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?

LQ@SK- Los Angeles

An f-bomb bellowing lad in a yellow banana suit hardly seems like a fitting partner for a classically trained French chef, but when the stars aligned for the unlikely duo that is Starry Kitchen’s Nguyen Tran and Chef Laurent Quenioux, a delicious culinary project was born.  Los Angeles diners were saddened with the news of Quenioux’s Bistro LQ closing earlier this year, one of the few restaurants in the city that offered a wonderfully stocked cheese cart and a vivid menu of non-traditional fare like calves’ tongue, duck neck and goat tripe, proteins perhaps too adventurous and ambitious for the local audience. While Quenioux has since kept busy in the kitchens of Vertical Wine Bistro as Executive Chef, his enthusiasm and creativity needed an extra outlet, and a pop-up project called LQ@SK (Laurent Quenioux at Starry Kitchen) was born.

What started out as an underground food operation out of Nguyen and Thi Tran’s apartment has now become a famous joint called Starry Kitchen where downtowners nosh on lemongrass chicken bánh mì and crispy green tofu balls for lunch, and spicy Korean black pork belly for dinner on Thursday and Friday evenings.  Starry Kitchen has a loyal following, a spacious dining room, an energetic staff, a large kitchen, an available venue for dinners most nights of the week, and a signature mascot/owner whose banana suit has become just as famous as his radiant smile and dirty mouth- it’s a near perfect location for a pop-up.  Near perfect, that is, as there is no gas stove- only an induction cooker that may scare off most chefs, but not our French renegade whose LQ@SK ‘Fooding Around in LA’ pop-up dinner shows no sign of such kitchen shortcomings in his dynamic food. The first successful run of LQ@SK last month showcased delectable whimsies of global delicacies like escamoles tacos and teriyaki rabbit albondigas. This year, he started his tasting menu with another Mexican delicacy in his amuse bouche, huitlacoche.

Amuse  – Little neck clam, huitlacoche, epazote, sauerkraut sushi

Poached and chopped little neck clams were neatly tucked into a bite sized sushi with huitlacoche, sauerkraut and epazote flavoring for a light and crunchy amuse.  The earthy seduction of huitlacoche, dark maize fungus also known as corn smut (and raven’s excrement in Nahuatl), came through very slowly through each successive bite.

Warm veal feet, “ravigote”, anchovy, piquillo varnish, “gargouillou” of summer vegetables

One of my favorite courses of the evening was the warm veal feet, a delightfully gelatinous and tender serving of buttery meat, classically paired with an acidic ravigote sauce and an anchovy fillet that added a whole new dimension of flavors to the dish.  That alone would have sufficed to make for a satisfying course, but the addition of bright orange piquillo varnish with an assortment of summer vegetables (cucumber, tomato, radish, carrot and beets) transformed each bite into a memorable marriage of bright festive flavors.

Scallops 2 Ways, (tartar and sautéed), beet ribbons, zucchini smear, vermouth demi glace

Minced scallops perfumed with yuzu and a sprig of dill glided across a carpet of red and yellow beet sauce while a meaty scallop, perfectly pan seared to exquisite tenderness, soaked up the flavorful juices of the vermouth demi glace and zucchini smear.

Lemongrass galanga Consommé, Sautéed Foie Gras, Dungeness crab, roasted nectarine

The other memorable success of the evening was the Dungeness crab and roasted nectarine dish, not only for the complex flavors and light seductive aromas of the beautifully done broth, but for the surprising fact that the foie gras, which would normally take center stage, was outshined by the summer nectarines.  The foie was transformed into a docile and subtle accent under the sweet spell of the fruits and soup, making for an unexpectedly light dish that was easy to eat and enjoy.

Lamb loin, lamb kidney, lamb sweetbreads, chipotle, sweet peas

The lamb trio, reminiscent of Chef Quenioux’s Bistro LQ days, presented a trio of lamb loin with peas and tarragon, lamb kidney with a spicy chipotle sauce and lamb sweetbreads with Meyer lemon and thyme. Each told a completely different story, and the one that lured me in the strongest with its unique texture and lingering spiciness was the lamb kidney with chipotle.

Pandan pana cotta, grenadine, prickly pears, cherry apricot sorbet

Colorful Crayola hues and playful contemporary plating popped against the white background, each component with a strong personality that delighted my palate.   Bright magenta prickly pear smear, grenadine Thai basil seeds with a quiet crunch and a quenelle of cherry apricot sorbet were fun components to this dessert plate, but the Kaffir lime and pandan panna cotta, with an unusual lime green color, was the most memorable, for it lingered for almost half an hour on my palate.

Techno music, friendly staff and a laid back vibe created an atmosphere that made it seem like a casual gathering of friends more than a restaurant pop-up, a refreshing experience in this phase of LA dining where guest chef stints and pop-ups are becoming all too common.  $45 for 5 solid delicious courses was also appealing, reminding me that great food and a fun dining experience can still be had for an affordable price and not exclude budget conscious diners.  This second round of LQ@SK will only be around for a few more weeks, and we can only hope that there will be more to come.

*August 7th at 7pm, LQ@SK will be doing a special 1 night-only dinner event for LA Gastronauts. Fancy some duck hearts, bear tenderloin, cockscombs, sea cucumbers and…..beaver? Sign up for this unique dining experience before it sells out!

LQ@SK

Starry Kitchen                                                                                                                 350 S Grand Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90071                                                                                                   (213) 617-3474

Random trivia:  Did you know that epazote, a pungent Mexican herb, is frequently used to season beans as it is believed to help relieve abdominal discomfort and gassiness from eating beans?

Kohaku 虎白- Tokyo, Japan

Tea master Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591) expressed the four principles of chanoyu, the Japanese ‘Way of Tea’, with four characters: Wa Kei Sei Jaku (harmony, respect, purity, tranquility). They are the principles that practitioners of tea integrate into their craft and their daily lives, and what has now become synonymous with Japanese hospitality.  Peace, humility and selflessness are how the Japanese try to live (albeit with a hefty dose of shyness), and the service industry is also built on these teachings.  Such Japanese hospitality is taken to an entirely different level in a traditional ryotei where a diner can experience ultimate bliss through a kaiseki meal.

Japanese hospitality begins the moment one calls to make a reservation at a place like Kohaku, a quaint ryotei that opened last fall in Kagurazaka, a beautiful neighborhood in Tokyo where real geisha can still be seen walking along the cobblestone streets.  Through winding roads, narrow alleyways and mysterious staircases lit with lanterns, Kagurazaka seems like a maze, but it is one of the most charming areas of the city where one can time travel back to old Tokyo.  While many ryotei in Kagurazaka maintain a strict policy of ‘Ichigen sama okotowari’ (‘We respectfully decline first time customers. Reservations are only made with the introduction from a regular customer’) as a way to honor and respect their regular patrons, most, like Kohaku, have an open door policy.

‘Thank you very much for calling Kohaku. We will be awaiting your arrival on your reservation day,’ they said, promptly following the call with a fax of a map and directions to the restaurant.  On the evening of my dinner, they indeed were waiting for my arrival out in front of the restaurant entrance with beautiful Japanese umbrellas ready to protect me from the light drizzle of rain that the dark grey clouds were about to deliver. Welcome, they said with warm smiles, addressing me by my name as if they knew me, and I instantly felt like I was coming home to a familiar place.

Kohaku is the more casual sister restaurant to famed 3 Michelin star Ishikawa, a traditional ryotei in Kagurazaka run by Chef Hideki Ishikawa.  Kohaku’s chef and owner, Koji Koizumi, was at Ishikawa from the very beginning, serving as Ishikawa’s right hand man for years. When Ishikawa moved his Michelin feted establishment to a new location in 2008, it was an easy decision to trust Koizumi to make something special out of that space.  While Ishikawa stays true to traditional Japanese kaiseki flavors and concepts, Kohaku ventures into the modern, incorporating ingredients not usually associated with Japanese cuisine and giving kaiseki an avant garde twist.

The kaiseki begins with a delectable dish of uni in its own spiny receptacle, filled with layers of light refreshing flavors and crisp textures.  Diced cucumbers, crunchy and fresh, are followed by slippery junsai that slide across my tongue like water-striders on a pond.  Chilled yuzu gelée, perfectly sweet and tart, add bright summer notes to the buttery sea urchin for a memorable dish that starts the kaiseki off on a high note.

Chef Koizumi’s food at Kohaku can perhaps be classified as nouveau kaiseki, introducing a different way to enjoy this elegant style of Japanese cuisine.  His playfulness can be seen throughout his courses, enough to intrigue the diner’s curiosity but fortunately without compromising classic flavors and preparation.  There is nothing more important in Japanese cuisine than tradition, and he stays faithful to that concept while presenting his tasteful creativity.  The temari sushi course, for one, delightfully perfumed with the enticing aromas of roasted sesame seeds and green yuzu rinds, showcases that prized brininess unique to caviar while bringing a level of familiarity and comfort to this non-native roe.

Yet at the same time, he excels and ultimately impresses with simple seasonal dishes like deep fried ayu, sweet finger-sized river fish eaten whole from head to tail, the slight bitterness of its intestines and a smidgen of seaweed salt the perfect complements to the watermelon-like flavors of its succulent flesh.

As with any traditional kaiseki meal, great care is taken in choosing the correct vessels for food and beverage, for it forms the framework within which to showcase the art.  One can feel the sensibility of a chef through the ceramics and glasses that are used, and my moment of adoration for Chef Koizumi came when our sake arrived, perfectly chilled in a gorgeous hand hammered pewter cup, ready to pour into the most perfect little brown-glazed ochokos that made our sake taste unforgettable.

Tiny pinky crustaceans called sakura ebi, or cherry shrimp from Suruga Bay in Shizuoka prefecture, colorfully dot the surface of the warm somen noodle dish served in a white miso broth with shiitake mushrooms, mitsuba herbs and shaved white negi.  It’s a comforting dish, one that satisfies any craving, transporting its recipient to a full course of blissful slurping and a habit-forming shrimp high.

Sake steamed abalone, juicy and tender, excites with garnishes of shiso, myoga and seaweed ribbons for a simple yet satisfying tsukuri plate.

Early summer bounties unite in joyous celebration in a luscious creamy black truffle sauce brimming with beautiful earthy notes.  I bite into the thin stalk of himetake bamboo shoot and it reciprocates with a vigorous crunch and a delicate milky flavor.  Juicy mizu nasu eggplants from Senshu are as sweet as apples and the ainame fillet, a rock fish only found in Japan around this time of year, tastes as happy as it looks to be bathing in truffle sauce.

Chef Koizumi keeps the kegani hairy crab dish simple with a cut of asparagus and yuzu gelée, for the sweetness of the Hokkaido crab does not require much more than those little accents, and simplicity, after all, is one of the hallmarks of Japanese cuisine.

There is no summer ingredient that symbolizes the mastery of a Japanese chef better than hamo, or pike conger, a long powerful fish whose razor sharp teeth and vicious face are no indication of its delicate sweet white flesh.  Hamo are laden with rows of tiny coarse bones that are impossible to remove, and only a skillful chef with superior knife skills can perform honegiri, making precise incisions into the bones without cutting through the skin.  The result of Chef Koizumi’s workmanship is tender hamo, flesh and bones, tossed with myoga, shiso and hamo skin that has been blanched in hot water, proudly served on a bed of chilled pickled plum gelée that has been sieved to a fine texture.  Little dollops of grated ginger, wasabi and spicy daikon radish allow the diner to enjoy different flavors to augment the tartness of the ume sauce.

The high collagen content of suppon, or snapping turtle, naturally renders its hearty broth gelatinous and silky, and viscous enough for the little bits of sweet corn, winter melon, snap peas, scallops and tiger prawns to appear suspended in time and place.  The turtle soup is comforting, and like nutrient rich liquid gold it glides down my palate and invigorates me with its Midas touch.

The wanmono course (rice dish) of a kaiseki meal signifies the impending end to the culinary experience, and we are given 2 choices, of which we take both.  Wagyu beef, slow braised to exquisite tenderness and quickly pan seared with sweet corn and young onions, is served on a bed of warm white rice and nori.

The triumphant winner however, is a truffle zousui, a soft rice soup simmered in katsuo kombu dashi and garnished with corn and plentiful shavings of summer black truffle. Ocean and land gently embrace in a delicious collaboration of delicate aromas and flavors for an ultimate experience of pure goodness.

Sweet Yubari melons at its juiciest summer peak are highlighted in the dessert course as a bright orange melon soup with rum bavarois, sherry sorbet and a drizzle of kuromitsu (brown sugar syrup), all neatly presented in beautiful red lacquerware.

This beautiful kaiseki meal at Kohaku, course after delicious course, shows an honest and straight look into how Chef Koizumi sees the world.  It’s a world that joyously celebrates the seasons, that gracefully moves within the subtleties of Japanese art forms, that lovingly honours the harmony between man and nature, that cultivates mutual open-mindedness between traditional and modern, and flowing through it all like a gentle stream is a sense of comfort and peace, unperturbed.  It’s a world created on the principles of Wa Kei Sei Jaku (harmony, respect, purity, tranquility)a world that I would love to visit again, perhaps on another drizzly summer evening where they will be waiting for me outside, welcoming me back under those majestic Japanese umbrellas.

Chef Koji Koizumi

Kohaku 虎白                                                                                                                    3-4 Kagurazaka                                                                                                         Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo                                                                                                        Japan                                                                                                             03-5225-0807

Update: Kohaku was awarded 2 Michelin stars for the 2012 Tokyo Michelin Guide- well deserved!

Random trivia:  Did you know that Yubari melons are the most expensive melons in the world? A pair of Yubaris sold for 2.5 million yen (~USD 23,800) in 2008’s first harvest auction in Sapporo, Hokkaido.  They usually sell for USD 50-100 in the market.

Shigeyoshi 重よし revisited – Tokyo, Japan

I have said this before and I will say it again.  Shigeyoshi, an elegant 40 year old restaurant in the heart of Tokyo, is my favorite restaurant in the world.  While I have been fortunate enough to experience numerous meals all over the world that have blown me away, this is the place that I always come back to, and look forward to returning to the most.  It’s not just the attentive yet unobtrusive service- that is almost a given in any restaurant in Japan.  It’s not just the highest quality ingredients that represent regional specialties and seasonal offerings.  It’s not just the consistency of astoundingly delicious meals, plate after plate, course after course.

It is Chef Kenzo Sato, the quintessence of the soul of traditional Japanese cuisine, that attracts me to this quaint 2 Michelin star haven.  He is humble and unassuming, doing it all for the simple and pure love of food and people.  He has kept the same loyal staff at his side for the majority of the 40 years (and they have happily remained by his side), knowing the importance of consistency, especially for his regulars who depend on it. He pours his heart and soul into each and every plate, and it comes through in his beautiful presentations and unforgettable flavors.

My first experience at Shigeyoshi was 6 years ago, and I will never forget the magical feeling that I had on that fateful night.  Sitting at the pristine wooden counter, directly in front of this chef who immediately drew me in with his bright smile and charisma, I remember watching his every move with wonder as he skillfully prepared each course.  It quickly became apparent to me that this man absolutely loved his restaurant and his craft, and I could taste it in every memorable bite.  His food is exciting, but also comforting, and always saturated with love and care.  At Shigeyoshi, there is no thinking, critiquing or analyzing.  One just feels, and that feeling is pure- ‘delicious’.

That extraordinary feeling has brought me back to Shigeyoshi every year since then, and through every successive meal I have fallen more in love with this amazing chef, the tranquil space that he has created and the exquisite food that has changed my life.

Every meal at Shigeyoshi is a testimony to the beauty of Japanese cuisine.  There is something so incredibly wonderful about the simplicity and sensitivity of Japanese aesthetics.  Sayori sushi, layered with a slice of perfectly pickled Kyoto turnip senmaizuke and neatly wrapped with a kombu seaweed ribbon, was served with a side of nanohana brassica lightly dressed with sesame paste- nothing more, nothing less, and it was perfect.

Coarsely chopped Japanese kuwai potatoes and arare rice crackers were made into a shinjyo, deep fried and served with warm dashi broth and spinach for a comforting earthy dish with just the right balance of moist and crunchy textures.

Matoya oysters from Mie prefecture, a staple on the Shigeyoshi menu, are famous for being sterile and bacteria-free through a special method of breeding and harvesting.  These oysters had a clean crisp cucumber finish, pairing especially well with the Dom Pérignon Vintage 2000 that we brought that evening to celebrate Chef Sato’s second Michelin star, a well deserved recognition.

The tempura course featured two delicious items- shirauo, little tiny ice fish that were still alive and kicking when they were tossed in the hot oil, and kansouimo, dried sweet potatoes from Ibaraki prefecture with a chewy and dense texture.  A smidgen of sea salt accentuated the freshness of the delicate fish and brought out the intense caramel-like sweetness of the satsumaimo potatoes.

One of my favorite courses at every Shigeyoshi dinner is the chinmi mori, an assortment of Japanese delicacies that serves as the ultimate complement to chilled sake.  This time it was sweet luscious Hokkaido uni, tender namako sea cucumbers with ponzu, sweet amaebi shrimp with its eggs, asari clams with bitter butterbur sprouts, and an unohana of shime saba, pickled mackerel coated with soy pulp.

The futamono course, a ‘lidded dish’ of warm soup and hearty seasonal offerings in ornate lacquer bowls, usually signals the halfway mark of a traditional kaiseki meal.  In stark contrast to the simplicity of his signature suppon turtle soup that he usually serves every year, this time Chef Sato presented a bold and dynamic dish of hongamo duck shinjyo topped with warm mochi and garnishes of baby turnip, thinly sliced daikon and carrot.  The shinjyo was like paté, rich, airy, buttery and divinely delicious, but Chef Sato insisted that it was only made from duck meat.

Tai sashimi (red snapper) from Naruto at its fattiest winter peak was served with thick seaweed and a rare vegetable called kanzou no me, a Chinese medicinal plant that tasted like licorice.  One of the charms of dining at the counter at Shigeyoshi is to be able to see all of the action in the kitchen, including Chef Sato’s swift and skillful hands breaking down the whole majestic tai into a beautiful sashimi plate.

Young tender bamboo shoots from Kyushu, the southern part of Japan, lightly seared and dusted with katsuobushi, were served with braised butterbur sprouts in a gorgeous black lacquer bowl for a simple aromatic mountain vegetable dish.  These fresh takenoko bamboo shoots, which don’t resemble their canned counterparts in the slightest bit, were crisp and vibrant with a slightly sweet milky flavor.

No part of a perfect red snapper goes to waste, especially when it’s a beautiful specimen from Naruto, Japan.  After we enjoyed the sashimi course, Chef Sato prepared a traditional tai no nitsuke dish with the fish head, briefly simmering it in a soy ginger sake broth.  While slurping up the gelatinous coating around the fish eye and nibbling every tender morsel of meat and skin off the bones, I realized that this is exactly what sets Shigeyoshi apart from all other restaurants for me.  Michelin star or not, it is not about complicated technical artistic plates with multiple components that aim to impress and ultimately overwhelm.  It’s about what sings to the soul, and this expertly seasoned and perfectly executed dish of braised fish head, while not sexy nor fancy, was one of the most delicious things that I have ever eaten.

Echizen gani, a type of crab that is often called the ‘king of winter food’, was served with a side of its tomalley, the savory creamy green innards that I personally find to be the best part of the crab.  These large snow crabs, whose season runs from November to March, are sold at auctions with special yellow tags on their right claw to distinguish their supreme brand.  Sweet, moist and light, this prized crab meat was particularly delicious paired with our cold sake.

For the final savory course at Shigeyoshi, the diner is always given multiple options to accompany rice, tsukemono pickles and miso soup.  In the past I have enjoyed traditional Japanese comfort dishes of kaki furai or breaded deep fried oysters, ebi ten don or shrimp tempura rice bowl, kaki age don or mixed tempura rice bowl, and oyako don which is simmered chicken and eggs over rice.  At Chef Sato’s recommendation (‘I got the most amazing toro this morning from Tsukiji!’), I ordered toro sashimi, thick tender marbled slices of buttery heaven that effortlessly melted in my mouth.

A simple dessert of intensely sweet grapefruit wedges was the most perfect way to cleanse our palates and end our wonderful kaiseki meal.

For the past 40 years Shigeyoshi has continued to maintain the same level of quality and service, staying immune from fickle trends and unnecessary pretentiousness despite its recognition as one of the best restaurants in Japan.  Shigeyoshi has it all- the finest seasonal ingredients, perfect execution, beautiful presentation, heartfelt service and memorable food.  The special added touch is the chef’s character, and the intimate experience that he has with each diner through his food, which is an extension of his soul.  His food satisfies my palate, and also conjures up tender memories from childhood and a strong sense of comfort and peace.  Dining at Shigeyoshi always reminds me of what food is ultimately about- to nourish.  I look forward to going back to Shigeyoshi on my next return home to Tokyo, where Chef Kenzo Sato will be waiting for me with that same warm welcoming smile.

Shigeyoshi 重よし                                                                                                             6-35-3 Corp Olympia 1st floor                                                                                 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku Tokyo                                                                                            Tel 03-3400-4044

Crab trivia- did you know that the Japanese Spider Crab, which is known to be the biggest crab in the world, is also the oldest, the most deep-living, and with the highest longevity (they can live for more than century)?

Gastronomic nemeses

I have cracked open suckling piglet skulls to eat its creamy brains and brainstem.  I have sipped on warm turtle blood, poured straight into a cup from its jugular.  I have chewed on live octopus legs, its powerful tentacles tightly gripping onto the insides of my cheeks.  I have drunk warm camel’s milk, freshly hand milked from the teats of a West African desert camel.  I have devoured whole sparrows, crunchy beak, skull, wings and all.  I have relished whale blubber, deliciously cold smoked in the dead of winter.  I have slurped creamy fish sperm sac, perfectly seasoned with a dash of ponzu.  I have noshed on charred armadillo flesh and mystery primate limbs.  Bugs, amphibians, mold, reproductive organs and appendages are no sweat for me.  In fact, every such unique culinary experience I have thoroughly enjoyed, licking my chops at the end of the meal.

My humanitarian work and travels have taken me all over the world, to countries some people may have heard of, but have no idea where to locate on the world map.  New types of animals, novel methods of cooking and interesting dining rituals have opened my eyes to a whole new way of appreciating food.  What may seem strange and bizarre to one can be a delicious afternoon snack in another country.  What may be perceived as animal cruelty in one place may be the only mode of survival and a long standing tradition with great historical significance in another.  Through sampling various types of foods all over the world, I have enjoyed learning about other cultures.

Opening your mind to trying local delicacies also means opening your heart to accepting the people and the customs of that particular culture, and for that reason I never turn down an exotic bite, no matter how strange or gory it may appear.  I will try anything twice, and as long as it tastes good, I will do it with an enthusiastic smile.  But even I, an adventurous eater with a strong stomach, have my Achilles heel- something that will bring me to my knees and leave me begging to be put out of my misery.  I have finally met my match, and my nemeses come in two forms: first, the French andouillette.

‘French, pork, tripe and sausage’ seem like a no-brainer. A culmination of all of my favorite things should automatically make it into my Top 10 favorites, but strangely enough, it is one of the most repulsive foods I have ever encountered.  A course grained bulky sausage stuffed with pork chitterlings, pepper, wine and onions, the andouillette is a French delicacy that dates back to 877 AD.  I’m still perplexed as to how I, an offal loving eater, cannot make peace with andouillette, but it is that distinct foul odor of dirty urinals that makes me shudder with disgust and defeat.  My first experience was in Paris as a teenager, completely sickened by this mound of innards that as a culinary icon holds a formal title: AAAAA, for Association Amicale des Amateurs d’Andouillette Authentique.  My second experience was 2 years ago in a well known bouchon in Lyon, one of the regions famous for andouillette (the other is Troyes).  Again, that distinct stench of locker room bathroom urine and feces made me wimper and recoil in fear, as I watched my dining partner roll his eyes in ecstasy as he savored every morsel of what he claimed was one of the best French inventions.

My other nemesis is a Japanese delicacy.  Funa zushi is a traditional and sacred Japanese dish, said to be the oldest sushi in history dating back 1200 years. Fresh female funa (Crucian carp) from Lake Biwa is scaled, then gutted through their gills to preserve the integrity of the body and the roe sack.  First it is cured in salt for 6 months, then rinsed and dried.  Then it is stacked inside a wooden barrel with cooked rice, allowed to ferment for up to 3 years under layers of salt, water and heavy stone weights until full maturation. As the mixture rots and ferments, it produces enough carbon dioxide to topple a 70 pound boulder off the top of the barrel.  The result is a well fermented piece of fish, rotted down to its bones and cartilage which have become soft enough to render the entire fish edible.  Some liken this extremely rare and valuable delicacy to Roquefort cheese.  I, an avid Roquefort fan, disagree.

Many years back, this seemingly harmless slice of fish with an impressive stuffing of bright orange roe, drove my body into sensory shock.  It wasn’t the initial sour smell or the doughy sticky consistency of rotting flesh that surprised me.  With the first bite, a caustic fume of ammonia-like gas shot straight through my palate into my eyes and my brain, precipitating massive tearing, temporary blindness and a strong gag reflex.  In the presence of important company, I forced myself to swallow and keep silent.

My second experience came, ironically, at the same restaurant with the same company- again, as I vow to try everything at least twice, I took a bite.  The funa zushi was just as horrible the second time around, its putrid smell and rotted flesh taking me back to anatomy class in medical school.  My dining partners, who were more accustomed to this highly prized delicacy, slurped up their sushi with joyful tears in their eyes as I held back my urge to hurl.

Andouillette and funa zushi have traumatized me for life, but I am determined to continue eating the world and not letting anything else come in the way of my appetite and my desire to connect with other cultures.  At least for now…until I’m faced with Cambodian fried tarantulas and decomposed walrus meat prized by the Inuit.

Where will your culinary adventures take you next?

Les Créations de Narisawa- Tokyo, Japan

In the dead of winter, when all is dormant, a culinary shaman summons the elements of earth, fire and water, recreating vibrant landscapes of forest and sea on beautifully presented plates.  Tender green leaves sprout from moist edible dirt and pearly white shells resonate with the brilliant splash of ocean waves.  Mother earth’s energetic vibrations are translated into delicious stories through this spiritual guide, Chef Yoshihiro Narisawa, whose elegant cuisine reflects the beauty of the seasons and the natural landscapes that nurture us.  He reminds us of where we came from through his edible interpretations where guests ‘should not only be eating a meal, they should absorb life itself- and there is no feeling that can exist beyond that experience, for one cannot perfect that which nature has created.’

His 2 Michelin star cuisine at Les Créations de Narisawa in Tokyo that was recently ranked 12th best restaurant in the world in the S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants List has a message, and it is an important one of balance, harmony and beauty.  Through flavors that are European (having trained in Switzerland at Girardet’s, France at Robuchon and Italy at Antica Osteria del Ponte), aesthetics that are distinctly Japanese, techniques that are modern and concepts that are uniquely his own, he takes inspiration from our surroundings to create a culinary experience that awakens our senses.

In his Winter Collection 2011 menu, he guides me on a journey through ocean and land for a delicious celebration of life.  The experience begins with ‘Evolve with the Forest’, Narisawa’s edible tribute to how humans should symbiotically coexist in a forest ecosystem.  A bubbling tabletop concoction of fermenting bread, slowly rising from the gentle heat of candlelight, releases a waft of yeast aroma as our vegetable course arrives.  A fresh crimson colored radish, sprinkled with edible dirt made from deep fried mustard seeds, appears as if it was freshly pulled out of the earth.

Narisawa’s tasting menu is minimalist, listing only the main ingredient of each course and whether it is a ‘gift from the sea’ or a ‘gift from the forest’.  The first ocean treasure washes up on a plate of sea shells, Toba oysters from Mie prefecture prepared as thick fluffy fritters in a powdered charred leek batter.  While the fritters are not the most handsome looking players on the block, the intense smokiness of the charcoal black batter lends an intensity and depth of flavor that fares well with the bivalves.

Land and sea come together in beautiful union in the hirame carpaccio dish made with thinly sliced hirame from Awaji-shima, scallop cream sauce and domestic olive oil from Kagawa prefecture.  The clear plate creates an optical illusion of a vibrant garden sprouting from the ground with edible flowers, garden greens and herbs reaching tall and high up into the sky.

The spear squid dish, named ‘Wind of Basque’, undergoes a dramatic transformation in the blink of an eye, from a naked virgin to a seductress concealed in a veil of black mist.  Like a matador that whirls his red flag in one graceful arc, our server sweeps in with a spoonful of charcoal black liquid nitrogen ash made with burnt red peppers for a dramatic presentation. Burnt red pepper soup, Basque pimenton sauce and now a blanket of pepper ash create three layers of smoky pepper flavors to augment the tender squid.  2007 Domaine André Vatan Sancerre finishes all 3 of these seafood courses on a good note.

The fully risen bread, now ready for baking, is placed in a heated stone pot on a table adorned with twigs and dried citrus.  A smidgen of chestnut powder is lightly dusted onto the bread before it is covered with an oak tree lid to bake for 12 minutes.  A faint aroma of yuzu seeps through from under the lid to tantalize our appetites as we wait for what seems an eternity until our hot bread is ready to be served.

Chestnuts and roasted walnuts add a wonderful earthiness to the warm bread introduced on the menu as ‘Bread of the Forest’.  Tender young buds sprouting from the pot of soil that signify the return of spring are in fact red cabbage sprouts in a layer of dehydrated Taggiasca black olive tapenade and whipped butter.  To be able to experience the full evolution of this bread course is a unique Narisawa concept that certainly brings man and nature closer to eye level.

The Saint-Sever foie gras dish, scoring high on the pleasure factor, is my favorite dish of the evening.  The rich buttery foie with a perfectly seared exterior that is first poêléed in red wine vinegar and fond de veau, then finished with balsamic vinegar and strawberries, has the perfect balance of acidity, sweetness and savoriness that leaves me scraping the plate for every last remnant of sauce.  Our bottle of 2008 Domaine Prieuré Roch Nuits St Georges pairs especially well with this memorable course.

My expectations are heightened when they present this beautiful chemistry set-like display of soup-filled glass tubes for the next ‘gift from the sea’.  Chinese Jinhua ham soup releases an intoxicating perfume into my nares as it is poured onto our spiny lobster dish, but the end result is a disappointingly uninteresting plate of incongruous flavors.  Bitter nanohana brassica takes away from the finesse of lightly dusted spiny lobster fritto while the prominent acidity of sudachi shavings seem to compete with the savor of the prized ham broth.

The final ‘gift from the sea’ is a madai red seabream from Awaji-shima, a well prepared slice of fish with crispy skin that I also find difficulty enjoying with its diffuse and somewhat disjointed plating of components.  A scallop-esque cylinder of sesame tofu fritto, bright green wakegi onion sauce, Japanese putit vert greens, sudachi lecithin foam, and Kyoto white miso and scallop ribbon sauce are all individually delicious, but I struggle to grasp Narisawa’s philosophy of appreciating our natural landscapes through simple forms of beauty when I am too busy assembling each bite.

Chef Narisawa does, however, make up for it in his ‘gift from the forest’ dish of expertly prepared Hida wagyu rump roast where he manipulates the element of fire to express ‘rebirth’ and ‘transformation’ through another charcoal black presentation of carbonization, a recurrent theme throughout his tasting menu. Leeks are charred, allowed to mature and cure for 3 days to remove its bitterness, then coated onto the beef.  The meat is arroséed with olive oil on low heat in a frying pan, requiring 1 chef to continuously baste the meat by hand for 30 minutes on the stovetop.  The result is a tender moist cut of meat, evenly pink throughout as if temperature controlled sous vide, full of juiciness and the very flavor and essence of what beef is meant to taste like.  A red wine bordelaise, some sweet Japanese chijimi spinach, a palate cleanser of Japanese sake granité and a bottle of 1998 St. Emilion Denis Barraud ‘Lynsolence’ later, I find myself soaking up the energy of the natural elements through my satisfied taste buds.

The first dessert course, served in a dramatic glass sculpture of winter landscape, features Le Lectier pear smoked with magnolia chips, magnolia flower ice cream and a chocolate fondant made from 125% Valrhona chocolate.  A long overwhelming explanation of how chocolate can have a cacao percentage of 125% is kindly given to us by our server, but its technicality loses my attention and my brain fails to comprehend this concept.  It seems though, through swirling the thick creamy chocolate dessert in my mouth, that Valrhona has somehow devised a way to create one of the most intensely concentrated dark chocolates in a product called P125 Coeur de Guanaja chocolate, and I am happy to receive.

Warm and pleasantly bitter matcha green tea french toast is presented in a dessert duo with milk ice cream coated with sweet sugar cane powder, a contrast of temperatures and flavors.

The dessert cart at Les Créations de Narisawa is quite a spectacle, its multi-tiered trays of smoothly sanded tree barks offering an irresistible array of bite sized sweets, from tarts (pear, muscat, chestnut and Satsuma), macarons (chestnut, tea), chocolate truffles and kirsch cherries to galettes, meringues and choux cream puffs.

A signature Narisawa item, a colorful gradation of petit macarons completes the tasting menu, with flavors ranging from white chocolate to rose and cacao intensities ranging from 41% to 80%.  While a fun concept and a delight for the eyes, the macarons are dry, brittle and overly sweet.

Les Créations de Narisawa’s philosophy is an admirable one, one that honors nature, respects the elements and derives inspiration from our beautiful surroundings.  With unique concepts and new methods of preparation and cooking, my meal here proved to be a great learning experience, but somehow didn’t take my breath away as a memorable one.  With long introductions, lengthy explanations and technically elaborate dishes, I found this tasting menu to be more cerebral and less visceral, and one that I unfortunately don’t look back at and yearn to relive again.  With such passionate visions to pay tribute to the forest, the sea and the earth, one would hope that these inspirations would translate more easily, but its complexity and technicality had me distracted on more than one occasion, creating within me a sensory block to receive Narisawa’s art.

Nature, for me, is raw, bold and at times chaotic (and in that there is such beauty)- the very opposite of what I felt at Les Créations de Narisawa that night where the food, the service, the quiet dining room and the spotless kitchen (my utmost respect to the cleanest kitchen I have ever seen where they even wipe the light bulbs every day) were pristine, polite, sterile and almost too perfect.  Some day I hope to return to this restaurant during a different season and with a different mind set to be able to be more vulnerable to Chef Narisawa’s artistry and completely fall under his spell.

Les Créations de Narisawa

2-6-15 Minami Aoyama
Minato-ku, Tokyo
Japan
Phone:  +81 (3) 5785 0799

Random trivia: Oysters are considered aphrodisiacs.  According to Greek mythology, Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, sprang forth from the sea on an oyster shell and promptly gave birth to Eros, god of love.

さんだ Sanda- Tokyo, Japan

Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Chanel are arguably the top 3 powerhouse fashion brands that have been dressing, tressing and decorating beautiful women from head to toe for decades.  Their easily recognizable logos are splashed all over bags and clothes on international fashion runways and magazine covers.  Similarly, in the beef realm we have Kobe, Matsuzaka and Yonezawa, the 3 famous sandai wagyu brands that reign supreme in the bovine world with their unique method of breeding and exquisite marbled meat.  These respective haute couture and haute cuisine trios are international icons with A-list star status.

And then…there’s Hermès. Incomparable in craftsmanship, each carefully hand-constructed by dedicated artisans, ultra luxurious and a timeless classic.  The illustrious Birkin bag (a larger version of the Kelly), for one, is a fashion legend that is known to fetch up to $19K with a 6 year waiting list.  Such is the Sanda gyu in the wagyu world, a more exclusive beef brand in a league of its own with only a handful of farmers who raise less than 1000 cattle per year.  While Sanda gyu is served selectively at upscale steakhouses like Aragawa for a price that could buy an Hermès clutch, one can sample this highly prized beef at a more affordable restaurant in Tokyo called Sanda after its illustrious namesake.

The only catch is that you won’t be sinking your teeth into juicy cuts of sirloin and rib eye steak.  Sanda restaurant, tucked in a quiet neighborhood behind the Tokyo Midtown Complex in Roppongi, only serves Sanda wagyu offals.  Every part of the glorious specimen of Japanese cow is treated with utmost respect and served elegantly in kaiseki style, elevating beef organs to a 1 Michelin star status.  My first meal at Sanda 6 years ago, in the Akasaka location that has since closed, was a life-changing experience.  Luscious cuts of cow blood vessels, intestines and reproductive organs opened my eyes to a whole new world of innards and showed me the path to offal nirvana.  It was time for me to make my pilgrimage back to this holy shrine for an awakening of the senses and transcendence into offal enlightenment.

前菜:アキレス腱ポン酢

Due to the interesting selection of cuts, the chefs serve each course without an introduction.  ‘Try it first, then I will tell you’ is their motto, as they watch each diner’s reactions with mischievous smiles.  The restaurant blooms with conversation and laughter as playful exchanges between guests and chefs come naturally.  The first course, for one, had me stumped.  A dainty starter of soft semi-translucent strips with chopped scallions, spicy momiji oroshi grated daikon and ponzu sauce was all about texture- pliable with a subtle crunch, a pleasant elasticity and bounce against my teeth, all owing to the high collagen content of julienned Achilles tendon.

ハツモト中華風

Then came the hatsumoto, directly translating to ‘the root of the heart’, aka ascending aorta, the largest main artery that stems from the left ventricle of the heart to deliver oxygenated blood all throughout the body.  Thick batonnets of aorta with the texture of semi-firm cheese and a mellow buttery savor were exceptionally delicious tossed with sesame oil, shaved Tokyo negi and togarashi chile, one of my favorite bites of the evening.

ハチノス胡麻和え

Another sensational hit from the tasting menu was the hachinosu honeycomb tripe, the second stomach of the cow, with its firm chewy texture and ever so delicate hint of wonderful gaminess, balanced by the creamy white sesame dressing that made the sake flow easily.

フワ辛子醤油

Sanda is quite possibly one of the only restaurants in the world to serve beef lung and do it so elegantly, showcasing its bold minerality and iron flavor in a simple preparation with soy sauce and Japanese karashi mustard.  Referred to as fuwa by the chefs, taken from the onomatopoeia fuwa fuwa to describe something soft and fluffy, these pink cuts of pulmonary tissue were indeed spongy and light, juxtaposed against the delicate crunch of the cartilaginous bronchioles.

椀物:牛タン団子のスープ

The stand out course of the evening was the beef tongue and throat cartilage dango meatball soup, a densely packed yet soft flavorful meatball with finely chopped bits of crunchy cartilage for fun marvelous texture.  The enticing aromas that wafted through my nares and the warmth of the delicate broth that seemed to spread down my esophagus straight through to my toes left me sipping this bowl of comfort in silence with a long lingering sigh of content on the finish.

刺身:レバーの刺身

Glistening crimson red slices of liver sashimi adorned with white sesame seeds and chopped scallions were creamy and silky like crème fraîche, surprisingly sweet with absolutely no iron flavor characteristic of this organ.  A quick dip in salted sesame oil rendered these delightful segments even more slippery on the tongue, making for an intense session of culinary foreplay.

牛トロ寿司

Harami, commonly known as hanger steak from the cow’s diaphragm, was prepared as delectable sushi, one topped with wasabi and the other with Japanese karashi mustard for a side by side of eastern and western interpretations.

揚げ物:ミノの唐揚げ

As the chef placed this deep fried dish in front of me, I caught his look of challenge in eyes.  ‘Guess which part of the cow this is,’ he seemed to say with his smiling eyes, as my taste buds pondered over this elastic piece in deep thought.  Springy, pliable, but with added layers of juicy flavor through every successive bite, it was obvious that it was a part of the digestive tract.  It was mino, the first stomach, deep fried with shishito pepper and dipped in sea salt and curry powder, a delicious morsel to complement our sake.

煮物:ほほ肉のシチュー

It seemed unfair to be served only 2 bites of Sanda’s breathtakingly delicious beef cheek stew, tender cuts of richly flavored meat braised in red wine long enough to melt its connective tissue layers into liquid umami.  Having fallen under its hypnotic spell, I slurped the sauce down to its last drop with no shame, chasing this liquid gold down with a Japanese plum wine made from red wine infused plums.

焼き物:四種

For the grilled course, the chef presented the 4 beef selections of the evening.  Plates of coarsely chopped daikon radish and finely chopped cabbage were served to enjoy with the fattier cuts of grilled meat, while 3 types of soy sauce (wasabi, garlic and ginger) were presented to use as dipping sauces.

膵臓

Pancreas was surprisingly light, lean and tender, reminding me of grilled chicken thighs, going well with the wasabi soy sauce.

ほほ肉

Thinly sliced beef cheeks had a little more texture and robustness, augmented by the zing of ginger soy sauce.

やん

A first for me, the next grilled course was called yan, the thick knobby portion of connective tissue between the 2nd and 3rd stomach of the cow.  Definitely more chewy and dense, this morsel was all about flavor- the more one chews, the more flavors are extracted, until the jaw fatigues and cannot chew anymore.

ハラミ

Harami, the rear diaphragm, was unexpectedly fatty and juicy, turning into liquid fat at the first bite.  Dipped in wasabi soy sauce, these were intensely rich bites that went well with the crispness of coarsely chopped daikon radish.

鍋:牛タンのしゃぶしゃぶ

4 perfect thin slices of Sanda beef tongue were presented across the counter for the final wagyu course, a shabu shabu.

ギアラ、しびれ

Wrapped around crisp stems of mizuna greens, the delicate slices of tongue were tender and delicious, but the star players in the ponzu dish were the bite sized servings of savory giara, the 4th stomach of the cow, and shibire, buttery sweetbreads/thymus glands that simply melted in my mouth.

〆:中華麺                                                                                                                        デザート:黒胡麻アイスクリーム

Slurping ramen noodles in a light beef based broth, spiked with green onions and a generous sprinkling of coarse black pepper, followed by a simple dessert of dark black sesame ice cream, was the perfect way to end the inspirational meal of beef offals.

Only in Japan can such an experience be possible- a full course kaiseki of beef innards, expertly prepared and elegantly presented to be worthy of a Michelin star, for the quality of the Sanda wagyu brand naturally renders its innards at a similarly high quality.  Not once did I feel like I was having entrails, waste products normally thrown to the hounds, for the freshness of the ingredients, the delicacy of the flavors and the beauty of simple plating elevated the dining experience to one of luxury and finesse.  For a lavish adventure into organ meats, pay a visit to Sanda and allow the friendly welcoming staff to guide you into a whole new world of beef.

Sanda                                                                                                                            Wagyu Restaurant                                                                                                         4-5-9 Roppongi                                                                                                    Minato-ku, Tokyo Japan                                                                                 03-3423-2020

Random trivia:  Cows ‘moo’ in English, but they make other sounds around the world.

Afrikaans: moe-moe                                                                                                   Bengali: hamba                                                                                                              Dutch: boeh                                                                                                                   French: meuh                                                                                                          Hungarian: bú                                                                                                            Korean: um-muuu                                                                                                         Thai: maw maw