Monday, January 31, 2011

Peels, New York

I went to New York on this trip with two goals (outside the whole 'complete a major presentation for work' thing, which is peripheral to eating, wouldn't you agree?): the first was to visit the Dream House. I failed. The second was to eat desserts sprung from the mind of Shuna Lydon. I succeeded, and was veryvery pleased.

Professional chefs move around a lot; I've been reading Shuna's blog on and off for what seems like a short time to me, but she's already lived in San Francisco, London and New York in that time. I nearly went to the wrong restaurant before realizing that she changed a few months ago and is now holding down the baking empire at Peels, a faux-retro 'diner', where 'diner' is faux-modest for simple food in the modern-fresh vein, cooked pretty well and served at all hours. This place is evidently associated with other hip locations and cool owners, but being a Tokyo resident there's only so much I want to clutter my mind with that. Suffice to say that everyone on staff was tattooed and looked like they went to Wesleyan. I got a few funny looks for wearing a suit and not wearing a beard.

Describing this place to Cuz (who comes to dinner the next night and also Saturday, wait for it), I said it was 50's-style. That was wrong. There's nary a lick of chrome nor a swash of neon to be found. I meant to say it's country-style 50's, or maybe 30's. White wood cabinets, appealingly old appliances, menus painted on mirrors, antique-y bare wood tables, high green stools. It's sort of Walker Evans, or Wright Morris, but in color.

The food is pretty well in color too. This is a skillet of vegetables, no doubt organic and locally-sourced, baked with goat cheese. The bread is tasty. It is artfully charred. It is mounded with fresh herbs. This is tasty.

But hell, I was just eating vegetables to make myself feel better. Honestly, I should have ordered three desserts instead of vegetables plus two desserts.

This is the butterscotch pot de creme. I'd feel guilty trying to say much about it, considering how much the chef herself wrote about it last month. Suffice to say: real butterscotch is delicious. Walnuts go with it. Crisping the walnuts with cumin is the kind of savory touch that makes a dessert interesting, and more interesting than the currently-popular 'put salt in the chocolate'. Fresh caramel is delicious with anything, but got a little lost here between the nuts and the pot.

This was it for me though - the kind of thing that I want to pay people to think of and invent and serve. It's the Blackberry Eton Mess Fool. This bears the signs of a year spent in London, I think; a fool is in general cream and berries, sort of protozoaical ice cream, while the Eton Mess part of the name means there's meringue underneath. I didn't know that from the name, so it was a real pleasure to get halfway through the yogurt-y, cream-y blackberr-y goop and find something texturally distinguished to liven up the second half of the game. I was also unneccessarily proud of myself for being able to diagnose all the flavor and texture components correctly, including the mint-rosewater ice milk. It's not even possible to turn that over in your mind - mint, rosewater, blackberries, yogurt, egg. It sort of goes together. And sort of not. And in that way, is sort of interesting. Or better. And the low-light, color-enhanced, oversturated picture sorta makes it look even more interesting.

It's a shame it's still Monday night of the trip, because this was probably the single most enjoyable dish I ate all week.

If there was any doubt about location, I snapped off some quick shots on the street afterward. Really, the neighborhood around the hotel was deadly dull; I ended up back in the greater Soho/Bowery area 3 more times before I left town.

And one of those times was when I went back in order accost Shuna in person. This was a bit premeditated, because I saw her name pop up on the facebooks a few months ago and realized she was friends with one of my friends, and there's your introduction. This case is full of her handiwork, and she and the 'pastry department' are really doing a lot for the overall Peels menu, so she didn't have more than a few minutes, but she's every bit as interesting and energetic in person as you'd expect from someone who would invent a Fool like that.

Oopsie, I didn't try the Stumptown coffee, which would have been another good goal. Perhaps I read too much? I've been conscious of ST getting popular, and this week saw something suggesting it was already over-popular and the quality was declining. This is much more than I need to know for an Oregonian coffee brand.

Being after lunch, I didn't want to eat more desserts, so I picked up a few things for the next day's breakfast. On the right is the house-made graham cracker, one of those handcrafted things that shows you right away why a mass-produced commercial version of an item became popular. The muffin of the day was candied grapefruit peel with fennel and...and...I want to say cumin again. It was a bit confronting when I first bit into it, but grapefruit and spice is always going to seem odd first thing in the morning. It almost seems like a shame not to go through the whole menu of cakes, pies and cookies. Perhaps not quite enough to make me move to the Bowery, but I'd be visiting regularly.

The Wesleyan / tattooed thing, by the way, is faux-referential for 'me'.

(646) 602-7015

SouthWest NY

Noted Southwestern cooking experts Abraham Merchant and Richard Cohn promulgated this restaurant in the bottom of World Financial Center. It's like all the restaurants in the building - good in the pictures, but sorta brash and lacking charm in person. When it's busy at lunch, it's pretty tiring. I should know - I went twice, on successive days, plus for a beer on a third. All with colleagues, so no pictures.

The entrance is supposed to be a feature - there's a long water wall, and it's faced by a curved wall decorated from floor to ceiling with planters of dried wheat. This could be nice, but it's also narrow and low-ceilinged, and the overall effect is tunnel-y and claustrophibinous. Then inside is a tiled and southwestern, which is good for amplifying the noise. You know though, I had noise problems practically everywhere I went. The level of bustle is different between Tokyo and New York, and I'm too used to the quiet.

The food is there to appeal to everyone - for lunch the first day, my colleague Heiny had a quesadilla (pronounced 'kwee-za-dilla') while I went with that noted southwestern favorite, cajun grilled salmon salad. It wasn't un-enjoyable, to tell you the truth - big and sweet are the adjectives I remember. The sweet was from the salad dressing on the copious quantitudes of baby greens, and that level of roughage is always welcome. You could equally get some southwestern pasta, or a pulled pork sandwich... or corncakes with mushroom veggie burgers like I got on the second day. They were big...and sweet.

Hell, it's just lunch. Outside of this place, it's either the Grill Room or sandwiches or food court, so suck it up. 212-945-0528

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Caudalie, Yushima

If they want to convert the bottom floor of their modern, rebuilt Yushima house into a 1-room French restaurant with good style and serve decent food at reasonable prices, more power to 'em. That's what I say.

I saw Caudalie a year or more back while on a bike cruise around Yanesen; it's taken this long to get there. It's just one block off Shinobazu Dori, the west side of the big pond in Ueno, but even that block is enough for it to be totally quiet and devoid of commercial activity. They have a single narrow room, 16 seats, one waiter, 2 chefs, 1 dishwasher. Somehow the room doesn't feel very intimate, which is too bad. Maybe it's the high ceiling, or the lighting, or the sheer narrowness. The customers were mixed - old couple, middle-aged young couple, young couple, first date, business-y looking groups. I would have expected a bit more youth and female-ness, but the food is also more old-fashioned than expected, so maybe those girls are staying away.

They call the menu courses but it's basically a la carte - you can choose courses with exactly the sequence of dishes you want. There are a fair few upcharges, but nothing too silly, and for legitimate items like beef. All the courses start with two amuse - the first was turnip mousse with gazpacho topping. The gazpacho was good, the mousse was creamy and delicious, but the turnip flavor was missing in action. No crime there; I've yet to be dissuaded from my theory that the only way to appreciate turnips is raw.

And the only way to appreciate deer, according to Caudalie, is also raw. Rather, cured a bit, as in the slice on the left of the pickles here. This was more flavorful and smoky than the cured deer last night...and a lot thicker and chewier, which I also enjoyed more.

We ended up getting 3-plate courses - two starters, one meat each. Both of wanted the deer terrine, which was more of a meat-in-aspic thing. But since the aspic was wine-based, it was nice. Very chunky, and the carrots and prunes were inneresting additions.

Here's a sort of glamorous sausage-y thing - it's shirako, wrapped in prosciutto, wrapped in pastry, fried. It was very good and, yes, creamy.

Oysters in season are less creamy, which is a good thing; these were meaty and seasoned and cream-sauced and generally a bit overdone, but not offensively so.

Duck confit, again an overlapping order, was a decent version. Very soft and easy to shred, reasonably crisp skin. That little baton peeking out on the top right was memorable among the vegetables - roasted purple carrot. I couldn't tell if it was burnt or just really dark purple, and it tasted great.

Peach sorbet palate cleanser.

Big 'ol chocolate savarin, lots of rum in the sauce, toasted (hazel?)nuts on top, a bit gooey inside. This was good even though I found the sauce a bit much - alocoholic rather than creamy, which just wasn't what I expected.

Carrot creme brulee was creamy and carrotty and scorched on top; the baby yellow carrot and shredded regular carrots sort of let it down for me since they were just there, not integrated. Same thing for the cumin seeds scattered on - classic combination, neat to see it in a dessert, but it would be better if it was in the creme or the sugar or dusted on rather than being big pieces of cumin.

Lovely petit fours, aren't they? I do like a restaurant that goes the extra mile, and I imagine one of the reasons Caudalie gets such positive reviews is that it does all those touches. From left in the front row, these were a guimauve (you call it marshmallow), yuzu macaron (very good for a non-specialist shop), almond cookie, and chocolate covered candied grapefruit peel (very good as well).

Decent coffee, interesting cup and saucer, solid food, good prices, pleasant evening, over and out.

Since 2007.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Magoroku, Monzennakacho (深川 孫六)

This was very pleasing. Very very pleasing - brilliant yakitori plus game meat and jizake. How did I manage to go this long without trying it? Mainly it was my unreasonable anti-chicken bias. I'm recently converted, and now there are several more chicken places I should hit around town. You can keep your everything-but-the-cluck Birdland places; I'll be near home enjoying myself.

Magoroku isn't just a chicken place. The menu extends into game meat, perfect for the season, and slightly, barely, into vegetables: boiled turnip, a bit of bell pepper, sesame sauce. The menu didn't have much else vegetative. The master just shrugged when we asked.

You might notice the empties outside - the menu extends into this whole 'nihonshu' thing too. It's quirky and interesting - Nabeshima, some new brands, some aged sake. A big mix.

And the dishes extend into some really excellent ceramics. This is a tokkuri that I might be tempted to buy if it showed up in a store.

And boooooy do I wish there was a store selling these duck sausages. First bite I ate at this restaurant was this, and that was enough to make me say "This place is recommended." The house-cured venison prosciutto (!) was interesting, more wet and less flavorful than I would have expected. Compared to the version we ate the next night (!) it wasn't quite as good.

This dish was great though, wasn't it? It's just the torizala for the sausage and ham. Aside from liking it, it's even better because it's antique - the edge is chipped and it's generally elegant in a shabby way. Or the inverse.

Ay-yah, the grilled items were excellent. The master here is young and serious, as is his (?) wife. It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken, and he's getting it done. The quality of the bird in the negima was wonderful, while the tsukune were yet another variation on the theme. These were perferrable to me because they have individual balls rather than one long turd; more surface area to get crispy.

Someone said 'game meat' before. You could order half a duck if you wanted it, or you could order a venison steak. I was excited to get it, then skeptical when I saw him cut it (small, thin) then excited when I ate it (tasty, delicious). Grilled onions were mostly an attempt to get some vegetation.

And zousui was someone's attempt to shime. I didn't try it.

But I wish I had tried this place a year ago!

Touran ramen, Kanda (桃蘭)

It's an ill-advised wind, my friends, one that blows in from Kanda. It blows you down little alleys like this and into shops that aren't likely to be very good. There's a certain romance to seeking out hidden gems, but this is Tokyo. Depending on your reckoning there are 9 to 50 million people, and a lot of them like eating out and seeking out hidden gems. If they aren't talking about a place, it tends to mean it sucks. They aren't talking about this place, but I still got some enjoyment out of it.

Mostly because it's like Hope Ramen, dingy and tinged with grime, but in a soft and warm way. What did that mean? The plastic curtain separating the counter from the kitchen is odd; they want to spare the customer from the fumes and heat, or they're embarassed about the bare brick back there, or they have a clientele that wants privacy, and a blank curtain is more private than having to look at someone cooking? Disturbingly, the smell kept reminding me of my grandmother's kitchen, and if you were ever in that kitchen, you know I don't mean that in a good way. Fortunately I can safely say that only two readers know what I'm talking about.

Travel photos can be so generic. For instance, last night I read an article about Budapest, or perhaps Istanbul, and looking at these tiles now reminds me of that. Of course, I haven't been to any of those cities. It's probably my imagination that's generic.

They have ramen. They have some Chinese basics. This is the ramen. It's basic. As this basic ramen goes, it wasn't bad at all. The noodles and soup were almost good, while the pork was terrible (just in an overcooked, tough sort of way), and the nori made me feel a little queasy. The overall effect doesn't compare unfavorably to someplace like Sakeya Milk Hole, which is a little famous. I'm not saying this should be famous, I'm just saying. Nothing here is going to inspire you to fits of flatulent exultation.

They offer a bunch of sets of Ramen + Chinese Basic. This is the Chinese Basic portion of mine, a version of mapo tofu. It's only once a year that I feel like eating something with ankake, the thick cornstarch sauce that characterizes vile Chinese food to me. This wasn't that day, and the burgundy translucence of this sauce combined with the slimy texture to make the overall effect a bit vile. With tofu and rice it was edible, and once the tofu was gone I stopped. Just like this review, right here.


Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Cafe BRiO, Kanda (カフェ ブリオ)

Broken record, all this stuff about how I look at places and never go to them. Here's another one. I'll spare you.

Pretty sure I got a takeout coffee here with Koala one time, but never wrote it up. It's right out in the open - you almost can't go to west-side Kanda without going by it. It's also near Pure Yakiniku, and my prior contact with Tucker was her commenting on the need for a coffee-fix and the relative merits of Illy, so I figured as a good host/guide it behooved me to set up a coffee after the manly meat. They have panini and pita and other sandwichy things too. It's a little smoky.

The main event - this is a thoroughly worthwhile coffee if drunk in the store. It's, uh, it' doesn't suck like Starbucks, and it takes an experience like this in close proximity to Starbucks to show you the gap between them. My macchiato was lovely, Tucker's latte has a good design on top (I know it's just the milk, but getting the design that pretty implies an awful lot of practice, and my new theory is that no one would practice that much on the milk and then suck at making the coffee), and Todd's Irish has just enough Irish to ease you into the afternoon (I'm making that up. I didn't drink it.)

You know how I can afford to write all these up? Less than 5 minutes on this post. 5 minutes of careful, concentrated, creative thought. For you. I love you all.

Pure Yakiniku, Kanda (焼肉 ぴゅあ)

Right across the street from Eiki sushi, this gets the same distinction - one of the most-walked-by places I've never visited. That all changed for the better today when Todd and Tucker were the guinea pigs for yet another expedition to Kanda and a new place. Not that we ate guinea pigs. It's all meat there. Pure meat. Or maybe the pure means 'pure Japanese'. They love that stuff. Either way, Y1k for a lunch plate here was a good deal.

There's never much to say about the interior of a yakiniku place in the lower bracket. Family restaurant. The end.

But yeah, for lower-priced beef, this was some good stuff (actually my colleagues back in the office pronounced this place 'not cheap' when I showed them the dinner menu). We just got one of each at the top of the page of lunch specials - a kalbi, a halami, and a momo. Who knows which is which? I don't. The thing was, it was well-marbled,

and it all fried up well. The grills though, are frankly crap. They shoot hot rod-style flames out from both sides, and will set up a steady flame and crisp the living hell out of your slice if you don't watch 'em. I much prefer the circular grills where the flames aren't as open and close to the meat. T&T were pleasantly surprised to see the staff changing the grill as we were leaving - they used to live in Shanghai, where I guess that sort of luxury service wouldn't apply. I thought back to Sakaiya Food Hole, where they changed the grill twice during dinner despite the fact that we were eating guts (including that one really sweet mid-grilling change - no need to take the food off, they have a trick to change in mid-burn).

Y'know, I took a picture of the rice and soup and salad that comes with it, but who cares? I don't, and I'm sure you don't. This is good meat at reasonable prices, and you can order additional plates of pure meat at lunch time. This would be my recommended yakiniku lunch destination, partly because I can't think of any other places except Yuboku in Shinmaru, which I liked a lot at the time.

Purely out of interest, here's their site.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Rio, Kanda

Aaaaah, how many times have I written this review? "Average quality European-influenced owner-chef-style restaurant where too much Japanese influence has crept in over time and standards have crept down." Too bad, because the door looks nice. This is exactly the kind of place my team would go for a work dinner.

Looking at the food below, I guess this wasn't that bad, really. It was the atmosphere that made me the most unhappy - the darkness and yellowness and smokiness and the racks of shochu bottles. Call me a grumpy purist, but the presence of inappropriate liquor makes me think the food will be inappropriate too. Or: if you're catering to the smoky salaryman set for drinks, surely you are on food too. And I prefer to think of myself as belonging to the OL set, at least in terms of restaurant preference.

Lunch sets include a pasta or two, then some outright yoshoku-style items, and finally a grilled meat or fish. Most of them come with a cup of soup (lots of onions and pepper) and a salad (I love canned tuna, so I kinda liked this...).

While walking around, I was thinking of Italian and yoshoku, and they almost both showed up on the same plate - a fish croquette (nice filling, very chunky, I think fish and shrimp) and a piece of salmon (would have thought this was deep fried from the crispness, but I guess it was panned). The white sauce was OK. The sprig of ruccola and the kernels of pink pepper are signs that someone's halfheartedly trying to spruce things up.

Eh, it wasn't awful, and there was coffee afterwards.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Momosaku, Asakusa (百作)

After dinner at the very tasty and historic Otafuku, it was time to stroll around Asakusa.

For those young readers just learning about the Rolling Stones and Beatles, this little shop seems to be inspired by the Midnight Rambler and Piggies. But it has nothing to do with Pink Floyd, which you're not old enough to learn about yet.

This is a public bath, Akebonoyu. How can you not want to take a bath when you see a place like this? The scaffolding and vines all above the door are likely wisteria; it would be great to see them blooming.

This guy has written a sweet piece on it, including his ruminations on the pace of business in the digital age, and how his shoulder hurts from mousing.

I love this neighborhood. It's packed with bars and restaurants that look alternately mysterious, welcoming, or frighteningly classy.

Let's guess that this place is called 'Hakusaku' because at least one of us is a bad blogger and didn't remember to ask how to say it. But there's no need to ask what they're into - the master is clearly a bit of a collector, starting with the authentic railroad signals that he 'acquired' through a friend. We settled on this because...well, because they had actually gone to the trouble of putting 'Juyondai' on their overhead sign, and they had the rail signals, and I thought "Okajouki plus Juyondai = Shiawase" or some similar calculus.

Inside, the master has also collected some furnishings. I didn't take a picture of the semi-private room, but now I understand why the mama was asking if I wanted to - seems it was brought as a piece from Nagano. That's neat stuff, and any time I see it I'm reminded of the fabulous Winterthur museum, where the du Pont family collected 175 rooms from buildings all over the world. Should really go back there, as I'm sure I'd appreciate the furnishing and interior design much more than whenever it was I last went. You can get a good idea of the decor here, which may also have come from Nagano now that I look at it.

and with this shot of the counter you've seen most of the shop. Those pickled onions were curiously tasty. Oh, and if you've ever seen those copper caps on the counter, you won't have forgotten them. They're built-in sake warmers!

Which means there's sake here. The master also likes to collect empty bottles of Juyondai, as do many people who've drunk them. He has a lot of the empty boxes that the luxury bottlings come in. These papers on the wall are, unfortunately, the whole sake list - I kept hinting that I might be willing to try something else, but nothing was forthcoming. The first one is the Juyondai, the 'Seahorse' bottling, and it is some excellent stuff. Should you be looking askance at the 1-go price there, let me point out that this is so scarce as to be generally unavailable. Online sources list it about 20% below this price, which is awfully decent of them. Haven't we all wished we could drink glass wine that wasn't 250% of the retail price?

Well, one of us has, and that same one of us is always happy to sit with a silver jug and a cut-glass chokko. That one is me, you know. Was that obvious? Am I being too subtle here?

Now that we've come this far, I'd like to tell you that I was wrong as usual, and the shop is called 'Momosaku'. You know who would've guessed that? No one.

Food is quite normal, little plates, pickles, grilled fish, but seemed good quality. It was after dinner anyway, and we were just hanging out, talking to mama, the like. Going around, mama gave us a little dish of matsumame zuke (thanks for the tip, Uncle N), then we ordered nanohana, pickled wasabi stalks, and slimy seaweed. Just the things for sake. Nanohana and wasabi and rakkyou were all quite good.

Just for a chuckle, we threw the last cup of sake on the warmer (this wasn't the 14dai, it was the 'Taiki' junmai, which is one of two on the list above that's privately made for this shop and hence named after the master). There's hot water in it, did you know that? It's a little slow to heat things up, but it's always nice to try things at different temperatures, and I like people who are good sports about trying things they might not like too. [In fact, my penchant for trying things I don't know and might not like has gotten me into trouble more than once. For example, at dinner I ordered an innocuous-sounding oden variety called 'koro'. The master said it was a special order and would require some time to heat up, then got a vicious-looking block of black-edged gelatin from the fridge. It's pure whale fat, my friends. It was disgusting.]

I still like taking pictures of New Tokyo Tower when it pops up in a field of view. Hakusaku is in the great neighborhood just north of Kototoi Dori (which Otafuku faces), more or less Senzoku, and if you keep walking you'll end up in Oshiage right under the tower. We did, and then we just kept walking, and by midnight we had walked all the way back to Monzennakacho.

And were hungry again, so we had sushi. It's cool to live in the city, isn't it?