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.

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.

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.

Dinner at Husk- Charleston, South Carolina

It is with great exhilaration that I reflect, quite often, back to my meal at Husk this past spring as one of the best meals that I have had all year and one where I reconfirmed, through a state of absolute bliss and visceral exuberance, that good food is my joie de vivre.  However, it is also the experience that I curse with equal intensity, for the gastronomic climax that I reached through Chef Brock’s cooking was one that came too early in the year and has since spoiled all succeeding 2011 dining experiences for me, for very few to date have come even close to arousing me in the same manner.  Not being able to fly right back to Husk has added to this frustration, causing even bitterness and cynicism as I find myself sighing over dozens of uninspiring restaurant meals that don’t measure up to the Husk barometer, still in search of reliving that feeling of pure innocent triumphant joy with truly delicious food.

Thus it came as no surprise to me when last week, this 1 year old restaurant in a beautifully restored 1890’s building in the center of Charleston, SC was crowned The Best New Restaurant in America by Bon Appetit magazine, another well deserved recognition to add to the impressive list of its charismatic executive chef, Sean Brock.  After working as executive chef of the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville he took his other current position at McCrady’s, the oldest restaurant in Charleston, where his beautiful innovative cuisine earned him the coveted 2010 James Beard Award for Best Chef Southeast.

To complement McCrady’s modern cuisine, the newer Husk (which is literally right around the corner) celebrates the tradition, history and identity of Southern cuisine.  With his ‘Make cornbread not war’ slogan and his left arm intricately tattooed with rainbow colored vegetables (carrots, beets, radishes, corn, pumpkins and onions oh my), this Virginia raised chef is on a campaign to rediscover the type of hearty and soulful cuisine that his grandmother made- capturing the scents, the flavors, and the very essence of comfort food cooked in a Southern kitchen.

Sean Brock is the heart and soul of the Husk operation, honoring locally sourced south-of-the-Mason-Dixon-line ingredients (‘if it ain’t Southern, it ain’t coming in the door’, he has said) and transforming them into delectable plates of good old home cooking mixed in with a dose of artistic sensibility and grace.  Brock is a Southern boy after all, the kind of gentleman that takes you in with open arms and gives you a friendly slap on the back with a hearty cackle as he gives you the best meal and the best time of your life. Before you know it, you’re flying high on the most insane food coma as he pours you a shot of bourbon with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, and just like that- you are forever hooked on the Brock charm.

It was on a warm and slightly muggy April evening that I met this bigger-than-life chef at Husk, walking into the gorgeous 2 story restaurant with my friends Ulterior Epicure, Chuckeats and Lesley, not knowing that the dinner I was about to have was going to change my life.  It was seconds after we sat down that Sean Brock appeared, with a beaming smile from red cheek to red cheek, that signature infectious laugh (never have I heard a more jolly laugh), and a bottle of moonshine for the welcome. Real Southern food, he said, is a culmination of African, French, English, Spanish, Native American and even Asian influences, a complex product of years of trade, immigration, agriculture and history.

Our first step into the Southern cooking tour started with a plate of Capers Blade oysters, harvested just 15 miles north of Charleston, drizzled with buttermilk ramp sauce and a 6 month aged Moscatel vinegar made in-house.  We slurped down the beautiful oysters as we reveled in Brock’s story about Earl, the farmer at Cruze Farm in Knoxville, TN who milks his Jersey cows and churns the buttermilk that was used to make the ramp sauce.

Then came the crispy fried pig ears, unanimously one of the table’s favorite dishes of the evening, soaked in a dark tangy vinegar so potent that the fumes almost singed some of the hairs in my nose and I succumbed by responding with a large pool of saliva in my mouth.  The crunchy ears were studded with a preserved butter bean chow chow, made with a recipe from the 1800’s, and wrapped in lettuce leaves for a handful of delicious perfection.

‘Here in the South we use whole animals’, Brock said, as he came over to present the next course of head cheese that he made by curing, poaching, then gently rolling into a cylindrical shape, much like a pancetta.  Dressed with Texan olive oil, arugula from the Husk garden and aromatic shavings of Charleston Meyer lemon rinds, these thin slices of pigs head made the most magnificent metamorphosis in a matter of seconds.  Bright pink and white marbled wheels of solid pork melted into translucent sheets of glistening liquid fat at room temperature, which then, subjected to the warmth of my tongue, instantly vaporized into a flavorful porcine gas.

Being the Southern gentleman that he is, Chef Brock personally presented each course to us, his dynamic storytelling and roaring laughter being the extra touches to our dining experience that made it a priceless memory. ‘We harvested 1600 lbs of tomatoes from our garden last year!’, he exclaimed, barely able to contain his excitement- so the Husk staff preserved tomatoes, lots of tomatoes, and we got to sample the goods in the Spring Garden Vegetable Soup course.  There were ramps, herbs and flowers, all from their 100 acre farm in this comforting bowl of soup, a colorful celebration of spring in a cup, but it was the accompanying cornbread that took our breath away.

Made with cornmeal, buttermilk, eggs and Benton’s bacon fat (with an emphasis on the fact that there is no sugar or flour in Brock’s version) and fired up in the wood burning oven in a cast iron skillet, this cornbread was further augmented with a generous brush of lard and a sprinkling of Florida’s finest salt.  Never has cornbread been so sexy, unapologetically saturated with the richness of scrumptious pork fat but still maintaining that signature grainy texture, tasting even better with a splash of Husk hot sauce.

Then we got another heavy dose of Benton’s bacon, at which we rejoiced with joy unspeakable for there is no single food more soulful than bacon, this time to bring a salty depth of flavor to the wood fired clams served in a Dutch oven with eggplant, a ‘sausage that my friend made’, wood fired fennel and heavily peppered slices of bread.  We were introduced to a novel Southern delicacy, samp grits, finely cracked kernels of corn laboriously made by hand by only one local artisan, like fine sand at the bottom of the pot soaking up the best of the flavorful juices.

Peas, pea shoots, pea flowers and mint from the Husk garden painted a canvas of bright chlorophyll green, a delicious study in sweet and bitter flavors against the accents of locally grown benne seeds, sesame seeds that find its roots in Liberia and were introduced to 17th century colonial America by West African slaves.  The intricate wreath adorned the most impressive and exquisite specimen of soft shell crab that I have ever had- a meaty, powerful and succulent thoroughbred unlike any other.

Locally caught Charleston sheepshead, line caught with fiddler crabs, sat on a bed of corn and squash succotash while a tomato gravy, made from Brock’s grandmother’s recipe with preserved tomatoes and a cornmeal and butter roux, seduced us with wholesome spoonfuls of sweetness.

We also had Virginian Kathadin hair sheep, more subtle than the meat from a wool sheep, presented in a meatloaf with alternating layers of leg meat and paté on a garnish of butter braised cabbage, Reverend Taylor butter beans and red pepper sauce.  It was a wonderful arrangement of meat that reminded me of how this animal is really supposed to taste like- robust, grassy and mighty.

The first strawberries of the season were tossed with mint and plated with milk ice cream and peanut cake, while a simple slice of delectable pecan pie worked its charm like a sweet Southern Belle.

Husk’s Black Bottom Pie was a creamy sensation, a dessert with layers of buttermilk custard, chocolate mousse and smoked Tennessee chocolate nibs sprinkled on top for that Southern accent (smoking makes everything taste better, and chocolate is certainly no exception).

Have I mentioned already that anybody walking through the doors of Husk are at risk for falling prey to the Brock charm?  It begins with that jolly smile followed quickly by his bellowing laughter so jubilant and playful.  Then his unique ability to tell a captivating story, rich in prose and deep in knowledge about every local ingredient and tradition of flavors that all together define Southern cuisine.  One taste of his food will make you a fan.  One entire meal will make you a believer.  What Sean Brock is doing at Husk is a reflection of Southern cooking in its most purest form.  And it is a meal to remember, one which becomes permanently etched in your memory center with powerful associations of taste, smell and sight, and one which simultaneously becomes carved in your heart as one that made you feel happy and nourished.

So when he pulled out some apple pie moonshine from his never ending bag of tricks at the end of our meal, we blithely obliged and took some shots, not knowing that this was the last bait to reel us in before fully succumbing to the Brock charm.  Somehow we ended up at the Husk Bar next door and shared some incredible Pappy Van Winkle’s reserves, thrown in with an eye catching demonstration of a perfectly round 8 ball ice sphere and a specialty ‘Julian’ cocktail.  It was some time later that night, that we were yawning and smiling at the same time, knowing that another shot of whiskey would kill us, yet unwilling to end one of the most magical evenings of our lives.  Crazy, some may say, but I call it Southern hospitality.

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

Random trivia: Did you know that one-third of Mexico’s sesame seed crop is exported to the US and purchased by McDonald’s for their sesame seed buns?

LA Gastronauts dinner at Elite Restaurant- Los Angeles

They had me at frog fallopian tubes.  Then they sucked me in with duck tongues. Now they sealed the deal with beaver.  I’m talking about the intriguing menu items that are offered through the Los Angeles Gastronauts dinners, unique dining experiences that bring like-palated adventurous diners together.  What started out as a huge success in New York has now traveled to Los Angeles, with Helen Springut as our LA chapter guide who sniffs out interesting international fare with unusual themes.

“You have to try to try to eat what’s in front of you” is their motto, with previous Los Angeles Gastronauts dinners featuring silkworms, crickets, freshwater eel and agave worm for a first hand experience into your very own episode of Bizarre Foods.  The Gastronauts guides work with local restaurants to devise a most interesting tasting menu, often featuring off-menu specialty items that otherwise would never be available to the non-Gastronaut.  The July dinner delved deep into adventurous Chinese fare at Elite Restaurant, a Cantonese restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley popular for weekend dim sum.  The main attraction of this dinner was live drunken shrimp, but I was there for the frog fallopian tubes, the only thing on the menu that day that was new to me.

An assortment of appetizers featured 4 delicacies starting with jellyfish salad, long golden noodles of jiggly slippery jellyfish flavored with sesame oil and a hint of red chile.  Slivers of sliced pig ears tossed in sesame oil and seasoned soy sauce, its crunchy cartilagenous center sandwiched between gelatinous outer layers, were a textural delight.  Then the duck tongues, little torpedo shaped morsels of deep fried spongy muscle with its awkward bone running through the center- not an easy or graceful eating experience but delicious nonetheless.

Strong notes of soy sauce and anise made the chicken livers and gizzards an enjoyable bite and a delightful companion to our free flowing bottles of beer and stimulating conversation with our new found Gastronaut friends.

The main course of live drunken shrimp arrived, a course where I was hoping to relive a fond childhood memory of weekend family dinners at our local Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles.  Live drunken shrimp was the highlight of these dinners, a fascinating ritual where fresh tiger shrimp would literally be drowned in Shaoxing rice wine, the gruesome process on public display in a lidded glass bowl placed in the center of the table for all to see.  The process of death was a slow one, a very long 5 minutes of agonal seizure-like activity that I watched, as a little girl, with sadistic interest.

The experience that day at Elite didn’t quite live up to my expectations, as they used Santa Barbara spot prawns instead of tiger shrimp, and sweet plum wine instead of Shaoxing wine.  In addition, the prawns were already slumped over in complete inebriation, its nervous system too wasted to put up a fight as we swiftly decapitated and peeled our catch all too easily.  The sweet succulent meaty flesh was delicious, and the experience was still worth it.

The best part of the drunken shrimp experience came quickly afterward, a plateful of freshly deep fried crispy shrimp heads tossed with garlic, green onions, salt and pepper that created a feeding frenzy at the table.

Then there were the sea cucumbers stir fried with green onions, ginger and garlic, a delightful plate with generous servings of tender gelatinous pieces of sea cucumber that kept slipping out of my plastic chopstick grip.  Luscious, bouncy and soft with a light flavor that took on the essence of its simple seasonings, these sea cucumbers were my favorite course of the evening.

Frogs- limbs, abdomen and all other stray parts- stir fried with a Chinese tea glaze, were like a bucket of wings and drumsticks, its light white flesh resembling the texture and flavor of chicken.  Little tiny bones meant more work for our reward, but the rewards, coupled with a swig of complementary cold beer, were tremendous in this fantastic frog dish.

The Gastronauts, including myself, all slowed down on the pig stomach course, a clay pot soup with unapologetically large cuts of stomach that outlined the anatomical structure and mucosal foldings of this digestive organ all too vividly.  Gingko nuts, tofu skin and whole peppercorns did little to temper the intense mustiness of the stomach, and for the first time that evening the enthusiastic Nauts showed signs of hesitance.

After a slurry of offals and proteins, the stir fried Chinese broccoli dish came as a welcome palate cleanser, although in Gastronaut style, it contained bits of deep fried fish fins that added a different layer of crunchiness.

Coming down on the home stretch, fried rice with salty fish, eggs and green onions finished the savory portion of the tasting dinner, a delicious and satisfying bowl of warm salty goodness.

We finally arrived at the dessert course, the course that I was looking forward to the most as I had never had frog fallopian tubes before.  I was imagining long gelatinous noodles of a more grotesque nature, but what arrived in front of me was a bowl of sweet white almond milk with plump nuggets of wrinkled gelatin resembling morels.  Asiatic Grass Frog fallopian tubes, also known as hasma, are typically sold dried, then rehydrated and double boiled in rock sugar to achieve that unique opaque glutinous quality.  The dainty pieces floating in the milky soup were slippery and slightly chewy like tapioca, making for an enjoyable dessert.

The next LA Gastronauts dinner is on August 7th at Starry Kitchen, with talented French chef Laurent Quenioux preparing bear tenderloin, duck hearts, veal feet, beaver leg and a cockscomb dessert. Sign up to become an LA Gastronauts club member and join us on our ongoing culinary adventures, where you’ll expand your mind, train your palate and make new friends.

Gastronauts

Random trivia: Did you know that young children are not recommended to eat frog fallopian tubes as the high contents of hormones may cause puberty to begin early?