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!

Urasawa- Los Angeles

I straighten my dress, rearrange my scarf and examine my coat for lint in the quiet elevator ride up from the parking garage on Two Rodeo Drive in the heart of Beverly Hills.  As the doors open into the dark hallway, I pause to clear my throat and my mind of the day’s insanity before ducking under the white linen noren inscribed with the restaurant’s name.  It is important that I look and feel my best before entering the sacred grounds of this culinary temple called Urasawa.  Chef Hiroyuki Urasawa, dressed in a sharp navy blue kimono, greets me with a waist low bow as I reciprocate with a longer bow, then settle into the seat directly in front of him.  ‘It’s been a long time,’ he says, and to my pleasant look of surprise he quickly follows with ‘has it been 7 years?  How is everything at the hospital, doctor?’  I’m flabbergasted that he remembers me from so long ago, yet at the same time not, for a true professional like him never forgets a customer.  Especially when that customer is somebody who survived his last meal.

7 years ago on my first visit to Urasawa, I had a delicacy that is known for causing a slow miserable death through asphyxiation and paralysis with no antidote or cure.  Through a day long process of cleaning and draining that only a professional like him knows how to do, he stripped the product of its toxins to produce a beautiful fatty morsel of delight, resulting in a life changing, and luckily not a life ending, moment of culinary inspiration. This exquisite delicacy (which I will not name for fear of getting him into trouble) was frightfully delicious, and I felt happy to be alive, in more ways than one.  It’s not often that I trust my life to somebody, but Chef Hiro is an exception in many ways.

Hiro Urasawa is the very embodiment of a Japanese master- devoted to his craft, constantly in pursuit of excellence and perfection to the point of obsession.  Balancing precision and artistry to create the ultimate form of beauty.  Sacrifice to be the best at his discipline, yet incredibly humble, never considering himself at a status more elevated than a student of life and a pupil of his mentor Masa Takayama whom he inherited this restaurant from.  Most of all, it is his thoughtfulness to create the ultimate dining experience for each and every customer.

Such meticulous attention to detail and consideration is visible in his magnificent flower arrangements that reflect the seasons, palpable on the soft cypress counter that is sanded down every day with 3 types of sandpaper, savored in the beer that is served at the perfect temperature down to the millidegree and appreciated in every glance and smile that he casts my way.  With one silent nod, he summons his server to lay a white napkin on the counter upon which to lay my camera, not because he is afraid that my camera will damage the pristine cypress, but because he doesn’t want the cypress to somehow damage my pristine camera.  In the presence of this master, my posture naturally straightens while my eyes and shoulders soften, and I prepare myself for an exceptional kaiseki experience.

Elegance

Horsehair crab from Hokkaido, known as kegani in Japanese, is shredded and tossed with mitsuba leaves and yellow chrysanthemum petals (kikka)Each ribbon of flower petal and green mitsuba leaf is cut to the same size as the shreds of crab meat to create symmetry and balance of flavors, colors and textures in this simple sakizuke appetizer that is elegantly presented in a gold and black lacquer bowl. 

Decadence

Decadence when done poorly is debauchery, but decadence when done tastefully and for the pursuit of excellence and beauty is divinity, like the seared toro wrapped around monkfish liver (ankimo) and myoga ginger, neatly tied in the center with a strip of Kyoto turnip and tressed with a caviar updo.  Little yellow flecks of yuzu rind add a refreshing aroma to the ponzu sauce, and like social débutantes, these aristocratic ocean delights, immaculately groomed, fitted, brushed and powdered, are presented on a brightly shining golden pedestal. 

Beauty

While the Japanese hold an appreciation for beauty in things that are skewed, imperfect or incomplete through the aesthetic values of wabi-sabi, we also strive for creating and maintaining beauty through perfection and symmetry, especially that of nature.  Perfectly round glistening balls of soy marinated ikura salmon roe, each an exact clone of the other, are worthy of stringing into a Mikimoto necklace, its fresh taut membranes succumbing to my bite with audible pops.  What lies underneath these miracles of the sea are succulent shiraebi white shrimp from Toyama prefecture and a pleasantly sweet and creamy edamame tofu.  A 24K gold leaf embellishes this dainty bowl of jewels, and while I hesitate to disturb the perfection of this culinary masterpiece, I indulge with full force, for an empty bowl and a clean spoon, in the end, is the perfection that Hiro is seeking. 

Craft

If water could have feelings and dreams, it would aspire to become the ice block that Hiro personally chisels and sculpts by hand for his sashimi tsukuri.  Perfectly cut in a fanned out pattern of a blossoming flower, the ice block proudly displays the fresh offerings of the evening- buttery uni, tender toro and savory aji with intricately prepared garnishes of carrots, seaweed, chrysanthemum petals and freshly grated wasabi.  The ice dutifully keeps the sashimi at its optimal temperature and doesn’t think twice about being thrown away after one use, for it is exactly that fleeting yet deeply intimate moment with Hiro for which it was born- and it, and I, are both content.

Balance

Hiro makes an interesting version of ‘Wagyu beef tartare’ by simmering the meat for 6 hours in soy sauce, sake and mirin, resulting in an intensely sweet mouthful of what reminds me of tsukudani.  The beef is balanced on a black lacquer spoon with a generous heap of caviar and a garnish of takuan pickled radish for an interplay of sweet and salty flavors, a contrast that is heightened with a concluding bite of pickled red bell pepper on the side.

Artistry

Shark fin chawanmushi arrives warm in a hand-painted Japanese ceramic cup, the luscious collagenous fins layered in gentle loving curves around a gold leaf like a flower bud hiding a secret.  The bonito broth releases an inviting aroma while adding glimmer and shine to the glorious shark fins from Kesennuma.  I slowly slip each fin into my mouth, closing my eyes as I appreciate the texture of the fine gelatinous fibers against my tongue.  Thereafter my archaeological excavation begins as I dig my spoon deeper into the light egg custard to discover and devour embedded shiitake mushrooms, shrimp, ginger, yuba, gingko nuts and ultimately uni, prompting a gasp of delight. 

Devotion

After proudly showing off a hot stone and a plate of marbled kama toro to me, Hiro begins preparing the ishiyaki course behind the counter.  The moment of contact between kama toro and hot stone creates a dynamic sizzle and a magnificent puff of aromatic smoke that perfumes the restaurant.  A white paper screen partially blocks this process from my view, but also protects me from the random splattering of melting tuna fat ricocheting off the stone, a gesture of kindness that I appreciate.  The heat of the smooth flat stone, no doubt chosen as the stone for this task from thousands of others, liquifies the marbled fat into a decadence augmented by ponzu that sinks well into my taste buds. 


Comfort

Kensaki ika, squid from southern Japan, is served as a tempura with a squirt of sudachi and a plate of vivid green matcha salt for dipping.  I forget that the tempura is fresh out of hot oil, and the first scorching bite makes me open and close my mouth like a fish out of water.  Once the heat dissipates, I find my teeth effortlessly biting into a warm thick cut of squid the texture of room temperature butter.  The hint of Japanese citrus and aroma of Japanese green tea bring a sense of familiarity and comfort to me, and along with it the most genuine smile. 

Innovation

Foie gras shabu shabu is a signature Urasawa dish, the additional ingredients constantly alternating to reflect the seasons. A warm simmering pot of water with a dish of thinly sliced goose foie gras, lobster and scallops are placed in front of me.  Before I can even think of moving my hands, a server slides up next to my seat to do the dipping and cooking for me.  ‘Swish, swish’ she goes with the foie gras, its melting fat forming canary yellow droplets of savor that float to the top.  Just shy of its complete melting point, she carefully removes the sliver of foie into the dipping bowl of ponzu, and I relish the union of these two contrasting flavors.  The scallop and lobster, briefly cooked in the foie dashi, also leave me speechless.

Discipline

Hiro’s answer to the traditional gari pickled ginger is a sweet pickle of shinshoga young ginger, thickly cut and pickled in honey, sugar, salt and yuzu.  The rustic pickles cleanse my palate in preparation for the climax of the meal, his nigiri sushi that in its simplicity and bareness demonstrate his true skills and expertise.  His hands are swift and nimble, moving with the precision of a robot, yet executing each maneuver with the tenderness and care of a newborn’s mother.  He starts bold with a fatty cut of toro, then a seared aburi kama toro, the same exquisite cut of collar toro that made its debut on the hot stone.  A silky shima aji that lingers on my palate, followed by a lighter Kumamoto snapper with sprinklings of grated sudachi zest.

My salivary glands release its juices at the mere site of the wooden boxes of sweet Santa Barbara sea urchin, as he carefully spoons them onto the shari sans nori, just the way I like it.  Seki aji at its winter peak of fattiness melts in my mouth, maguro zuke lightly marinated in soy sauce creates an explosion of flavors and kensaki ika from Kyushu dressed with home made seaweed salt delights with a butteriness that is distinctly unlike regular squid.

Slice, squeeze, drape, cradle, pinch and caress Hiro does for each beautifully prepared specimen of fish, and I take a long second to revere the elegant sushi before savoring it with closed eyes and deafened ears, concentrating every sensory nerve in my body on the glorious bite that I am blessed to have.  Chutoro, its perfect balance of meat and fat, ends in a sigh of pleasure while kohada, dainty, fatty and optimally marinated in vinegar makes me wonder why I go anywhere else for sushi.  Shiraebi is juicy and sayori evokes a young rosebud.

Kuro awabi, abalone from Chiba prefecture, has been steamed to exquisite tenderness and served with a gentle brush of concentrated soy, and seki saba is a shining example of why the line caught mackerel from the Seto Inland Sea is considered the best.  Iwashi, winter sardines plumped full of fat, makes me swoon with excitement with its piquant kick of grated ginger on top.  En fin, I find the fluffy sweet tamago to be much lighter than I expect, and it practically floats up to the ceiling as I pick it up with my chopsticks.

Simplicity

The first of 2 desserts is a Japanese hachiya persimmon that stands alone in its perfect state of ripeness.  So ripe, in fact, that the flesh has morphed into a gelatin-like consistency and appearance that almost seems unreal.  It has the sweetness, tenderness and softness of a first kiss and I fully succumb to its innocent allure.

A second dessert of black sesame ice cream with black truffle, red azuki beans and 23K gold leaves holds up to its reputation with grace and poise, so much so that in my utter infatuation my paralyzed hands fail to grab the camera. 

Tradition

This beautiful meal, flowing from course to course like a Mozart symphony, drawing me in with each successive plate into a state of admiration and ultimately bliss, concludes with Chef Hiro preparing a perfect bowl of matcha green tea.  He commands the chasen bamboo whisk with confidence and whisks the liquid into a uniform consistency, the surface a bright green sea of perfectly symmetrical fine bubbles.  I show my respect by carefully rotating the ceramic bowl in both hands and sipping the bitter tea in 3 audible slurps in Japanese tea ceremony tradition.  A long sigh of satisfaction and serenity…we lock eyes…we both smile.  An epic meal. 

Urasawa
218 N Rodeo Drive
Beverly Hills, CA 90210

t. 310-247-8939

Random trivia: Did you know that soluble tannins in unripened Hachiya persimmons are what cause that astringent unpleasant furry mouth?

Magnum pop-up at Royal T- Uni tasting dinner

The Magnum crew duo that is Chef Joseph Mahon and Sommelier David Haskell did their 3rd installation of dinner pop-ups recently at Royal T in Culver City, an event that showcased Mahon’s creativity in contemporary cuisine and Haskell’s keen talent for superb wine pairing.  All 3 nights of this pop-up dinner event offered tasting menus of 5, 7 or 9 courses that featured stellar creations like miso cured hanger steak and potato chip soup in addition to grass-fed beef sliders and oysters with brown butter as bar bites.

Wine, beer and sake pairings for each dish were carefully chosen by David Haskell who has worked at reputable establishments like Le Cirque and Aquavit.  Each pairing, which he poured and introduced himself for each diner at Royal T, had a specific vision and effect that he wanted the diners to experience.  Whether it was for the wine to draw out the sweetness of the fruits on the plate or for the sake to make a bold contrasting statement to the protein, each pairing had a story to tell.

On the last of the 3 nights, a special 8 course uni tasting dinner was offered to celebrate the sommelier’s birthday.  The Santa Barbara uni extravaganza was an ode to his mother Liz Haskell, a well known uni aficionado and enthusiast who was in attendance that evening.  Friends and family came out to celebrate Haskell’s birthday on this final night of a successful run where the Magnum crew donated 5% of dinner proceeds to the Japan Sake Brewers Association.  The servers also donated 10% of tips for this cause to support Japan earthquake and tsunami relief, an amazing show of generosity and good will.

The uni tasting began with a variation of the cured Thai snapper amuse bouche that was served on the previous nights.  The same luscious pieces of fish were now served wrapped around Japanese shrimp chips with pea sprouts and leek emulsion.

Santa Barbara uni on oysters with soy mignonette was my favorite uni course of the evening.  The simple, unadulterated briny flavors were harmonious with the acidity and minerality of N.V. Jacques Lassaigne Les Vignes de Montgueux Blanc de Blancs Chardonnay.

Uni draped over tuna tartare with creamy dashi aioli and nori flecks was also a delicious dish, paired with a 2006 Château Giraud G Bordeaux Blanc Sec.

Uni tartine came as geometric contemporary pieces of bright orange uni juxtaposed against round cucumber balls on brined halibut with a dash of ponzu sauce.  Haskell paired these with a 2005 Schoffit Vieilles Vignes, an Alsatian Chasselas.

The Uni cauliflower royale was served in both tasting menus, a glass filled with layers of uni, creamy cauliflower royale, fennel, diced apple, apple and cucumber foam and nori.  The 2009 Riviera Ligure di Ponente, an Italian Pigato, worked well to draw out the sweetness of the apples.

Uni and bone marrow pizza was paired with a 2005 FX Pichler Riesling Smaragd Oberhauser from Austria.

For the first of the 2 meat courses, Chef Mahon used uni with a Bordelaise sauce to flavor veal and shiitake mushroom tempura, a dish that was paired with a 2003 Jacques Puffeney Vieilles Vignes Arbois rouge.

For the venison dish with uni risotto and shiso pepper sauce, Haskell brought a 2004 Marc Sorrel Hermitage Syrah to complement the protein.

Yuzu crème brûlée was served for dessert again with poached apricots and kumquat, this time the caramelized crust done well.  This final dish was paired with Damien Delecheneau’s 2009 Domaine La Grange Tiphaine Rose Touraine Riage Tournant.

The uni tasting menu offered 7 interesting interpretations of the popular ocean delicacy, with the most simplest being my favorite- coupled with a delicate oyster with a dash of soy.  David Haskell’s wine pairings were impressive, his selections complementing Mahon’s food in the most pure, clean and unobtrusive manner to allow the uni to take center stage and shine.  It was a wonderful fun evening with great music from a live DJ and incredibly professional staff maintaining perfect flow of service.

The Magnum crew allowed me to work with them to set up a silent auction event to raise money for the Japan Sake Brewers Association.  With the incredible generosity and support from our friends in the food and beverage industry in Los Angeles, we were able to offer amazing auction items like tasting dinners with Chef Fabio Viviani, Starry Kitchen, The Thompson Hotel and Guelaguetza.  David Haskell auctioned precious wines from his personal cellar, including a 1983 Pothier Rieusset Les Rugiens, while California winery Presqu’ile donated 2 personalized signed bottles of wine and Rosso Wine Shop donated a private wine session.  Local bloggers MyLastBite, Ravenous Couple and Glutster showed their support by auctioning specialized food tours, and artisans Sugarbird Sweets, Scoops Westside and soba teacher Sonoko Sakai volunteered their crafts and goods.  Curious Palate chipped in with a gift certificate, and the amazing meat mavens Lindy & Grundy will be conducting a private one on one butchering lesson for the lucky auction winner next week.  Even Chef Thomas Keller of The French Laundry donated a personalized signed copy of the French Laundry Cookbook for the auction, which they kindly sent all the way to Japan for a Japanese bidder.  Beloved local chefs have also shown their generosity by offering to do private cooking classes and dinners- Chef Laurent Quenioux, Chef Christian Page of the Daily Dose, Chef Michael Voltaggio, Chef Walter Manzke and Chef Craig Thornton.

As if helping with Japan relief efforts and donating dinner proceeds wasn’t enough, the dynamic Magnum duo have donated their time and services to do 2 private pop-up dinners as a part of the silent auction, the first dinner occurring this weekend.  With the incredible support of all of these people and more, we were able to raise $12,000 to donate to the Japanese sake industry.  Thank you very much to everybody who was a part of this amazing collaborative effort!

Magnum crew

Random trivia: Did you know that the name urchin is an old name for the round spiny hedgehogs that sea urchins resemble?

Magnum pop-up dinner at Royal T

Many people in the food and beverage industry in Los Angeles have stepped up to show their love and support for Japan after the devastating earthquake and tsunamis shattered the country on March 11.  The Magnum crew pair of Chef Joseph Mahon and Sommelier David Haskell was no exception.  The dynamic duo recently ran a pop-up dinner event in Culver City, the third installation after successful runs at Biergarten and Pal Cabron.  This time the pop-up dinner was at a Japanese cosplay maid cafe called Royal T, a most fitting backdrop for Chef Mahon’s inventive menu and Magnum’s efforts to raise money for Japan relief.

Chef Joseph Mahon, former executive chef of Bastide, incorporated hints of Japanese ingredients like miso, nori, dashi and yuzu both in his colorful tasting menu and the bar bites menu.  Dinner tastings were offered as 5, 7 or 9 courses with or without wine pairings.  His Magnum partner David Haskell brought life to each delicious plate with his brilliant wine, beer and sake pairings that together with the food narrated a beautiful story.  For 3 consecutive nights, the venue came alive with vivid installations of interactive kitschy art, funky pop music spun by a live DJ in the lounge and the friendly staff all sporting Magnum T-shirts.

The Magnum crew was kind enough to collaborate with me in fund raising efforts to donate to a wonderful charity in Japan.  The catastrophe of March 11 that has already claimed more than 14,000 lives also devastated the Japanese sake industry.  Sake has deep historical and religious roots in Japanese culture, and the fact that more than 200 breweries were affected (some completely destroyed) by the natural disasters will affect the country’s traditions, culture and economy forever.  Mahon and Haskell pledged to donate 5% of dinner proceeds to the Japan Sake Brewers Association.  In fact, the entire Magnum pop-up crew came together as one for this wonderful cause, with the staff also contributing 10% of their tips to the Japanese charity fund.

Chef Mahon started the tasting dinner with a delicious amuse bouche of cured Thai snapper with crumbled shrimp chips and pea sprouts.

Oysters were served warm with a generous drizzle of brown butter and lemon sauce, and crunchy green cucumber balls for textural contrast.  This dish was paired with a German Riesling, Von Buhl Brut from Bad Dürkheim.

Crispy salty potato chips imparted crunchy texture and playfulness into the potato chip soup with ramps and cucumber, and it was the luscious piece of fried oyster that was the shining star of the dish.  This was paired with a 2008 Slovenian Pinela from winemaker Ivan Batic.

Mahon’s Fennel Royale layered slick pieces of sweet sea urchin with apple foam, creamy fennel royale and flecks of nori powder.  The intense acidity of the paired 2009 Ligurian Pigato from Riviera Ligure di Ponente, Italy enhanced the fruity sweetness of the dish.

Silky crispy tofu with sunflower seed crust was accentuated with pickled vegetables, cilantro and dashi emulsion.  The pairing of Hitachino Nest White Ale was lovely, especially as it represented Ibaraki prefecture in Japan, one of the affected regions in the earthquake and tsunami.

Tender tuna slices encased around jicama, crab and mango were flavored with spicy mayonnaise and paired with a French 2008 Chenin Blanc from Francois Pinon ‘Silex Noir’.

Braised baby octopus with a nice subtle char on its surface was mounted on a creamy leek risotto with shaved cashews and a drizzle of savory pancetta vinaigrette.  A 2009 Jean-Paul Brun Chardonnay was paired with this dish.

Perfectly cooked moist ocean trout with lobster jus, garnished with fresh peas, pea sprouts, mint and oyster mushrooms, was paired with a 2009 Jean-Paul Brun ‘Villes Vignes’ Gamay.

Grass fed beef sliders with bibb lettuce and chipotle aioli were served both as bar bites and as adjuncts to the tasting menu on the first evening.  Cooked medium rare, perfectly moist and packed with flavorful juices, these sliders were beautifully done and one of my favorite dishes of the evening.  Haskell did a playful pairing with Kikusui Funaguchi Junmai Ginjo sake from Niigata prefecture in Japan, again one of the prefectures affected by the earthquake.

One of the other standout hits of the evening was Chef Mahon’s miso cured hanger steak, tender cuts of beef fully infused with the sweet earthy aromas of miso, plated with creamed spinach, shiitake mushroom tempura, sesame seeds and ponzu sauce.  The meat was paired with a 2008 Domaine de Majas ‘Three Trees’ Grenache-Carignan red.

The tasting menu ended with a yuzu crème brûlée topped with poached apricots and halved kumquats, paired elegantly with Damien Delecheneau’s 2009 Domaine La Grange Tiphaine Rose Touraine Riage Tournant.

The first evening of the pop-up event at Royal T drew in a full crowd, the packed room filled with happy diners who enjoyed Mahon’s food and the service from Haskell who personally poured every glass of wine with an explanation of each food and wine pairing.  Meanwhile, guests perused the silent auction table set up front, put together by the collaborative effort of acclaimed chefs, restaurateurs, local artisans and food bloggers who all donated private dinners, gift baskets, dinner certificates and many delicious food and beverage related auction items for bid to raise money for the Japan Sake Brewers Association.  The third and final night of the Magnum Royal T pop up event featured a special uni tasting menu to commemorate David Haskell’s birthday who paid homage to his uni enthusiast mother Liz Haskell.  Details of the uni dinner will follow in the next post.

Magnum events

Royal T

8910 Washington Boulevard
Culver City, CA 90232-2326
(310) 559-6300

Random trivia: Did you know that potato chips were invented by Chef George Crum in 1853 in Saratoga Springs, New York, when he tried to please a customer who sent back his fried potatoes to the kitchen for being too soggy and thick?  These thin crispy delights became a staple on his menu as ‘Saratoga chips’, and the rest is history.

Mo-Chica, Japan fundraising tasting dinner

Here in Los Angeles, we love and support our local chefs.  We especially adore our local chefs who not only cook amazing food, but also give to charitable causes.  In the midst of a whirlwind start to 2011 with a restaurant relocation, a restaurant opening and a well deserved Food & Wine Best New Chef 2011 award, Chef Ricardo Zarate still finds time to give to charity.  He recently made a guest appearance at Fraiche for the kick off of Rustic Mondays with Chef Benjamin Bailly, where proceeds went to Operation USA.  Last month he held a fundraising dinner at his flagship restaurant Mo-Chica in downtown LA, where his Japanese business partner coordinated a charity to support Japan.

One Thursday of each month, Zarate hosts a multi-course tasting dinner at Mo-Chica for $35, what I consider to be the best deal in America.  His menus are well thought out and executed perfectly, every tasting offering a different combination of delicious dishes with his signature style of understated beauty and elegance that reflects his training in Japanese cuisine.  Last month he donated $10 from every $45 tasting menu to Japan charity, with Street Gourmet LA‘s Bill Esparza and his bossa nova trio Cachaca Nova providing live musical entertainment for the night.  Out of all of the tasting dinners that I have attended at Mo-Chica, this was the stand out; every beautiful plate was fully infused with his generous heart and charitable intention.

YUQUITAS CON POLLO
stuffed yuccas, manchego cheese, crispy chicken, rocoto sauce

Little bite-sized deep fried snacks were not only adorable but delectable, dipped in the savory rocoto pepper sauce that added a subtle kick of flavor.  Everybody enjoyed the playfulness of this satisfying appetizer- what is there not to like about deep fried crispy cheese and chicken, and getting to lick your fingers at the end?

TIRADITO
scallops strips, spicy lemon dressing, salsa criolla

One of my favorite dishes of the evening was the tender and delicate scallops tiradito, thinly sliced with a drizzle of magnificent spicy lemon dressing, salsa criolla and a garnish of microgreens.  An elegant dish with a perfect balance of acidity and spice, almost too beautiful to be eating in a downtown LA food court, yet this is exactly the allure of Chef Zarate’s popular joint.

CHILCANO
Peruvian cocktail, ginger juice, ginger ale, pisco brandy

Chef Zarate’s favorite cocktail, the Chilcano, got a modern twist with ginger juice to add extra zing to the refreshing drink.

SUDADO
sea bass, tomato stew , crab meat, roasted tomatoes, garbanzos

My other memorable dish of the evening was the perfectly cooked tender cut of sea bass, a glorious mound of moist flesh with crispy crackling skin, mounted on a base of tomato and garbanzo stew with a generous topping of crab meat.  Seafood never tasted this good, with a hint of smokiness in the rich tomato broth that accented but didn’t overshadow the amazing piece of fish.

CHICHARRON
Peruvian-style crispy pork belly, black mint sauce

The final savory course was a hearty serving of crispy pork belly, fully injected with juicy pork fat and delightful pork belly essence.  The surface was cooked to a nice crisp while the interior remained moist and fatty.  Served on a bed of creamy bean purée, it was the piquant black mint sauce that brought all of the flavors and elements together for ultimate deliciousness.

ALFAJOR
Classic Peruvian dessert made of dulce de leche, shortbread

Spain, where alfajores originated, and all other Latin American countries have their own version of alfajores, and Chef Zarate’s Peruvian style alfajor was made by layering crumbly square shortbread cookies with dulce de leche.  I’m impartial to soft chewy Argentine alfajores, but Mo-Chica’s rendition, made by Zarate’s new Spanish pastry chef who will be creating sweets for Picca, was equally scrumptious.

The evening was completely packed with satisfied happy diners who thoroughly enjoyed Zarate’s most successful tasting dinner event yet, while Bill Esparza and crew were rocking the house with contemporary takes on bossa nova classics like So Danco Samba and One Note Samba.  This tasting dinner was days before the big announcement of Zarate’s win for Food & Wine’s Best New Chef 2011, and for all of those lucky diners who were able to attend the dinner, we got a good taste of exactly why.  Thank you Chef Zarate for donating to support Japan.

Mo-chica

3655 S Grand Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90007

(213) 747-2141

Mo-Chica will relocate to its new grand location soon

Picca Peru

9575 W Pico Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90035

Picca will be opening in the upstairs ex-Test Kitchen space in May 2011

Random trivia: Did you know that an alfajor, which is a traditional Arabic confection, finds it word derivative from an Arabic word for honeycomb?  They are traditionally made with honey, almonds, hazelnuts, sugar, flour, breadcrumbs and natural spices.