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?

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Shigeyoshi 重よし- Tokyo, Japan

Takeshita-dori

Harajuku, a bustling district in the lively city of Tokyo, is the epicenter of cultural juxtapositions where the rich elite collide with eclectic punk fashionistas.  Where Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Christian Dior proudly line the grand shopping boulevard of Omotesando, which sees no paucity of young and old shoppers who are driven by their greed for expensive designer clothes.  Just behind omotesando is the famous Takeshita-dori, the narrow street just yards away which attracts grade school teenagers for cheap casual wear and knick knacks.   Omotesando literally means ‘the front road to the shrine’ in Japanese, and was originally constructed as the main path that led visitors to the grand Meiji shrine just behind Harajuku station.  It’s almost easy to forget that a peaceful and sacred shrine stands proudly at the periphery of this busy shopping district where people are consumed with superficiality.  In addition, the Jingu Bridge, which connects the Harajuku area to the shrine, has become the mecca for cosplay youngsters who don’t hold back in their lavish goth and lolita costumes, acting as a hub for unique and outrageous street fashion.  Do you recall Gwen Stefani giving a shout out to the Harajuku girls?  This is what she was talking about.  If you’re visiting Tokyo for the first time, a visit to Harajuku is a must- you can get a taste for many dimensions of the Japanese culture in a matter of an hour.

A stone’s throw away from the dynamic streets of Harajuku, on the 1st floor of an apartment building right on Omotesando Avenue, is a quiet unassuming restaurant with a wooden sliding door entrance.  In this peaceful haven lies Shigeyoshi, my favorite restaurant in the world.  Shigeyoshi is run by Chef Kenzo Sato, who at the tender young age of 27, opened this restaurant in 1971.  He trained at Taimeshirou in Nagoya, and named his restaurant Shigeyoshi after his mentor.  I have been coming here every year for the past 6 years or so, and it has quickly made its way into a very special place in my heart.  I go back to Tokyo every year over the Christmas and New Year holidays to visit my family, and a trip to Kyubei and Shigeyoshi are the activities which I look forward to the most.  I was proud and ecstatic to learn that Shigeyoshi was recently awarded 2 Michelin stars- these are 2 very well deserved stars, for I know first hand that the food, service and ambiance are exceptional.

The space is a comfortable size, fitting 3 tables and 12 seats at the pristine wooden counter.  There are 2 private rooms upstairs as well, but the golden seat is at the counter toward the right, in front of Chef Sato and the stovetop.  What I love about Shigeyoshi is that despite its Michelin status and its revered reputation in the culinary world, it always feels like I’m hanging out with Chef Sato in his own home.  It’s as if I dropped by his house on a weekend for a casual friendly chat as I sit on the bar stool and have him whip something up in the kitchen for me.  Especially now that he knows my likes and dislikes and even saves my favorite dish for me, I feel comfortable being with him and being in that space.  I almost forget that I’m in one of the best restaurants in Japan, as the place is warm, relaxed and serene.

There’s something to be said about this classic Japanese style of counter dining which is common in sushi restaurants.  When chef and diner are face to face, it naturally creates open dialogue and wonderful conversation.  For the diner, there is nothing more fascinating and wondrous as seeing your food be prepared right in front of you with artistic mastery and care.  For the chef, there is nothing more gratifying and humbling than watching the diner savor every bite of your creation with joy and contentment.  At Shigeyoshi, it’s always an honor and such a treasure to chat with Chef Sato and his trusted crew of 5 chefs as they prepare a meal of a lifetime. Especially with Sato, who has a great personality and calm demeanor, I never run out of interesting topics to talk about.

Chef Sato started our incredible tasting menu with an amuse bouche assortment of 黒豆 kuromame braised black beans with sprinkled gold powder, 唐墨 karasumi bottarga slice and 平目のこぶ締め hirame no kobujime kelp-infused fluke sushi.  It was such a treat to be able to commence my meal with the rich and salty flavors of bottarga.

Fresh raw oysters were quickly and skillfully shucked by Chef Sato and served with a garnish of chopped onions and his version of cocktail sauce.  We had 的矢 Matoya oysters from the Mie prefecture which claim to be 無菌 mukin or sterile and bacteria-free.  It was the first time that I had ever even heard of such a concept, and was very intrigued.  History has it that shortly after World War II, American soldiers and personnel at the American bases in Japan refused to eat oysters in Japan because they were thought to be contaminated and of bad quality.  This criticism angered and fueled scientist Tadao Sato’s quest to create safe bacteria-free oysters.  He eventually patented a process in which oysters are bred in sea water that has been sterilized by UV radiation.  These bivalves had a clean and sweet flavor with a crisp cucumber finish.

Next we had tempura of 白魚 shirauo white fish and 蕗の薹 fuki no tou.  I had a tough time researching the English translation for fuki no tou, but I finally found it: Japanese butterbur scape, or butterbur flower stalk.  They look like round plump flower buds with a light green color and a brown center.  Fuki no tou are one of the first wild mountain vegetables to sprout through the layers of melting snow as winter turns to spring.  The slight bitterness of these vegetables is addictive, and it is most popular as tempura although it can also be prepared in braised dishes and miso soup.  The warm crispy tempura was surprisingly light with very little oiliness.

Chef Sato knows my eclectic taste in food, and he was proud to present me with this assortment of Japanese delicacies.  You know when Bugs Bunny’s eyes turn into big red hearts that pop out of their sockets when he sees the sexy Lola Bunny walking by?  Well, that’s what my eyes were doing when I saw this orgasmic smorgasbord of lovely delights.  Top left was a mixture of ずわい蟹のミソと子の塩辛 salt marinated Zuwai crab digestive innards and ovaries with an intense caviar-like flavor.  This was my favorite.  Top middle was sliced sea cucumbers in a ponzu sauce garnished with yuzu zest.  I love the unique textures of fresh sea cucumbers- the outer layer is soft like a fresh mango, and the center layers are more firm, at times even crunchy.

Top right was a small serving of extremely sweet Hokkaido sea urchin which was so fresh that it had a marvelous plump texture.  Bottom right was a piece of コハダ kohada or shad that had been marinated in and mixed with おから okara, which is the dry crumbly soy by-product of tofu.  Shad, due to its fishy taste that spoils easily, is normally marinated in heavy vinegar and salt, so it was a pleasant surprise to enjoy this fish in a light and delicate preparation.  Bottom left was tofu no moromizuke 豆腐のもろみ漬け, tofu marinated in a moromi shoyu that was specially made for Chef Sato by a soy sauce maker in Hiroshima.  Moromi is the fermented mash of soybeans, whole wheat, salt and water from which soy sauce is eventually made.  Tofu was simply marinated in this special moromi for 30 minutes, which rendered it soft and creamy like cheese.  Simply amazing.

スッポンスープ Suppon soup- this is a Shigeyoshi standard in the winter season, and I always look forward to having this cup of snapping turtle soup that warms my entire body down to my very tippy toes.  It’s a common tradition to eat turtle in Japan, especially in the winter time, as it is said to have great medicinal and nutritional powers and is best enjoyed in a hot pot nabe dish.  Shigeyoshi’s soup tastes like refined beef consommé, except with a slightly thicker consistency that barely leaves a silky gelatinous veil on the tongue.

Turtle is high in collagen and can practically make any woman look 5 years younger overnight with its ability to plump up wrinkled skin.  It is also said to enhance virility and sexual stamina in men, especially when drinking its fresh blood.  I’ve tried fresh suppon turtle blood before, many years ago in my early 20’s.  The warm bright red blood was served in a shot glass mixed with sake.  It didn’t taste like anything other than the sake, but I remember feeling flushed and hot all over for a couple of hours, and wondering if that was what menopause was going to feel like.

Next was a fantastic dish of 平目 hirame flounder sashimi from Naruto city, served with a side garnish of flounder liver.  Both the regular meat and the エンガワ engawa, which is the meat from the dorsal fin, were fatty and succulent with a delicate satiny texture.

We had 2 different types of grilled fish, of which my favorite was the マナガツオの西京焼 managatsuo no saikyo-yaki,  Silver pomfret marinated in saikyo miso.  The pomfret fish, which is similar to butterfish in consistency, hailed from Naruto city in Tokushima prefecture where the previous flounder was also from.  I loved the buttery and rich texture of the fish coupled with the sweetness and lingering aroma of the white miso marinade.  Chef Sato told me that he marinates the fish in the saikyo miso marinade for anywhere from 1 to 2 days depending on the quality of the fish, and never more than that to prevent the miso from overpowering the inherent flavors of the fish.

The other grilled fish hailed from Takeoka of Chiba prefecture, a fatty and delicate piece of line-caught 甘鯛 amadai tilefish that was simply seasoned with sea salt. It was interesting that both fish dishes were plated with a small piece of pickled chorogi 長老木 which is a Japanese artichoke, aka Chinese artichoke, aka Crosnes du Japon.  These tiny bumpy vegetables are not artichokes like their name suggests, but actually a member of the mint family.  I love learning about new foods.

越前ガニ Echizen crab was at their peak during the winter season, and we enjoyed the incredible sweetness of the moist and juicy meat along with a small but tantalizing serving of its green innards.

The next dish exemplified the concept of understated beauty in Japanese art and cuisine.  A simmered 煮物 nimono dish of Kyoto turnips with fuki butterbur stems was prepared simply in a flavored broth and garnished with grated ginger.  The flavors and the presentation were both simple, yet in its simplicity and nakedness, it was beautiful.  These winter treasures were prepared to a perfect consistency in the way that would most respect its purity and essence.  The dish was warm, comforting and peaceful.

And finally, the dish that I had been waiting for.  This is my favorite dish at Shigeyoshi, and I have this every year.  河豚の唐揚げ deep fried fugu puffer fish is sure to convert even the most hardcore fried chicken fan.  Most of the pieces served this particular evening were from the fish’s head, and I thoroughly enjoyed nibbling on the moist tender meat that fell right off the bones and the big fat gelatinous lips.  This is the kind of dish that makes you so engrossed in the food that all conversation comes to a halt.  For those precious few minutes, it’s just me and the fugu, and nothing else matters.  I can honestly say that this is one of my most favorite dishes in the world.

We had some special pickled vegetables before our final rice course.  The 沢庵 takuan pickled daikon radish on the right was made at Shigeyoshi, but the 奈良漬け narazuke, pickled white melon, was made by one of my dining companion’s sisters.

At Shigeyoshi, you can choose any one of many rice dishes to end the meal.  Choices include rice with deep fried oysters kakifurai カキフライwhich I ordered.  Lovely.

Another option is rice with toro, or fatty tuna.  Scrumptious.

The kakiagedon, mixed vegetable tempura over rice, is a classic rice dish.  Delectable. Other choices include oyakodon chicken and eggs over rice, gyudon braised beef over rice, and really if there’s anything that you want, Chef Sato and crew will make it for you.

A warm and nourishing bowl of しじみ汁 shijimi jiru clam miso soup rounded out the savory portion of our incredible meal.

Delicious seasonal domestic fruits were sweet like honey and refreshing on my palate.

A traditional Japanese dessert of ぜんざい zenzai, a warm bowl of red azuki beans with mochi, was served in beautiful red lacquerware.

As if this extravagant meal wasn’t special enough, Chef Sato gifted me with a signed copy of the Shigeyoshi book that is no longer in circulation.  This beautiful book, which features Shigeyoshi’s seasonal specialties like turtle soup, doesn’t have many recipes but rather highlights the story behind each dish.  It talks about Chef Sato’s inspirations, memorable anecdotes and stories about the artisans who produce the high quality ingredients that are used in the dishes.  I especially love the essays that Chef Sato writes about certain regular customers with whom he has established a long lasting friendship, and their favorite dishes at Shigeyoshi.  It’s an amazing and touching book about the intention and the human spirit behind this wonderful restaurant.

As Chef Sato shed his chef’s jacket and joined us at the counter for an after dinner beer,  I got an even more personal look into the soul of this magnificent chef.  His gentle eyes, so full of life, lit up with each new conversation topic as his engaging exchanges revealed his genuine curiosity for life.  His calm yet uplifting sense of humor is one that I can only imagine comes from years of hardships and adversity.  It is impossible for this marvelous chef to not affect your spirit, for his vitality is infectious.  I mean, look at that smile.  If you could only have one meal in Japan, have it at Shigeyoshi.  Go with an empty stomach, and let the beauty of the chef, the restaurant and the food permeate your heart.

Shigeyoshi 重よし

6-35-3 Corp Olympia 1st floor

Jingumae, Shibuya-ku Tokyo

Tel 03-3400-4044

Random trivia:  Fugu, or puffer fish, is notorious for containing lethal amounts of the poison tetrodotoxin in its liver.  The poison acts as a paralytic and kills its victims in a slow and agonizing death from asphyxiation as it paralyzes the respiratory muscles.  To date, there is no antidote.  For this reason, only specially licensed chefs can prepare this potentially deadly fish.  A chef must undergo a 3 year apprenticeship before being allowed to take the licensing exam.  The examination process consists of a written test and a practical portion where the chef must prepare the fish and eat it.  The passing rate is only 35%, and some of the failed challenges result in death.