their peak.

Steelhead Trout ‘Basquaise’- Romesco, Olive, Pearl Onion, Lemon

Sous vide steelhead trout is perfectly rare and delicately moist, a handsome specimen of fish flavored with rich romesco mussel foam and adorned with crown jewels of pickled red onions, smoked buckwheat and dehydrated picholine olives that turn to ash at the gentle touch of the fork.

Guinea Hen ‘Thailandaise’- Coconut, Cilantro, Basil, Ginger, Chanterelles, Bok Choy

Tender cuts of guinea hen are sexy in a Thai preparation with luscious coconut custard, lime and cilantro purée, bok choy and a dusting of snow white coconut powder.  The flavors are solid, but once again, Crenn’s mastery of textures refines the dish as the crispy poultry skin crunches between my teeth as do the little shards of fried Thai basil crumble that ultimately steal the show.

Goat, Salsify, Lentils, Butternut squash, Grapefruit

It is a celebration of goat 3 ways and many have come to partake in the festivities.  There is a log of tender butternut squash topped with a dollop of yogurt and a crispy rice saffron chip.  Ruby Red grapefruit cells glisten like dew drops over fresh radishes, and crispy quinoa is sprinkled over strings of fresh salsify pasta like confetti.  Lentils- oh the lentils- they are cooked in a generous pool of butter and stock to get that ideal hearty consistency and flavor.  Two cuts of goat loin are delicious, but the fatty cut of goat belly, topped with a thin layer of crisped skin, simply melts in my mouth.

Cheese Board

There are 4 types of cheeses, from a Tomme de Belley to a wedge of soft Sofia with blue ash streaks that go particularly well with a smear of honey.

Eucalyptus, Lemon, Honey

Atelier Crenn’s talented pastry chef Juan Contreras steps up to the plate for the remainder of the tasting dinner where we see his talent come to life in breathtaking desserts that are inspired by nature.  Eucalyptus, lemon and honey lollipops are kept cold at the base of a eucalyptus arrangement, its astringent aromas released into the air as we grab a branch that doubles as a lollipop stick.  The cool creamy disc melts with ease inside my mouth and a wind tunnel of frigid tingling freshness forms in my nares as I deeply inhale and exhale.

Pear, Quince, Sage

A beautiful Japanese siphon coffee maker joins us at Table 21 and the fire is turned on to start the dessert consommé.  Hot water percolates up from the indigo flames of the bunsen burner into the glass above, slowly darkening into a rich amber hue from the gradual infusion of vanilla beans, cinnamon, allspice, star anise, citrus peels and pansy petals.

Autumn turns to winter- the change of the seasons drops the first layer of powder snow onto a carpet of red leaves- edible hibiscus leaves of tawny red and spoonfuls of bright pink quince granité peek through a layer of soft yogurt sage powder.  The powder has quietly settled onto the sloping edge of a pear, or rather a pear sorbet shaped into a miniature pear, pristine, frosted and beautiful enough for a Christmas ornament.  There are subtle flavors of brown butter that deepen through each consecutive sip of the warm consommé, and within each icy spoonful of this sensational dessert comes a delightful little crunch- phyllo dough sliced so thin that it is barely visible to the naked eye, baked and incorporated into the mound of blissful sweetness.

Mignardises

Mignardises and petit fours always seem like an afterthought at restaurants, a final course offered for the sake of ritual only, ultimately disappointing with uninspiring bites that fall flat.  For the first time in my life, I feel genuine delight and absolute joy- Contreras’ smorgasbord of delectable mignardises are just as incredible as his desserts.  There are kalamansi marshmallows under a bonsai tree, French nougats too, and blueberry and ceylon pate de fruit, raspberry and cinnamon pate de fruit and the best of the bunch, Maldon sea salt caramels that are oh so heavenly.

There are cookies and lemon zest madeleines too.

And dark chocolate boards, chocolate passion fruit ganache, chocolate marshmallows and coffee cream cylinders coated with crunchy white chocolate balls.

How is it that this decadent meal can be so consistently excellent, course after course, with the only single criticism being a pompous one of too much foie gras on one plate?  Crenn is a master of flavors, extracting the purest of flavor profiles and essences from each ingredient and carefully presenting them in unison to manifest her romantic inspirations.  There is a thoughtfulness of textures, be it crispy capers and poached mustard seeds that crunch ever so delicately, hints of fried quinoa juxtaposed against silken sorbet or a gush of carbonated liquid from a slowly melting chocolate shell.  Her food is engaging and captivating, creating a delicious fantasy where we are allowed to be its hero, navigating through each course and evolving, together, with her visions.
Thank you, Chef Dominique Crenn, for this exquisite meal- I hope that upon my return, Atelier Crenn will be awarded with the 2 Michelin stars that I believe it deserves.

Atelier Crenn

3127 Fillmore Street                                                                                                         San Francisco, CA 94123
(415) 440-0460

Random trivia: Did you know that the collective name for a group of guinea hens is a ‘confusion’?

Mystery Meat Dinner at Picca- Los Angeles

Done are the days of murder mystery dinners where diners sit through complex plots of set-ups, betrayals and killings woven through appetizers and entrees, and sift through side dishes of problem solving hints for an entertaining evening of detective work.  We’re not so interested in the whodunit anymore- the question being asked at Picca this season is ‘What is it’?   To kick off Picca’s new Sunday dinner hours, LA’s most beloved Chef Ricardo Zarate hosted a Mystery Meat Dinner, a 6 course meal of mystery animal parts served in his signature Peruvian style.  ‘What is it?’ was the only question that the normally kind and helpful Picca staff were refusing to answer that evening, tight-lipped and dismissive until the very end of the meal when the menu was revealed only to those adventurous diners who came to sate their curious appetites.

Course 1

Hint: Bite sized portions of white meat, moist and tender inside with a bold spicy char on its crust, revealing little tiny edible bones inside, leading me to believe that it was rattlesnake, and for another diner guinea pig.  It was a juicy cut of meat, very light with no gaminess or heaviness- like chicken, perhaps alligator- paired with Zarate’s aji amarillo salsa, a creamy huancaina rustica so full of flavor and vigor, paired with a brightly acidic beet salad.

What is it?

Culito de pollo a la brasa (chicken butt)

Course 2

Hint: Dark rich braised meat with an intense bold flavor, a hint of iron within the tender fibers that succumbed effortlessly to the fork, its intensity balanced by the tart onion and cilantro topping, perched on a creamy barley risotto that had a distinct delightful give to its texture.  It tasted and felt like braised oxtail but that would’ve make it too easy for a mystery meat dinner.  On the other side of the plate, Zarate served a crostini of similar dark moist meat mixed with spicy chorizo and topped with scallions.  Were they different cuts of the same animal, or two completely different mystery meats?  The servers would only smirk and shrug their shoulders to such inquiries, refusing to spill the beans until the menu reveal.

What is it?

Alpaca two ways: alpaca stew with barley risotto, alpaca and chorizo crostini

Course 3

Hint: Finally, a recognizable form of tubular connective tissue, cuts of obvious intestine braised to exquisite tenderness, marinated in anticucho sauce and seared ever so slightly to seal in those wonderful spicy and acidic flavors into each bite.  The surprising showstopper of this course was the potatoes, a juxtaposition of crispy crunchy thick potato skin to the soft, moist and buttery flesh within, dressed with a rocoto sauce so spicy that it brought me to tears- tears of joy.

What is it?

Choncholin: braised intestine marinated in anticucho sauce

Course 4

Hint: There is no mistaking a good cut of offal, and the distinct pentagonal lattice of honeycomb tripe in the homey stew was an easily solved mystery for this detective.  A touch of turmeric gave this hearty potato and tripe stew a beautiful golden hue and an earthy aroma, warming every cell in my body with each satisfying bite.  Zarate must have braised the tripe all day, for each cut was as tender as the potatoes, simply melting in my mouth with the ease of butter.  That evening’s cau-cau was dressed with jalapeño salsa and cumin yogurt, but I much prefer the traditional preparation of piquant chimichurri that Zarate has done before.

What is it?

Cau-cau: Peruvian potato and tripe stew

Course 5

Hint: As an offal aficionado, course 5 was another easy mystery for this private investigator to solve.  Spongy dark iron-rich cuts of meat with small hollow airways couldn’t be anything other than beef lung, prepared in a comforting stew with tender potatoes and giant kernels of Peruvian mote (corn).  On this particularly chilly evening, this nourishing and wholesome stew was a most welcome dish to savor, down to the very last morsel of lung.

What is it?

Chanfainita: beef lung stew

Course 6

Hint: Although Zarate is famous for his anticuchos, ceviches and arroz con pollo, I have always loved his desserts, and this was no exception.  Thick tender cuts of stewed apples and quince in a vivid purple glaze were spooned over a creamy rice pudding with a heavy dusting of cinnamon on top.  It tasted like chica morada, a beverage staple on Mo-Chica’s menu made from purple corn (maiz morada), and we soon discovered that this mazamorra morada dessert was made from the same ingredient.  Just as I was relishing this beautiful dessert, something bitter, intensely sour and splintery got caught between my teeth.  It was an inch long sliver of fine dark brown fibers.  It was an insect leg.

What is it?

Chapulines (Oaxacan grasshoppers), mazzamora morada

A mystery meat dinner themed around exotic animal meats and unorthodox cuts of offal may be off-putting for some, but with Chef Zarate as its chef and host, it was exactly the reason why I rearranged my work schedule on that Sunday evening to make it a priority.  Zarate is an experienced chef with these proteins and knows how to work his magic with these exotic flavor profiles, using bold Peruvian spices and salsas to brighten each dish.  The huancaina rustica that augmented the chicken, the rustic anticucho sauce seared onto the choncholin and the satisfying liquid of stewed cau-cau at this Mystery Meat Dinner made for my favorite meal by Chef Zarate to date.  The choncholin, in particular, swept me off my feet with its smokey flavors and beautifully prepared potatoes.

Now, suddenly, I was plagued with a bigger mystery- ‘Will I ever see these dishes again?’ You must put these on the menu at Picca, I demanded, to which Zarate hinted, with a knowing smile, that these may make a regular appearance on the menu at his upcoming new restaurant, Mo-Chica on Seven.  With that final mystery solved, all was well again in the land of Picca.

Picca

9575 West Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90035.

Tel: 310 277 0133

Random trivia: According to local myth, once you try chapulines in Oaxaca, you will never leave.  This probably means that once you sample Oaxaca’s extraordinary cuisine, then you take a piece of Oaxaca with you and you will return again.

Brunch at Husk- Charleston, SC

Nothing says Southern hospitality like a slice of pecan pie, served up with a dollop of freshly whipped cream and a heavy dose of love.  When that pie is served at the end of a meal by Sean Brock, you can smile like a lottery winner and know that you just experienced one of the best darn meals that you’ve ever had.  That’s how he finished our dinner at Husk earlier this year, still fresh in my memory as if it were just yesterday, a fascinating glimpse into the history, culture and flavors of Southern cooking.

Chef Sean Brock is a coveted 2010 James Beard Award winner for Best Chef Southeast and runs the kitchens of two restaurants in Charleston, South Carolina- Husk and McCrady’s- and if you spend a little time with him you’ll quickly see that this Dixie sensation is pure heart and soul.  He wears his pride on his sleeves- quiet literally, a vibrant collage of vegetables tattooed on every inch of his upper limb from wrist to shoulder- and summons the plentiful bounties of regional ingredients to create a most spectacular and memorable menu at Husk.  ‘If it ain’t Southern, it ain’t coming in the door’, he has said, and he indulged me with vinegar spiked crispy pig ears, buttermilk drizzled Capers Blade oysters, cornbread cooked in bacon fat and soft shell crab studded with pearly benne seeds for an unforgettable dinner that special evening.  It was later that night, somewhere between a glass of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve and his signature laugh (the most infectious jolly guffaw that has ever graced this earth) that he invited my party to come back for brunch, and we happily accepted with great honor.

Husk is all about Southern food, and Southern food done right, using only the best of the south-of-the-Mason-Dixon-line ingredients cultivated and raised by local farmers.  Brock is a Southerner himself, born and raised, and he has the gift to unlock and extract the true flavors from each ingredient, creating dishes inspired by his grandmother’s cooking and channeled by his creativity.  That evening he mesmerized us with the magical flavors of farm fresh vegetables layered with preserved ones, the allure of pickled legumes juxtaposed against the puckering acidity of homemade vinegar, and the alchemy of smoking chocolate.

Thus we found ourselves on the second floor balcony of his 19th century restored building-turned-restaurant, basking in the warm sunlight to a chorus of chirping birds for Sunday brunch just 3 days after our epic dinner at Husk.  It started with a classic plate of biscuits and gravy, moist buttery squares of black pepper biscuits drizzled with a thick blanket of cream infused with chunks of Benton’s sausage.

One of our favorite dinner courses made an encore for brunch, wood fired clams with Benton’s bacon, only this time sans samp grits and instead, with fingerling potatoes, sweet field peas and a beautifully savory cream sauce that we gulped down to the last drop with spoons and bread, for it was the best clam chowder of the South.

Then there were spicy maple pig ears, glazed chewy cartilage piled high on a slice of seared Anson Mills buckwheat scrapple just waiting to be bathed in nutrient rich liquid gold- the lighter gold of Hollandaise, and the deeper vibrant orange lava that oozed from the glorious farm fresh poached eggs.

The soft shell crabs that Brock procured for Husk that season were particularly magnificent and regal specimens, appearing in our dinner with a vibrant green pea sauce and that morning for brunch, deep fried with a thick slice of toast topped with melted Tennessee cheddar and a fried egg.  Refusing to take a back seat to this hearty crab ‘Monte Cristo’ was a Surry sausage and fingerling potato hash on the side, salty, savory and equally satisfying.

And how about them fried chicken and waffles, the ultimate Sunday brunch (or late night, depending on your lifestyle) comfort food, a most satisfying combination of juicy bird with warm toasted waffles and a shot of sweet maple syrup.  Husk’s version was supreme- crunchy golden batter encrusting moist dark meat, served right out of the fryer to release hot steam at the first cut.  Splashes of Brock’s signature Husk hot sauce gave it the finishing touch, kicking the flavors up to transcendent Southern proportions.

I remember Brock mentioning his cheeseburger at the time that he invited us over for brunch, but it didn’t quite register with me then.  Cheeseburger, here in the South, for brunch?  At Husk, yes.  Benton’s hickory-smoked bacon is ground straight into locally sourced grass-fed beef and made into thin double patties that are seared in his wood-fired oven.  Then they’re topped with gooey American cheese that melts patiently, slowly, right down the sides, spiked with pickles and some secret sauce, and snuggled right between a pair of soft buns.  ‘It’s probably my favorite thing in the entire world,’ Brock has said affectionately of his cheeseburger, and if it weren’t for the fact that I had to split this bacon-infused delight 4 ways with the others, it would be mine too.

One mustn’t leave Charleston without sampling the grits- the pride, joy, identity and lifeline of the South- and who better to prepare them for us than our very own chef who has been cultivating heirloom grains and seeds in a preservation effort to revive antebellum crops?  At Husk we savored a beautiful serving of yellow Anson Mills grits, creamy, rich, hearty, a little coarse (just how I like them) and happily doused with butter.

Cruze Family buttermilk pancakes as wide as the plate came fluffy and moist, cooked evenly through to the center for that same delicious first and last bite, with a trio of sweets to brighten the palate-  candy red Florida strawberry compote, vanilla whipped cream and Virginia maple syrup.

It was a peaceful and warm Sunday morning in downtown Charleston when we had this meal, a brunch to remember over endless laughs and good conversation with like-palated friends. Southern food, we were learning that weekend, through other meals at McCrady’s, Townhouse and Scott’s BBQ, is a tradition steeped in an extraordinary history of labor and love.  What a thrill to be able to nourish my soul with the flavors of the South (bacon, grits, fried chicken and pig ears!) and the essence of Brock’s soul food.  This brunch at Husk is a meal that I will always- always- remember, one of the best darn meals that I’ve ever had, cooked with love, served with care and finished off with a slice of pecan pie.

Husk
76 Queen Street
Charleston, South Carolina 29401
(843) 577-2500

Random trivia:  No one is quite sure of the true origins of Chicken & Waffles, one commonly thought to be of Southern origin, but food historians trace it back to 1938 at Wells Supper Club in Jazz Age Harlem.

Rogue Upstairs with Chef Tien Ho- Los Angeles

Underground supper clubs.  Secretive, exclusive privileges granted only to those who are lucky enough to know somebody who knows somebody, or to those diligent food-obsessed detectives whose persistence will eventually pay off in the form of an invitation to an incognito world of food and wine.  It may take you to a warehouse or lead you into a private mansion, sometimes even through the attic of a furniture factory (I have done all three)- but at the end of the road there is always a special meal, one that will never repeat itself except in the memories of those who experience it.  New to the world of LA supper clubs is Rogue Upstairs, with its very first dinner featuring a wonderful collaboration of Momofuku alums.

The dinner was set in a beautiful apartment upstairs from Silverlake’s Intelligentsia, where attendees were welcomed with champagne and canapés to a breathtaking balcony view of the hip neighborhood.  The real charm of the space, however, was inside, a home turned art gallery where each piece of art had a story that the host, Stella Café owner Gareth Kantner, was more than happy to share- mostly of starving artists whom he discovered, sculptures that he commissioned or acquisitions made during his extensive travels.  He has exceptional taste in art- this man who seems to know everybody in LA, and whom everybody in LA seems to know- and as we were about to see, an extraordinary gift for throwing an amazing dinner party.

The first guest chef to start off the Rogue Upstairs series was Chef Tien Ho, Vietnamese born and Houston raised chef who, after working as sous chef for Café Boulud, quickly rose to Momofuku fame.  He ran the kitchen at Momofuku Ssäm Bar for 4 years before opening Momofuku Má Pêche where his modern interpretation of Beef 7 Ways (Bò 7 món) broke new ground in contemporary Vietnamese cuisine.  Having just left his position at Má Pêche, Rogue Upstairs was graced with his presence and his food for 2 special nights in collaboration with another Momofuku alum, former GM and beverage director Cory Lane who oversaw the wine pairings.

California Uni/Peach/Scallion

Generous heaps of succulent Santa Barbara uni topped with diced peaches and scallion slivers made for a most phenomenal amuse, paired with 2007 Domaine Rolet Crémant du Jura sparkling wine.  There were multiple servings for all 14 guests who swooned and swirled with every sweet spoonful.

Chicken Liver Toast/Pickled Daikon/Cilantro

Warm canapés of chicken liver toast topped with pickled daikon, pickled carrots, cilantro and red chile sauce were the best rendition of bánh mì in a bite, the tangy acidity of the vegetables working well with the luscious liver pâté.

Part of the charm of underground supper clubs is to meet interesting people and make new friends through a common love of food and wine, and this predominantly Silverlake and Los Feliz crowd was no exception.  There were photographers, dancers and yoga instructors at the table, of all nationalities and backgrounds, all enjoying Chef Ho’s special meal and free flowing glasses of wine to a backdrop of contemporary art.

There were bottomless bowls of crispy shrimp chips and deep fried black sesame chips, light airy crackers of rice and tapioca flour that were augmented with Chef Ho’s special cashew butter- a nutty spread of toasted cashews infused with the most subtle hint of fish sauce and garlic that made it simply irresistible.

Scallop Crudo/Cucumbers/Dragon Fruit/Kaffir

Cucumbers, diced pears and little black dragon fruit seeds added delightful crunchy textures and subtle sweet nuances to the tender scallop crudo, a plate of elegant flavors but for a bold spike of vibrant Kaffir lime oil drizzled with restraint.  The wine pairing with a 2007 Dr. H. Thanisch Bernkasteler Badstube Riesling Kabinett, a beautiful Riesling with bright citrus notes, was particularly fantastic and memorable.

Roasted Prawns/Spinach/Chanterelle/Sauce Choron

The meatiest of roasted prawns, its taut flesh bursting with juicy sweetness, sat atop a bed of sautéed chanterelles and spinach, brought together with a creamy and pleasantly acidic Choron sauce and paired with a 2010 Matthiasson Sauvignon Blanc/Ribolla Gialla blend from Napa Valley.  Simple and classic, yet superbly executed and incredibly delicious, this was the dish that amplified the crowd’s level of excitement to a festive frenzy.

Rice Noodles/Chicken/Lemongrass/Chinese Broccoli

There was comfort and love in the bouncy rice noodles curled into garganelli, chewy little tubes of pasta tossed in a bowl of ground lemongrass chicken, Chinese broccoli and crispy fried shallots.  It was a long time Má Pêche classic that many of us Angelenos were happy to experience for the first time, a satisfying plate of heart and soul paired with a 2010 Scholium Project La Severita di Bruto Sauvignon Blanc.

Hanger Steak/Eggplant/Tomato/Thai Basil

A majestic tower of eggplant caponata and tomato Thai basil bruschetta stood tall behind two seemingly innocent beef medallions, which upon close inspection revealed themselves as cuts of hanger steak molded with meat glue.  It was a clever disguise, one that would have easily gone unnoticed if not for the chef’s confession, but one which we would promptly appreciate after the first bite into the most tender and flavorful piece of meat.  The meat course was paired with a bottle of 2009 Frith Grenache from Napa Valley, a personal wine project of Cory Lane’s that showed tremendous potential.

Grapes/Rosemary/Honey/Cinnamon Ice Cream

Velvety cinnamon gelato from Il Laboratorio del Gelato in New York was served with wedges of oatmeal crumble and plump grapes sautéed in butter, honey and rosemary, the refreshing notes of rosemary filling our palates with each successive bite.  There were endless refills of cinnamon gelato for the table along with generous pours of 2007 Rieussec Sauternes to conclude the meal.

With amazing food from a celebrated and loved chef, unique wines to explore and a beautiful venue in a hidden location that added to the mystery and allure, the first dinner at Rogue Upstairs had all the makings of a successful underground supper club, but there was so much more to this one.  There was a genuine joie de vivre shared by all who entered through the door, a contagious spirit emanating from the Rogue Upstairs hosts who treated newcomers with as much familiarity and love as their close friends.  By the end of the dessert course the crowd had tripled and the music amped, and it had become a hub of wine, conversation and even more food- a home away from home.  Keep your antennae raised for news on Chef Tien Ho’s upcoming ventures and future Rogue Upstairs dinners.  Come for the food and stay for the fun.

Rogue Upstairs

Random trivia: Did you know that a hanger steak is a cut from the diaphragm of a steer? The diaphragm is one large muscle, cut into two parts- the hanger steak and the outside skirt steak.

Roberto Cortez- CR8 dinner- Los Angeles

One often speaks of food as art, as edible masterpieces that inspire and excite- temporary creative installations that within minutes, at times seconds, disappear into the bellies of its admirers.  First and foremost we feast with our eyes, and intricately layered vegetable kaleidoscopes and puffs of liquid nitrogen whimsies make us coo and swoon.  Science has given chefs more avenues through which to realize their culinary visions, expanding the possibilities for achieving the perfect texture, consistency and color to components that build both abstract and lifelike landscapes on plates.  Food today is looking and tasting better than ever before.  But if food is art, it should also make us feel and move us in ways that are unexpected.  Art is a sensory experience directly synched with our emotions, our values, our memories, our thoughts, and everything else that makes us human.

I remember standing in front of Georgia O’Keefe’s ‘New York with Moon’ at the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum as a teenager, a canvas of muted colors and simple shapes in contrast to the dramatic Dalí’s and Picasso’s that hung adjacent to it.  The composition too is straightforward, the artist’s perspective of the moon and a lamppost on a deserted street corner in New York.  Yet I stood, mesmerized, for hours, having an intimate conversation with the painting, feeling solitude, sadness and tranquility.  “One can’t paint New York as it is, but rather as it is felt“, O’Keefe said of this painting, and I felt it- her, me, everything- so powerfully that it moved me to tears.  Without the intensely charged emotional reactions that I am able to have with paintings and photographs, I hesitate to call food as art.  Until now.

I don’t even recall how I found out about Chef Roberto Cortez’s CR8 (‘create’) dinners- let’s just call it fate, an encounter that was meant to be- private dinner experiences for small groups of up to 10 by this Texan chef who, after years of working as a private chef, had just returned from Europe with a clearer vision for his craft.  His vision is one of intimacy and sensuality, of experiencing food with complete vulnerability and humility, where chef and diners engage for an immersive journey created by food, sound, design and landscape; a concept which naturally keeps him away from a traditional restaurant model and explains why I ended up in a beautiful Bel Air estate, overlooking the Los Angeles skyline with an eclectic group of musicians, restaurateurs and artists.

The first step in Cortez’s vision is to create a space, a unique environment that balances beauty, fantasy and magic.  This particular Bel Air home, courtesy of a lovely couple who are both friends and fans of Cortez, is one such dream location, fitted with pinball machines, bright contemporary furniture, a warm blazing fireplace and a panoramic view of Los Angeles behind a pristine pool.  It is somewhere between a Hockney and a Lichtenstein, and we have unknowingly become its central subjects.

Guests arrive to a welcome of hickory perfumed smoke swirling out of a smoking gun with Cortez at the bar muddling poblano peppers for the Frida Ahumada, the Smoked Frida.  It is a magnificent cocktail of mezcal, coriander, cumin, apple and agave, full of the mystery, sexiness and power that the iconoclastic artist represents.  The smoke is trapped under the custom-made coaster, just long enough for its aroma to permeate into the ice cubes until it is released, with a dramatic puff, for its debut.  There are complexities of sweet, smokey and spicy, so wondrous that I order another glass of this seductive potion.

In ‘Farewell BBQ Summer’ Cortez takes us on our first culinary journey to the backyard, an amuse bouche of warm chicken consommé layered with frothy potato salad, homemade pickle strips and chive flowers.  It takes me by surprise- it is one of the most delicious gulps that I have had all year, and it is only the amuse.  I roll the red BBQ sauce sphere into my mouth and let its sweet tangy juices explode and dribble within, mingling with the residual chicken and potato flavors.  It is edible nostalgia in a shot, and a decade of childhood memories come flooding back in one heavenly swig.

‘Enchanted paella’ is a study in textures, Cortez says, with bright saffron ice cream and bomba rice mousse whipped to a soft silky sheen, but it proves to be much more than that.  There are peas 3 ways- plump round peas, a smear of pea pureé and crispy pea shoots that squiggle at the end- a bright acidic cherry tomato confit, a dollop of smokey red pepper gel, dehydrated chorizo matchsticks and a warm roasted prawn bouillon poured tableside into the small porcelain vessel.  There are textures, colors, shapes and temperatures, and of course, most importantly, a wealth of flavors.  There are gasps at the table, 10 to be exact, for each diner who discovers that the sum of all parts tastes just like paella.  Cortez has captured the very essence and soul of paella, each gracefully executed and carefully selected component merging for that climactic union.  It is, for me, one of the few successful deconstructed dishes I have ever had- one whose detailed efforts have nothing to do with ego or pride, and everything to do with sincerity.

I walk over to the open kitchen, curious to observe the artist in motion, and Cortez begins plating the fish course.  It is a beautiful specimen of Arctic char, brined in salt and 3 citruses, sliced paper thin and gently, ever so gently, draped on each plate.  He garnishes the fish with shallots confited with Indian black peppercorns, crispy wedges of puffed bamboo rice and tiny drizzles of lemon balm oil of a vivid green hue for the finish.  He is engaging, inviting and friendly as he shares his vision for this dinner- for it to be a fully immersed sensory experience like no other, where every aspect of the evening, from food to atmosphere, evokes beauty, style and thought.  It is felt in his music soundtrack which he pairs with the food, and it is translated through each uniquely constructed tableware, from the wine glasses to the silverware which he has designed in collaboration with artists. The Thai coconut mojito cream and spearmint dots, for one, are easier scooped off the plate with his wide 2 prong fork while the tender fish cuts like butter with the contemporary rectangular knife.  I ponder, for the first time, how form, function and design of silverware can really change how we enjoy eating.

Buttermilk poached Santa Barbara chicken is pan roasted to perfection, juicy and moist, adorned with roasted hazelnuts, diced pears and a white wine, tarragon, vinegar and champagne sauce.  There is something distinctly creamy and robust about the cauliflower pureé, and we find out that cocoa butter is the secret ingredient.  By this course we have learned to let go and be fully present in the moment, letting each bite lead us further into Cortez’s world.  His expression through his food is honest and pure- there is no attitude or vain- and it makes us believe that nothing else matters but for the company we are in, the food on our table and how it makes us feel.  This chicken dish, for one, makes me happy.

A creamy risotto is served with a sweet Syrah reduction, a deep ruby sap that is also painted, in one fluid brushstroke, along the curve of the plate with a little dusting of smoked bacon powder at its crest.  Finely ground coffee beans hiding in the Syrah sauce create a pleasant surprise of crunch and grind which, subsequently, releases a powerful surge of robust caramel aromas.  Within milliseconds my palate, my nose and my thoughts are filled with the memories of one particular autumn in Paris- the smokey cafés where I lingered over his every word, how we toasted all night long with bottles of Burgundy, then walked aimlessly, hand in hand, through the desolate cobblestone streets of Paris until sunrise, avoiding conversation about our imminent farewell.

Cortez serves a shiitake mushroom cappuccino inside a custom-made ‘big spoon’, a wine glass and spoon hybrid which, by design, forces me to hold the handle by both hands and stick my face deep into the vessel, nose first.  It creates a tight vacuum of earthy bouquets that brings me face to face with the food, giving me no alternative but to surrender and accept.  It draws out my vulnerability in the best possible way, and I get another flood of memories of that same autumn in Paris, this time with an infusion of sadness, yearning and desire that I cannot hold back.

I am still consumed with emotion during the Mangalitsa pork dish, moist short ribs glazed in a rich bone sauce with ginger lacquered grilled peaches that shine bright with end-of-summer sweetness.  There is a silky ecru corn cob velouté that tastes just like corn cob, a perplexing delight of sweetness and earthiness that blossoms in the company of puffed black quinoa and hearty farro.

The ‘big spoon’ reemerges for the first of the desserts, a motion for us to enter yet again into a very intimate and personal experience.  There is silence for a few long seconds as we bury our faces into the mouth of the spoon and bask in the chilly mist that languidly caresses our cheeks.  The icy mist dissipates and the spoonfuls of Douglas fir and tangy greek yogurt granités begin to slowly melt and shift, and we gulp them down together with the sweet Charlynn melon broth.

The CR8 finale is a breathtaking study in design, form and architecture, a surreal yet controlled landscape of abstract expressionism that has the makings of a magnificent Miró.  ‘Bollywood explosion’, it is called, a precise composition of coconut marshmallows, black vanilla paper, milk ice cream, chai gel, fennel fronds and liqueur de cerise marinated Rainier cherries on a carpet of dark vanilla bean paint.  There is jewelry- honey golden pistachio dust and a delicate 24K gold flake- to authenticate the lavishness of this Bollywood portrait which, Cortez explains, is a conceptualized inverted chai latte.

I leave the dinner that evening, still intoxicated with the beautiful flavors that have kissed my palate.  Every taste, smell, sound and sight of the dinner experience has a cumulative effect of creating an enchanted vortex of raw emotions, one so intense that would take me days to escape.  Whether that is the intention of Cortez, I am unsure of, but in such an intimate setting where chef and diner coexist, it is inevitable to become involved in the creative process, and what begins as his artistic interpretation ultimately becomes my own private, and quite visceral, experience.

My mind trudges through a plethora of memories that evening, wandering aimlessly through the desolate cobblestone streets and back to the smokey cafés, and I toss and turn in my bed until sunrise, consumed with the memories of that autumn in Paris.  I remember feeling simultaneous joy, sorrow and everything in between, for that is what love does, and love I did, that autumn in Paris, with fierce passion and reckless abandon.  I feel a tightness deep in my chest, just as I felt back then, standing on that dark street corner in Paris, looking up at the moon and a lamppost like O’Keefe in New York.

Roberto Cortez

Next dinner series on November 15, 16, 17

Random trivia- Did you know that freshly harvested vanilla beans have no flavor or aroma?  To develop their signature flavor, the beans must be cured and sun-dried for several months.

A private dinner at Wolvesden, Los Angeles

Wispy black clouds draw its shady curtains over the silver moon.  A lonely wind drags a broken beer bottle through the vacant streets of industrial downtown LA, its hollow echo resonating and disappearing into the urban abyss.  A howl echoes in the distance.  A macabre panorama on this frigid evening brings hungry pack mates together for a feast at the Wolvesden, a secret supper club revealed only to those who dare to step in.  The pack has convened at the den for a private dinner organized by the evening’s host and alpha male, Chuckeats.  It is a special occasion slightly different from the usual workings of the Wolvesden, where lucky strangers from a year long waiting list are brought together for one of Chef Craig Thornton’s dinners at his downtown loft.

It takes days for Thornton to prepare for these feasts, foraging the vast flat plains of Los Angeles for seasonal ingredients and hunting, patiently, for the ultimate fresh catch.  He works alone, diligently, wisely- taking no sous chefs nor brick and mortars that would constrain his independence- a lone wolf whose culinary creations are as wild and raw as his nature.  Live Santa Barbara spot prawns and fresh scallops large enough to eclipse the moon adorn the countertop of Thornton’s kitchen, ready for a sacrificial offering for the pack members who, one by one, gather around the fire on the stove top with bottles of wine and voracious appetites in tow.  The pups and vixens slowly circle the kitchen, admiring the hunt, panting breaths clouding the air, lips curled back to reveal their teeth and paws trembling with excitement as they hold back their instincts to pounce on their prey.

Thornton gives the signal and the sacrificial ritual begins.  For this special evening he has specifically hunted for impregnated female spot prawns, all the better to appease the  predators who have come for the Wolvesden festivities.  The prawns scurry across the hotel pans, making tiny scratching noises with their spiny little feet in a desperate attempt to escape their fate.  Their thin whiskers sway left and right, their black beaded eyes without expression.

One by one we take our turn at the cutting board to sink the knife into the occiput of the crustaceans, killing them as humanely as possible in one precise swift blow.  ‘Let me, let me!’ we all cry, amidst a crescendo of excitement, as we each experience the satisfaction of the catch and the kill.  The strike of the knife, a gush of green liquid, and soon we have a tray of butterflied prawns engorged with bright orange eggs and vivid green tomalley.  They are flash baked in the oven with a sprinkle of sea salt, just enough to sweeten the flesh and concentrate the bitterness of the innards.  After a twist of lime and a dash of coffee powder, we simultaneously rip the flesh out of the shells and sink our teeth into this delicious first course to start the feast.

Thornton pries open the live scallops, removing the white adductor muscles and slicing them horizontally in half.  The motion is so quick that the scallops don’t even realize that they have been severed- they are still fasciculating, twitching and undulating like calm ocean waves, unperturbed.  Wedges of frozen and fresh Oro Blanco draw out the sweetness of the scallops with a splash of white soy, black sesame and chili for extra flavor.

Tortilla is used unconventionally as a purée in a deconstructed fish taco dish, smeared across the plate as a background accent to complement the vivid hues and bright flavors of lime, avocado, cilantro and pickled red onions in the black sea bass dish.

Thornton is a master of uni, at times juxtaposing its sweet butteriness against the crisp bitterness of celery, and in other dinners immersing it in the brininess of black squid ink for a deep ocean adventure.  Here he balances sweet and bitter for the slick little orange sea urchin that are plated with intensely sugary beets- dehydrated yellow beets sliced thin like fruit leather and salt roasted red baby beets- green tea shortbread crumbs, pea shoots, nasturtium and a splash of yuzu kosho vinaigrette.

A whole filet of John Dory is gutted with Thornton’s razor sharp knives, stuffed with thyme and citrus wedges and slathered, quite liberally, with butter.  Into the oven it goes, this glorious specimen of succulent fish, as the butter infuses into the flesh and fine beads of sweat form on the surface of the skin.

In one swift move the chef skins the fish and divides the flesh into equal pieces for each hungry member of the clan.  Razor thin celery slices impart just enough bitterness to temper the buttery clam juice broth that the meaty clams and Asian pears have soaked up.

This time a sputtering of melting fat on the hot skillet draws the pack to the kitchen- it is time for the meat courses, and Thornton is preparing what wolves love best- offals.  The smell of meat drives the wild pack into sympathetic overdrive- we whine, we yelp, we sniff and we bark as we impatiently wait for that golden crust to form on the sweetbreads.  The meaty nuggets are presented as an open faced sandwich on fried green tomatoes with raw cheddar cheese, crème fraîche, chives and a trio of peppers-cayenne, pimento and piquillo.

A refreshing palate cleanser made with freeze dried blueberries, verjus and mandarins tames the excited pack into submission for a quick break before more meat appears on the dining table.

Thornton has broken down a whole wild pheasant earlier that evening- oh how we would have loved to hunt and kill that bird ourselves, the pups secretly think, their tails wagging at the thought of such an adventure.  The roasted bird is tossed in a parmesan hazelnut rosemary cream sauce that lovingly clings to the fresh pappardelle, a little too salty for many but the crispy skin cracklings loved by all.

For the final savory course Thornton pulls out a loaf of 48 day aged beef from the oven, slicing them in perfect little medium-rare pink toasts that he plates with watermelon radish, chives, dill, and sautéed wild mushrooms- yellow foots and black trumpets.  The vixens watch from a distance, leaned back in crouched positions, ready for the ambush, while the impatient pups trot and pace around the kitchen, salivating at the veal tongue and pork cheek pelmenis (dumplings) which, once served, swiftly disappear between their sharp incisors.

Dessert begins with a playful tribute to the Whopper, Thornton’s nod to our dinner host Chuck who, despite his reputation for having a refined palate for the finer things in life, is quite the closet junk food addict.  A steel spoon delivers a swift blow to the chocolate capsule, causing it to crack and massively hemorrhage a miso and malt liquid.  It bleeds briskly like an aneurysm into the fluffy carpet of salted Valrhona chocolate purée (mixed with homemade tofu for that light airiness- how brilliant) and gets soaked up by the roasted barley malt cake, a satisfying and delicious interpretation of America’s finest snack.

Thornton hones in on sweet nostalgia with an unmistakable flavor that makes us smile.  He has turned cereal milk, those last few remaining spoonfuls and satisfying gulps of sweetened milk at the bottom of the breakfast bowl, into an ice cream with chewy nuggets of rice krispies and sliced bananas.

The feeding frenzy ends on a sweet and playful note as the wolves rub their muzzles on their napkins and lick their chops.  It was quite a feast, beginning with an interactive catch and kill that instantly awakened the ravenous nature of the pack and whetted rapacious appetites.  There was a lot of meat- too much for even these wild animals to clean up, an issue of portion control that Thornton is aware of (‘I don’t want anybody to leave hungry, and I just get too excited about the food!’) but the smells, the sights and the tastes kept us curious and amazed from course to course.  There is something really special about this chef, who is immensely passionate about what he does, yet is as humble, unassuming and generous as they get in this industry.

At the end of the evening we salute this wonderful chef, rolling to the floor on our backs in a food coma, satiated bellies facing up in the ultimate sign of respect and submission.  Thornton responds to this gesture by removing his hat, revealing his wild long mane that he thrashes back and forth- a true pack leader, a majestic wolf.  The pack howls in unison.

A dinner at the Wolvesden is a special treat, and a private dinner with friends makes for an even better experience.  Book your feast with this talented chef and get ready to Strike. Tear. Chew.                                                                                                                     ……at the Wolvesden

Random trivia: Did you know that scallops have up to 100 simple eyes around the edges of their mantles?

Cúrate- Asheville, North Carolina

It was April 2011 and I was on the road trip of all road trips, driving through vast green landscapes in the beautiful Carolinas with like-palated friends on a united quest for great food.  We were still riding high on one of the most sensational dinners ever, one hosted by Chef Sean Brock at Husk the night before, so filling and fulfilling that we needn’t have any breakfast that morning.  But by mid afternoon hunger struck and our GPS was honed in on Asheville, North Carolina for a quick pitstop on our way to Chilhowie, Virginia.
It was just our luck that a new 1 month old Spanish tapas restaurant called Cúrate was on our path, an attractive alternative to the numerous Waffle Houses and Cracker Barrels along the highway. We were excited to eat Spanish tapas by a chef who was raised in the Ferran Adrià/José Andrés family through stints at El Bulli in Spain and The Bazaar in Los Angeles, a young chef named Katie Button who opened Cúrate with her fiancé Felix Meana.  Button couldn’t have asked for a better partner in Meana who runs the beverage program and the front of house at Cúrate, and comes with a wealth of experience- as chef de rang at El Bulli for several years and most recently as the Director of Service at The Bazaar.

It’s no wonder then, that the minute we walked into this bright spacious restaurant in downtown Asheville we were given the warmest welcome and the most attentive service imaginable.  How it came to be that this couple left the brights lights and big cities to settle in a quaint and somewhat removed part of North Carolina (albeit with an edgy artsy vibe reminiscent of Berkeley) is a mystery to me, but they managed to create a comfortable and inviting space where these 4 out-of-towners felt right at home.A glorious leg of Jamón Ibérico de Bellota Fermín summoned to us from the marble countertop amidst a dizzying perfume of flambéed sherry wafting from the open kitchen, and we happily obliged with an order of España’s finest, shaved, with wedges of pan con tomate.

There were creamy croquetas, ensaladilla rusa, patatas bravas, garlicky gambas al ajillo and pincho moruno (lamb rubbed with Moorish spices), among numerous other staples of traditional Spanish tapas on Cúrate’s menu, and plenty of chorizo and bacalao to go around.  With nearly 40 items on their menu we had to practice restraint, a difficult thing to do, for we were on our way to a 20 course tasting dinner in a few hours.  We had ‘chistorra & chips José’s way’, spicy little chorizos wrapped in sliced potatoes and deep fried to a crisp, on the brink of being too oily yet tasty nonetheless, a popular dish served at José Andrés’ Jaleo.

Roasted red peppers, onions and eggplant drizzled with a 30 year sherry vinaigrette were crisscrossed with salty and briny Spanish anchovies in the escalavida con anchoas dish.

Tender thick stalks of Navarran white asparagus, tossed with lemon zest and a tarragon vinaigrette, were arranged as vertical towers against a backdrop of fluffy mayonnaise espuma.

Thanks to Meana there is a great selection of beverages to complement the food, from imported Spanish beers and sangria made table side, to Cavas and numerous other Catalan wines like Montsant and Priorat.  Swirl Rioja in your wine glass or spill a drop or two of panaché on your face as you attempt to drink from a glass porrón with your head tilted back.  It will all go down well with setas al jerez, mushrooms sautéed with sherry, olive oil and a sprig of thyme.

The handful of dishes that we had that day were good- certainly shy of what we’ve had and could have in Spain- but extremely promising, with a solid grasp of the essence of Spanish tapas and the beauty of its simply yet intensely flavored cuisine.  Asheville is fortunate to have this new addition to its culinary scene, and with Meana at the helm to maintain its superb level of service, it’s a Spanish oasis that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anybody traveling through the Carolinas and anybody needing to ‘cure yourself’, cúrate, with a good time.

Cúrate Tapas Bar

11 Biltmore Avenue
Asheville, NC 28801

(828) 239-2946

Random trivia: Did you know that the largest living organism known to man is a mushroom? There is single specimen of honey mushroom, Armillaria ostoyae, covering 3.4 square miles of land in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon, that has been growing for some 2,400 years- and is still growing.