Rogue Upstairs with Chef Tien Ho- Los Angeles

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

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

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

California Uni/Peach/Scallion

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

Chicken Liver Toast/Pickled Daikon/Cilantro

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

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

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

Scallop Crudo/Cucumbers/Dragon Fruit/Kaffir

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

Roasted Prawns/Spinach/Chanterelle/Sauce Choron

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

Rice Noodles/Chicken/Lemongrass/Chinese Broccoli

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

Hanger Steak/Eggplant/Tomato/Thai Basil

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

Grapes/Rosemary/Honey/Cinnamon Ice Cream

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

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

Rogue Upstairs

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

Roberto Cortez- CR8 dinner- Los Angeles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roberto Cortez

Next dinner series on November 15, 16, 17

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

A private dinner at Wolvesden, Los Angeles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cúrate- Asheville, North Carolina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cúrate Tapas Bar

11 Biltmore Avenue
Asheville, NC 28801

(828) 239-2946

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

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?

Tsubaki 海石榴 – Okuyugawara, Japan

The mountains, a baby pink hue of blushing spring cherry blossoms, turns a vivid green in the summer to a lively chorus of shrilling cicadas, then transforms into a stunning background of reds and yellows as the autumn maple leaves take on their fiery colors.  In the dead of winter is when I find these majestic mountains in its most beautiful state, a steely landscape hushed by the deep snowfall and the valley below blanketed in pure white.

Every year I look forward to this serene view of the Okuyugawara mountains from my private outdoor onsen, a rotenburo bath made with hinoki cypress wood that gives off a refreshing forest aroma as I soak in the healing hot springs at Tsubaki ryokan. There is nothing quite like a ryokan experience in Japan where guests travel from afar to indulge and relax in the comfort of true Japanese hospitality.  Tsubaki, a traditional ryokan opened in 1978, is only an hour by express train from Tokyo and an additional 30 minutes by car along the coast line, straight past the mikan orchards that grow on the slopes of Atami and deep into the hidden mountains of Okuyugawara.

As I take that first step through the entrance of Tsubaki, I leave all of my stress and worries at the doorstep and enter into a haven of beauty and serenity.  Ryokan are traditional Japanese inns where people come to rejuvenate their body in the healing waters of the local natural hot springs, rest their weary feet in the comfortable tatami rooms and nourish their souls with traditional kaiseki meals.

It is quiet at Tsubaki, a good soothing silence save for the occasional soft rustle of leaves swaying in the cool wind and the gentle babble of the stream that runs below.  A faint aroma slithers through the hallways, a brew of incense and freshly whisked green tea, while guests shuffle along the cobblestone paths in their yukatas to the communal bath for their first soak of the day.

There are 15 rooms at Tsubaki, each tastefully decorated in wabi sabi aesthetics of simple and understated beauty with accents of ancient scrolls, beautiful ceramics and breathtaking ikebana flower arrangements.  Some, like my favorite room, have an unobstructed view of the forest and the snow capped mountains, while others look over the koi pond and the zen rock gardens.  The room smells like fresh straw, and I lay down on the floor, my body flat against the green tatami mats as I deeply inhale its aroma into my lungs for my first real moment of relaxation.

Since 1978 Tsubaki has been one of the most exclusive ryokans in the country, maintaining the same level of hospitality and quality of service since its opening.  There is a Japanese term called ‘ichigo ichie’ 一期一会, meaning ‘one time, one meeting’.  Each new encounter, each new meeting is a unique and special moment that will never recur in one’s lifetime, and therefore, must be treated with utmost sincerity.  The staff at Tsubaki live by these standards, and make every moment truly unforgettable and exceptional. For this reason, each room has an attendant, a nakai-san, that sees to your every need.  One of their many important duties is to work with the chef to ensure an enjoyable kaiseki meal.

A stay at a traditional ryokan is as much about the food as it is about the hot springs.  A full course kaiseki meal is part of the allure of this exquisite Japanese experience, and at Tsubaki, Chef Tadanori Igarashi has been creating tasting menus for its guests since its opening in 1978.  Kaiseki is a type of art form that paints edible murals of seasonal landscapes on canvases of beautiful ceramics and lacquerware.  It is a labor intensive process for the chefs, a precise craft that takes years to master, to be able to express such artistry and elegance.

Each plate is a study in balance and refinement, and there is a smooth flow of concepts and flavors from course to course.  It is important that this elaborate meal, a ritual that when properly done takes 3-5 hours, follows a traditional formal structure in order to observe an overall sense of harmony.  The menu, beautifully handwritten in Japanese calligraphy, presents the courses in its appropriate order.

Sakizuke (先付): an amuse bouche

A shot of plum wine commences our meal, followed by the sakizuke course of kelp wrapped sayori gently curled around green bouquets of brassica with a touch of Kamo rice vinegar from Kyoto.

Hassun (八寸): the second course, sometimes called the zensai course, sets the seasonal theme with one type of sushi and an assortment of smaller bites

This kaiseki meal at Tsubaki, enjoyed this past winter shortly after the New Year, is about celebrating new beginnings and prosperity.  Slices of flash seared sea cucumber with ponzu are presented in a crane shaped ceramic bowl to symbolize longevity, with ribbons of gold and silver mizuhiki strings expressing joy.  Komochikombu (herring egg coated seaweed), a caviar topped potato chip, cured karasumi bottarga made with mullet roe, a bitter orange syrup of salted cod ovaries in an aromatic bowl of carved yuzu and a cut of ayu with its roe simmered with sansho berries symbolize fertility and new life.  A green fukinotou butterbur stem, simmered with peppercorns, gives me a bitter bite that I love with my glass of cold sake, to which I follow with the delicious pieces of pressed salmon matsumae sushi.  This hassun course brings seasonal gifts of land and sea together on the plate for a picturesque arrangement of colors and shapes.

Futamono (蓋物): a “lidded dish”, also referred to as wanmono, which presents a warm soup

A floating leaf on the surface of a pond, a green kinome pepper leaf creates a beautiful scenario in this futamono course where a white fluffy hamaguri clam shinjo infuses its bold flavors into the suimono broth.  A green udo stem, crisp both in texture and in its fennel-like flavor, create a contrast against the delicately constructed temarifu, a pillowy ball of gluten with colorful decorations to resemble a traditional New Year toy called a temari.

Mukōzuke (向付): a seasonal sashimi plate

The mukozuke course presents the freshest offerings of the sea in a simple presentation so that the guests can enjoy the pure flavors of the fish.  Divine cuts of fatty bluefin toro are augmented with a hint of Japanese karashi mustard and soy sauce, and meaty akagai clams of a warm orange hue are perfect with freshly grated wasabi.  The final sashimi presented in the hamaguri shell-shaped ceramic, a symbol of love and harmony, is hirame wrapped in a rich coating of uni that woos with its sweetness.

Meshimushi (飯蒸し): a steamed rice course, a special dish that is not often included in a standard kaiseki

Kuri okowa, a steamed glutinous mochi rice dish with chestnuts and a sprinkling of black sesame salt, is another celebratory dish that the Japanese commonly prepare for festive occasions.  The red hue imparted by the azuki beans is what makes this dish a symbol of happiness and joy, a standard offering at birthdays and weddings.

Takiawase (焚合): simmered vegetables served with meat, fish or tofu

In keeping with the traditional Kyoto style of kaiseki, this takiawase course keeps the seasonings light and subdued to appreciate the true flavors of the vegetables at their peak. Horikawa gobo, a thick spongy burdock root that is a winter standard, is stuffed with minced chicken meat and simmered in a light dashi until the vegetable has been plumped full of umami.  Lightly sake braised abalone, tender and moist, is accompanied by boiled mibuna greens and a dash of yuzu rinds for aroma.

Yakimono (焼物): broiled seasonal fish

2 delicacies that pair beautifully with cold dry sake find its way onto my plate for the first of the yakimono courses.  Sweet luscious cream oozes from within the seared membranes of the fugu shirako, poisonous puffer fish sperm sacs that are particularly plump and lovely this time of year.  To contrast, there is a triangular wedge of lightly seared bachiko, dried sea cucumber ovaries with a salty briny flavor that intensifies with each successive bite.

We each get our own plate of ise ebi, a majestic Japanese spiny lobster that is arguably the most festive culinary symbol for New Year celebrations.  The sweet flesh is briefly tossed in shuto, salt marinated bonito innards, then baked on a hot stone to a dramatic orchestra of sputters and sizzles as we all wait, impatiently, for our moment to pounce.

Shiizakana (進肴、強肴): also called azukebachi, is a course designed to encourage the consumption and enjoyment of sake

As if the 2 yakimono courses aren’t enough to encourage happy sake drinking, we get a trio of delights representing cardinal Japanese winter delicacies that make the sake flow even more freely.  Suppon nikogori, a thick gelatinous soup of snapping turtle with enough collagen to equal a Botox treatment, is served in an aromatic yuzu bowl, and Matsuba crab competes with Kegani hairy crab for a stand off where both ultimately win.

Onmono (温物): a warm braised dish, sometimes presented as a hot pot

The onmono course, as it is one of the last courses of a kaiseki meal, is intended to aid digestion and be gentle on the nearly full stomach.  A mixture of madai (tile fish), grated turnips, gingko nuts and wild mountain vegetables are simmered in a dashi broth, the result a simple and mild flavored course infused with the chef’s love.

Gohan (御飯): a rice dish made with seasonal ingredients

Kō no mono (香の物): seasonal pickled vegetables

Tome-wan (止椀): a miso or vegetable soup

Rice, miso soup and pickled vegetables are how a kaiseki meal typically ends, a simple combination that echoes the roots of Japanese cuisine.  Chef Igarashi himself comes out to present this last course, a fuki gohan made with tangy butterbur stalks and an assortment of tsukemono (pickled vegetables) that includes yellow takuan, thinly sliced senmaizuke turnips, matsutake mushrooms infused with kombu, cucumber asazuke and red shiso calabash (hyoutan shibazuke).

In the winter, traditional Kyoto style kaiseki calls for a white miso base soup. In the summer, a more robust and intense dark red Hatcho miso. Spring and autumn incorporate both for a blended miso base.  For this winter tasting menu, we slurp a nameko mushroom white miso soup- comforting, warm and delicious.

Mizumono (水物): a seasonal dessert of fruits, confections, ice cream or cake

First a plate of sweet juicy fruits- strawberries, blueberries, papaya and melon with a sprinkling of clear kanten crystals, followed by a Japanese dessert of koshian azuki bean paste encased in a fluffy green tea shiroan icing.

Beautiful arrangements of seasonal ingredients with intricate garnishes, course after course, presented on attractive plates that enhance the appearance and theme of the food forms the basis of a multi-course Japanese kaiseki meal, and within the structured flow of the banquet, the chef expresses his sensitivity and style to delight his guests.  It is a special experience to enjoy this in between relaxing dips in the hot springs, and to have the staff pamper you with their kindness and hospitality.  For the ultimate kaiseki experience you can even have geisha accompany you for the meal.  Geisha, who are highly skilled female entertainers versed in traditional Japanese song and dance, will keep the conversation lively and most importantly, as your dinner hostesses, they will ensure that your sake cup is never empty.

Tsubaki ryokan                                                                                                              776 Miyakami, Yugawara machi                                                                    Ashigarashimo-gun, Kanagawa prefecture            Japan                                                                                                                             TEL: 0465-63-3333

Random trivia: Did you know that there can never be a married geisha? If a geisha marries, she must retire.

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?