Sensational dishes of 2013- Japan

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

Izumo Shrine

Izumo Shrine

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

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

Ise Shrine

The Isuzu River, at Ise Shrine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FOIE GRAS SANDWICH- L’AS ラス (TOKYO)

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

MOROKO FISH- SHIGEYOSHI 重よし (TOKYO)

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

DEEP FRIED FUGU- YUKICHO 有希銚 (TOKYO)

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

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

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

DENTUCKY FRIED CHICKEN (DFC)-  DEN (TOKYO)

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

DRIED AYU WITH LIVER- DEN (TOKYO)

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

SANMA RICE WITH LIVER – DEN (TOKYO)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HAMO IN ICHIBAN DASHI- RYUGIN 龍吟 (TOKYO)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ROASTED BRETAGNE VEAL- ANIS アニス (TOKYO)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

ABC Kitchen- New York

My last blog post left off with the question of where world renowned chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten will open next.  This famous chef and restaurateur is on a roll, opening restaurants all over the world in big cities like London and Paris, and even remote locations like Bora Bora and Doha.  I was pleasantly surprised to find the answer in his current home turf, New York City.  Jean-Georges’ newest venture, called ABC Kitchen, brings him back to the Big Apple where he keeps a close watch over several successful and award winning restaurants, including his 3 Michelin starred namesake Jean-Georges in the Trump International Hotel and Tower.  As if he’s not busy enough, he opened ABC Kitchen in March of this year, just 2 weeks after opening The Mark Restaurant in the Mark Hotel on the Upper East Side. The theme at ABC Kitchen is farm-to-table with an emphasis on sustainability and conscious sourcing.

Jean Georges partnered with Paulette Cole, CEO of ABC Home, to open ABC Kitchen on the 1st floor of the ABC Carpet & Home Building near Union Square.  The beautiful restaurant and café space looks like an extension of the posh furniture and interior store, decorated in Boho chic with white wooden furniture, antique crystal chandeliers, distressed mirrors and salvaged entry doors that are so beautiful that they could easily sell as ‘as-is’ merchandise. Distressed wooden ceiling beams salvaged from a barn, exposed brick walls painted in pure white and artwork by local artists create a warm and inviting countryside atmosphere that transport you far away from the honking taxis and busy streets just outside.

ABC Kitchen salutes sustainability and local resourcing by constructing their menu around fresh organic and local ingredients that cultivate a harmonious relationship with our environment.  Every produce that is proudly displayed on a table by the semi-open kitchen comes from organic farms that don’t use pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or insecticides, and can be traced to a specific farm.  Meat, fish and dairy are also locally sourced from farms that promote cruelty-free humane animal treatment.  Herbs and microgreens are grown on a rooftop garden while teas, coffees and spices are organically cultivated on fair trade cooperatives.

The gorgeous interior is something to be proud of too.  Reclaimed wooden tables and porcelain dinnerware were handcrafted by local artists, bread baskets were handcrafted by indigenous Mapuche people of Patagonia, and many of their cups and flatware are antique.  Soy candles that come alive for dinner service are free of pesticides, GMO’s and additives.  The menus are printed on FSC certified 100% post-consumer fiber and coasters are made from cardboard shipping boxes.  Front-of-the-house staff uniforms were bought at local thrift stores.  The concept extends even to places that we cannot see- all cleaning products used in the restaurant are organic.  It’s no wonder that the space feels warm, clean and radiant.  From the moment that I stepped through the front door, I felt the refreshing and pure energy of the room.

It was the perfect place to catch up with my friend Steve Plotnicki of Opinionated About Dining over lunch.  Needless to say, as an out-of-towner choosing a restaurant for a New York based gourmand and blogger, I was a bit nervous.  What venue do I choose for a man who not only has dined at practically every restaurant in Manhattan, but has also appeared on No Reservations and can summon the voices of Jay Rayner and Eric Ripert for a food survey?  It was my luck that ABC Kitchen was one of the few restaurants in New York that Steve had not dined at yet.  We were both excited to try Chef Dan Kluger’s (who has previously worked at Gramercy Tavern and Tabla) market-driven cuisine.

We started with the sweet pea soup, a bright and almost fluorescent green broth with mint ribbons, carrot slices and big crunchy croutons.  Whole round green peas added snappy texture to the wonderful vegetable soup that was full of vibrant flavors.

Raw Maine diver scallops sliced into thin carpaccio slices were garnished with horseradish shavings, sea salt and olive oil in a beautiful pearly scallop shell.  The fresh scallops were incredibly tender and soft, melting in my mouth with the ease of warm butter.  What really made the dish was the olive oil, an intense fruity Californian oil with deep nutty aromas.

Pretzel dusted calamari served with marinara and mustard aioli could’ve been more crisp, as this dish is really all about texture.  Perhaps we would have had more success with their other appetizers, such as wood oven roasted asparagus, caprese salad, roasted carrot & avocado salad, or mackerel sashimi with ginger & mint.

Perfectly cooked steamed halibut with shiitake mushrooms, avocado and asparagus juice was a light dish with simple flavors but wonderfully orchestrated to enhance the innate delicious flavors of each vegetable.  I could really taste and appreciate the bounties of the earth in its purest and uncorrupted form.

The restaurant offered a variety of pastas and whole wheat pizzas, from housemade ricotta ravioli and veal meatballs to spinach & goat cheese pizza.  We tried the pizza with morels, parmesan, oregano and farm egg, a dish that has not quite found its perfect state yet and needs a lot of tweaking.  A better preparation of the various fungi to bring out its flavors better, coupled with more parmesan would have made it much more palatable. 

The best dish at ABC Kitchen was the Akaushi cheeseburger with herbed mayo, pickled jalapeños, wild arugula, herbed mayo and grated Cato Corner cheese.   I had never heard of Akaushi before my lunch at ABC Kitchen, and am now left wondering why this incredibly tender and flavorful meat hasn’t become mainstream yet.  Akaushi means ‘red cow’ in Japanese, and it’s a Japanese Wagyu brand of cattle that has the characteristic marbled meat and rich flavors of other Wagyu brands like Kobe beef.  Akaushi originally came from Kumamoto prefecture in Japan, and the small number of Akaushi cows that were imported to the US many years ago are now being raised at Heartbrand Beef in Harwood, Texas.  The perfect spiciness of the jalapeños, the creamy herb mayo, the sharp grated cheese that doesn’t overwhelm, the bitterness of the wild arugula and the soft Eli’s bun, all perfectly balanced the luscious fattiness and flavors of the medium rare Akaushi burger patty to make one of the best burgers that I have ever had in my life.

Salted Caramel-Peanut Ice Cream Sundae: The perfect balance in a sweet-salty dessert with a whipped creme fraiche topping, chocolate sauce, and caramel popcorn crisp.

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ABC Kitchen

35 east 18th street (between broadway & park avenue)
new york ny 10003
phone 212 475 5829

Random trivia:  Did you know that intact horseradish root has hardly any aroma or sharp flavors, but when cut or grated, the enzyme myrosinase released from the damaged cells degrades sinigrin to a mustard oil, giving it its characteristic pungent taste?

Manzanilla- Ensenada, Mexico

On a recent culinary adventure down to Baja California with my good friend Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA, I was introduced to a whole new world of Baja food culture that centers around fresh seafood unique to the 2 beautiful bodies of water that flank the peninsula.  Sea urchin tostadas topped with freshly shucked pismo clams, smoked marlin taquitos, manta ray and tuna fin soup, chocolate clam shooters, smoked oyster with chipotle sauce, abalone chorizo sopes and octopus carpaccio are just a few of the sensational dishes that changed not only the way that I view Baja cuisine, but also my life.  My mind was opened to a myriad of new flavors that I had never tasted before, and through meaningful interaction with the various people who prepared my food, my soul was graced with a newfound appreciation and respect.

Of the people that I met on this trip, none peaked my curiosity and interest quite like Chef Benito Molina, an eclectic individual whose signature long curly mustache, reminiscent of Salvador Dali, left just as strong of an impression on me as his cuisine.  There are many fine and distinguished chefs who are leading the gastronomic movement in Baja, but of them all, Molina is a contemporary artist who is way ahead of our time.  Similar to Basquiat’s graffiti or Warhol’s silkscreen pop art, Molina’s avant-garde food art grabs your attention with its bright splashes of color and bold presentation of forms.

His restaurant in Ensenada, called Manzanilla, is like a hidden artists’ loft tucked away on a dark and quiet industrial street across from a shipyard.  There is no sign outside, only a wooden fence, but once you step through the large doors it’s a sexy and mystical warehouse space that looks like a scene from a Stanley Kubrick movie.  A long beautiful wooden bar with vintage decor and intricate carving occupies almost half of the main dining space, illuminated by chandeliers that give off eery red lights.  Large contemporary paintings and sculptures by local Mexican artists decorate the space in such a way as to make me think that I’m just a pawn in a large surrealist installation.

Chef Benito Molina runs Manzanilla with his wife Solange Muris, also a chef.  If you’re a Bizarre Foods fan, you may recognize Chef Molina from the recent Baja episode with Andrew Zimmern, and his wife who took Zimmern through Mercado Hidalgo.  Molina is originally from Mexico City but did his culinary schooling and training on the East Coast where he worked at Todd English’s original Olives restaurant.  Perhaps this is his inspiration for naming his place Manzanilla, after the Spanish olives that were served as an appetizer.  Molina and his wife welcomed us with open arms to their dramatic restaurant that was packed with diners.  I instantly fell in love with the artwork and the seductive restaurant decor, and I knew that we were in for a fantastic dinner.  When I looked into Molina’s kind but intense eyes that sparkled with a tinge of mischief and burned with fiery passion, I was certain that it was going to be an experience of a lifetime.  Fresh local seafood and meats prepared with dynamic seasoning and presented with innovative artistic expression were paired with local wines from Valle de Guadalupe for a memorable tasting dinner.

Light flakes of sturgeon mixed with tomatoes, garlic, chile and herbs were served on crispy toasts as a lovely warm canapé.

A Kumamotor oyster garnished with shallot vinaigrette looked longingly across the vast burnt salt bed in hopes of being reunited with its companion, a Pacific oyster topped with soft gelatinous chunks of chopped pork trotter.  Unfortunately for the oysters, we gobbled up these briny little treasures in a matter of seconds before moving on to the next dish.

Small but intensely sweet Manila clams and a larger White clam were served raw on a bed of ice with soy sauce and habanero on the side and a few lime wedges to heighten the fresh flavors.

More bivalves arrived at our table, this time a duo of oyster and littleneck clam both smoked to order and still bubbling at the edges from the oven heat.  The smoked clam went surprisingly well with Gorgonzola cheese, and I was impressed with the pairing of tarragon butter with the locally grown Kumamoto oyster.  A fruity bottle of 2008 Viñas Pijoan Silvana, a Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Moscatel and Sauvignon Blanc blend, went particularly well with this dish.

During a pre-dinner kitchen tour with Chef Benito Molina, we saw one of his chefs filleting a sturgeon, apparently a catch quite rare in these areas of the water so he bought it at the fish market without hesitation.  It was amazing to be able to see the whole fish first before savoring its flavorful meat in a tiradito prepared 2 ways- one with capers, onions and the distinct tart sweetness of raspberry vinegar, and the other with chile verde, soy sauce and ginger.

When I tasted the fresh sardines, cured in salt and vinegar and topped with chile verde and ginger, my taste buds immediately recognized the flavor as being distinctly Japanese.  The side garnish of cultured cream, cucumber and wild fennel from Molina’s garden injected Mediterranean influences into the dish.  Chef Molina later told me that he learned how to make the sardines from a Japanese chef.  Sardines spoil easily, and it’s difficult to master the art of curing them, but Molina did a fantastic job.

Continuing on with Asian flavors native to my tongue, Molina served a plate of grilled mackerel and sardine on a bed of baby mizuna freshly picked from his garden in Valle de Guadalupe.  The crisp sharp flavors of the mizuna greens were the perfect complement to the smokey fatty flavors of the fish.  I almost wished that I could eat this dish with a bowl of white rice, but instead I enjoyed it with a glass of 2008 Estación por Venir Palomino blend.

Clam chowder was reinterpreted Manzanilla-style in a dish of Manila clams with smoked bacon, potatoes and saffron.  I loved this classy version where the intense appetizing aroma of saffron and bacon perfumed my nasal passages.

One of my favorite dishes of the evening was a powerful composition of thinly sliced 3 year abalone, lightly grilled in the wood-fire oven and splayed dynamically across the plate with a tomato, onion, serrano chile and pasote sauce.  A distinct appetizing smokey aroma wafted up from this masterpiece that seemed to explode with life and vigor out of the shell right into my mouth.

Calamares Manchez is a signature Benito Molina dish, one that has been enjoyed and written about by many who have been struck by its dramatic display and delicate flavors.  Grilled calamari was body painted in bright red with a concoction of roasted beets, ginger, orange juice, lime juice, garlic and habanero for a dish that tickled my taste buds with alternating sensations of sweet, tart and spicy.  Around this time, a bottle of 2007 Viñas Pijoan Domenica, a blend of Grenache, Petit Syrah and Cabernet, came to our table for the last portion of the meal.

Cabrilla sea bass, with perfectly seared crispy skin, was flavored with garlic and herbs and served on a bed of Swiss chard and poblano chiles.

Tender smokey white seabass was excellent with a garnish of radish salsa, but the table unanimously swooned over the rich and smokey huitlacoche risotto, a rendition of risotto so sexy and delicious that all future risottos that follow in its footsteps will never satisfy me.

If we didn’t give Chef Molina the red light on our meal, he would have gone all night, effortlessly pulling ideas and dishes out of his bottomless magic hat.  Our minds wanted to continue on with the Manzanilla dinner extravaganza, but our stomachs were feeling full and heavy and it was time to call it quits.  As if to remind us of how full we were, he finished our savory meal with a hefty serving of stewed offals cooked in chile guajillo and garnished with a sheet of homemade pasta.  Many diners have a separate stomach for desserts, and I have one specifically for offals.  I was the only one at the table who not only finished the dish, but also savored every bite of tender tongue, stomach and hoof.

We had the pleasure of having cheese maker Marcelo Castro Chacón of La Cava de Marcelo sit with us through our dinner.  He’s a fourth generation cheese maker from a family who has been producing cheese for 130 years in Ojos Negros.  He took his time in explaining the intricacies of cheese making and how he develops the unique flavors for his products that are loved by local chefs.  We got to sample 3 queso frescos with basil, pepper and rosemary, and 2 creamy and luscious añejo (aged) cow’s milk cheeses, aged 4 and 7 months.  Strawberry wine reduction and sliced green apples were paired with our fantastic cheese plate.

Even after all of this food, we somehow managed to squeeze in warm molten chocolate cake, mango coulis on shortbread cookies and mango flavored cream.

By the time that we were winding down from our dynamic and artistic Manzanilla journey around 12am on a Saturday night, the restaurant was just starting to fill up with local diners who were sitting down for dinner.  This isn’t Madrid, this is Ensenada- who starts dinner at midnight in Baja, I thought.  Turns out that the place was packed with local chefs like Guillermo Jose Barreto from El Sarmiento, wine makers like Hugo D’Acosta and the 3 women from Tres Mujeres, seafood distributors, vegetable farmers and the artisanal cheese maker that we had already met.  Benito Molina has a charismatic personality and magnetism that I found hard to resist, and the very fact that everybody in the industry came to Manzanilla to spend their Saturday night with him showed that they too were drawn to his allure and his food.

Manzanilla
Teniente Azueta #139

Zona portuaria

Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico

52-646-175-7073

Open from 12pm – 12am, Wednesday through Saturday

Random trivia: Did you know that abalone are hemophiliacs, meaning that they have no blood-clotting mechanisms, so even a small cut or puncture wound can be fatal?  For this reason, it is impossible to culture an abalone pearl, as the process may kill them.  If you see an abalone while diving, do not try to pry them off of rocks, as the smallest tear in their muscle will kill them- simply observe this beautiful creature from a distance.

Wasabi – New Delhi, India

Any Iron Chef fans out there?  I’m not talking about Iron Chef America.

Growing up in Tokyo, I used to love watching the original Iron Chef on television.  Back in the 90’s the show was a huge hit in Japan, where people all over the country tuned in every week to watch a brave newcomer battle one of 7 distinguished Iron Chefs.  The show featured chefs from all types of cuisines- Kenichi Chin who was a master of Chinese cuisine, Rokusaburo Michiba who represented traditional Japanese kaiseki and French chef Hiroyuki Sakai to name a few.  Sadly, the show ended in 1999, only to be replaced by a more westernized version called Iron Chef America that I haven’t been able to embrace.  I saw it coming when I watched in sheer horror as future Iron Chef America Bobby Flay jumped on top of his wooden cutting board with his filthy shoes while pumping his fists like a drunken baboon in a premature victory cry against Morimoto in an original Iron Chef episode.  What a disgrace for any chef to contaminate his sacred wooden cutting board where once living animals and fish are prepared for our nutrition.  And what irony that now both Flay and Morimoto are resident Iron Chefs on the American show.

There are a lot of things that bother me about Iron Chef America.  Chairman Dacascos’ exaggerated acting, for one.  It makes me feel very uncomfortable when I see his adrenaline pumped dilated pupils stare into the screen as his robotic limbs flail about in a mechanically uncoordinated dance.  His animated persona at the beginning of the show gradually wanes with time, and by the end of the meal his presence starts to disappear from the screen as he squeaks his refusal to eat dessert, claiming that he is watching his waistline.  And why do they always put English subtitles for Morimoto, even when he’s speaking English? I only watched 2 episodes of Iron Chef America and I was done.

Although I have a disdain for Iron Chef America and for Morimoto, who probably started off as a humble chef in Japan but has now transformed into an arrogant Americanized celebrity, I applaud him for making it big here in the states.  America is the land of opportunity, but it’s not every day that a foreigner achieves huge success and becomes a household name.   After all, Morimoto is an extremely talented chef whose creations make me drool with excitement.  Morimoto has restaurants in New York, Florida and Philadelphia that are all doing well.  You would think that his next venture would be in London, Paris or even Dubai.  Did you know that he has a restaurant in New Delhi, India?

I went to India a couple of months ago to visit my brother who lives in New Delhi.  Although I was looking forward to spending my first day eating dosas and curries, ironically my very first dining out experience in India was lunch at Morimoto’s restaurant called Wasabi.  I joined my sister in law who was meeting some friends there for lunch.  Wasabi, a contemporary Japanese dining restaurant, opened in 2008 in the lower level of the Taj Mahal Hotel in the center of New Delhi after a successful run of the same restaurant in Mumbai.

The restaurant was small and quaint in size, though grand and a bit clamorous in decor.  Dark red lamps hung over the open grill flanked next to a blood red painting of roses.  I didn’t mind the geometric lines and contemporary furniture so much as the fluorescent purple glow that the ceiling lights cast onto my food.  3 Japanese sushi chefs stood poised behind the sushi counter as they greeted expatriate business men and Indian madams for the lunch service.  I talked to the head sushi chef who told me that their fish was flown in from Tsukiji twice a week.  I also asked him how he found living in New Delhi, and he chuckled nervously as he shook his head from side to side (in a western gesture of ‘no’, not the Indian gesture of ‘yes’).

Our amuse was a pickled lotus root served with kuromame and a garnish of parsley leaf.  I was nervous about eating at a Japanese restaurant in India, but this dish exemplified simple authentic flavors of sweet and sour in a typical manner of understated beauty.

Even the salad was good at Wasabi.  I made a vow not to eat any raw vegetables while traveling through India, but this was obviously an exception.  The simple vinaigrette was refreshing and tart, and the dried bonito shavings were flavorful.

I couldn’t believe that I was eating sushi in New Delhi- and excellent sushi at that.  The sushi lunch set came with 2 types of tamago (egg) which were both soft and spongy, spicy tuna rolls, ikura and an assortment of fresh fish flown in from Tsukiji the day before.  My favorites were the chu-toro (fatty tuna) and hamachi (yellowtail) which tasted as good as anything that I would get in Tokyo, and the salmon, scallop, squid and mackerel were all fantastic.  Although the restaurant is called Wasabi, I didn’t expect freshly grated wasabi to actually be served with my sushi.  I felt like I was in Japan, and the fact that I was in this chaotic city of New Delhi hadn’t quite sunken in.

Our fellow Indian diners weren’t feeling adventurous enough to try raw fish, so they ordered teppan yaki grilled prawns for their lunch set.  The prawns were plump and sweet, and the soy garlic sauce that they were sauteed in was marvelous.  The large and extensive menu offered an array of grilled meats, fish and tempura, and I was impressed with the variety of choices that Wasabi offered.  Even more impressive was the beverage list.  They had a complete and comprehensive sake and tea list that featured fine selections from Japan.  The sake list was divided into categories like junmai daiginjo and honjyozo, and teas like kukicha, sencha, genmaicha and gyokuro filled up a whole page on the menu.

Green tea mousse cake, in a strange glow-in-the-dark color, was fluffy and light.  Its subdued sweetness and delicate flavors reminded me of patisseries in Ginza.

In this city where the residents are predominantly vegetarian and do not drink alcohol, I initially wondered how this restaurant could survive.  The small bar to the left of the entrance, lined with rows of whiskey bottles, practically screamed sin.  However, even at lunchtime on a weekday, the restaurant was bustling with customers and the small private dining room was quickly taken by a group of 6.  Sushi seems like an alien concept to the Indian community, but I saw that there was a high demand for this type of cuisine in New Delhi.  The growing Indian economy and business industry attracts foreigners with a taste for global cuisine, and this is exactly the type of place that they seek for business lunches, fancy dinners and a special dining experience.  I thought it was clever and brave of Morimoto to pinpoint this specific niche in a part of the world that seems the farthest from Tsukiji.

Wasabi

The Taj Mahal Hotel

1, Mansingh Road
New Delhi – 110 011
India.
Tel No.: (91-11) 23026162

Random trivia: Did you know that the lotus root, which has 9-10 holes, is considered to be an auspicious vegetable?  It is believed that through these many holes, one can see through to a positive and prosperous future.  Also, each lotus flower seed cup contains many seeds, which is believed to represent fertility.