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A sudden thirty-degree drop in morning temperatures in the the DC area is a not-so-surprising surprise, if the National Weather Service is correct in predicting record snowfall and temperatures this coming winter. As a survivor of the infamous “Snowmageddon” a few years ago (one slab of memory includes trekking through knee-deep snow to get to the nearest Starbucks for WiFi), I am both looking forward to these predictions and not looking forward to them. While I am curious to see whether this winter will match Snowmageddon, I am not sure how I feel about being trapped indoors for seven days. Make pots and pots of stew, I guess.

In any event, cold mornings have me thinking about two things. Boiling hot bowl of pho and strong coffee.

There are not many establishments where one can get both good savory food and good coffee. Plenty restaurants have good coffee service (I remember the now defunct Adour in the St. Regis hotel in DC serving excellent La Colombe after an exceptional lunch offering), some exceptional, but it is not easy to name a place that I could confidently say that I would dine there for the coffee.

Of course, one hunts down coffee shops for good coffee, where good food is also often discovered, but predictably of the sweet variety.

Pho shops hit you twice. First with that meaty, oily, minty, cilantro-lime-pepper-Sriracha broth. Next with a shot of slow-dripped black magic with near 50% condensed milk content. Meat-savory closely followed by sweet caffeine, a lethal combination for any cold night.

For a good bowl of pho, I usually find myself driving around the outskirts of Vienna, VA, Fairfax, or the more immigrant-dense areas of Falls Church. My experience tells me these places (often run-down joints in hidden streets and alleys) have the best authentic foods, including pho. That partially explains why I have yet to try a decent bowl of pho in the District.

So when I walked into Caphe Banh Mi in Old Town Alexandria, in a more “hip” neighborhood near King Street, I had no expectations. Surprisingly, I was impressed by both pho and coffee.

Here’s what Tom Sietsema (a renowned food critic in his own right) of the Washington Post had to say about their pho. “Pho comes with a minimal amount of the shaved beef we request, and its demure broth requires every accompanying enhancer – lime, jalapeno, Thai basil – to inject more spirit into the bowl.” While he is partially correct, I have to disagree with his overall impression of the place.

First, in a bowl of pho, the “shaved beef,” called “tai,” is the last thing I look forward to. Rather, the more tasty bites come from the tripe, fatty brisket, meatballs, and tendons. Sietsema, of all people, you should know that. (Oh sorry, maybe I’m mistaking you for Robert Sietsema from Eater NY, a respectable offal and ethnic cuisine master) But he’s right in that the bowl could have used more from the animal.

Second, I would not use the word “demure” to describe the broth. I was rather surprised by the depth of the broth; while it was not as deep or flavor-packed as Pho 75 in Falls Church or Viet House in Fairfax, it was rich and clean. And to bash on Sietsema again, part of the pho “spirit” inherently lies in the “accompanying enhancers,” the lime, jalapeno, and Thai basil. You first enjoy the broth as is, and as the meal progresses with each slurp, you drop in the jalapeno and the basil, and of course the bean sprouts, to experience complex layers of texture and flavor. The lime squeeze and Sriracha give you that extra kick on colder days.

On this particular day – drizzling, with random gusts blowing premature leaves into street corners – strong Vietnamese coffee was a welcome closer. And Caphe Banh Mi does it right. While the restaurant owner made a small fortune selling frozen yogurt before opening up the noodle and banh mi shop, strong-sweet coffee is the proper way to wash down the “demure” broth. These things are also potent in iced form during the sweltering summer months, as documented by my friend and co-founder of Roads & Kingdoms, when he wrote, “On that first afternoon in Saigon, I drank three before the old woman with the gentle face put her hand on my shoulder and told me no more. I don’t remember if she spoke English or not, but the message was clear. My hands were trembling and my heart was beating in my throat; Vietnam was suddenly wide open.”

As I transferred the last few spoonfuls from bowl to mouth, I eyed the stainless steel brewing contraption, as the midnight dark coffee (yes, probably way over roasted by my usual standards) slowly dripped down into the waiting pool of condensed milk. A light swirl with the teaspoon across the bottom of the cup transform the black liquid into a murky brown hue, and in three long sips, I am a happier man.

To be fair to Sietsema, the pho at Caphe Banh Mi is not the best I’ve had (not by any means), and I haven’t tried the banh mi. But it’s the closest thing to greatness I’ve come across in Old Town, and there is nothing remotely close in DC. (And I cannot believe the Post would rank Cafe Asia in front of Caphe Banh Mi. Inexcusable.)

So as I dig through my closet in search of running tights on this frigid morning, my thoughts are swimming across seas of beef broth and sweet coffee. Long live the season.

Things have a source, the originating mother ship that seems to always be there. Whatever the source, one’s proximity to it is often valuable, if not enviable, and no doubt preferable.

Food is no different.

Sushi connoisseurs often tell tall tales of their ability to taste the difference of nigiri sushi by “distance” alone. In other words, nigiri made at the bar (the source) and consumed at the bar (the source) tastes better than nigiri made at the bar (the source) and consumed elsewhere, say a table thirty feet away. From the first seconds when the sushi chef molds the rice, smears the wasabi, and places the fish, each bite becomes less perfect as the nigiri ventures further away. After all, Edo-style sushi originated as a commuter’s meal, made in roadside stands, meant to be eaten on the go. Nigiri is only nigiri when the transfer time between sushi chef and patron comprises of a few heartbeats. Proximity is not an option.

Ramen – or any type of hot noodle soup for that matter – is a ticking time bomb. Timing is everything for an immaculate noodle dish. The second the steaming, semi-boiling broth hits the noodles, it begins “decomposing,” rapidly giving in to the spiking temperature and sodium. Noodles, broth, scallions, bean sprouts, nori, and off you go. Sitting right there at the bar is a complete immersion into the ramen experience. Not only does it taste better, but the action – the clanking, shouting, steaming, stirring, flipping – is part of the taste, feeding the eyes before vapors hit the nose or broth envelopes the tongue. Feeds the eyes, feeds the nose, the source does. Proximity is not an option.

According to this recent article in Time, mozzarella cheese has been scientifically proven to be the “best” cheese for pizza. But no matter the quality or type of cheese, it’s no secret that the further the fresh margherita pizza travels from the oven, the less relevant it becomes, falling to an obsolete afterthought that no one remembers. There’s something unique about seeing your pizza go into a Neapolitan oven, to sit at a table with a clear view to said oven, and to gulf down a still-squirming slice while a steady flow of pies go in and out of that oven. The mozzarella and tomato sauce cool to Goldilocks-right as the server takes just the right number of steps from the oven to the table. Proximity is not an option.

Living in this concrete jungle we call city, one often feels distant from a source, known or unknown. Perhaps that explains why one feels liberated – or at home – stepping on grass or running on soil. Concrete layers and cement blocks under the feet may elevate off the ground, both literally and figuratively, but they also strip you from your source, to the point where concrete whispers in your ear that it is your new source, your new home.

The recent “farm-to-table” phenomenon is a meager attempt to restore this sense of proximity to one’s food source. But even at its best, what you’re getting is fresh meat and produce cooked in a restaurant kitchen in the heart of some downtown, miles and miles away from the rancher or farmer that last had contact with what’s on the plate. In essence, farm-to-table is our dear outcry to take a step back to the source, to the soil. It’s our leap towards proximity.

Not all of us can live on a farm and cook our meals right next door. But in the meantime, we can all appreciate the sense of proximity one gets from “fire-to-mouth” dining, whether it’s ramen or pizza. Closer to the fire, closer to the heat, closer to the source. Closer to what makes food, food.

Photos: Daikaya (http://daikaya.com/), Pupatella (http://www.pupatella.com/)

What we put in our mouths represents nothing short of who we are, or who we think we are, or who we think we should be.

In the myriad of first world problems we swim in, food often is beyond caloric intake, sustenance, or even pleasure. Rather, that imported can of caviar, that foam-lathed bit of butter poached lobster tail, that century old bottle of red depicts what your suit, your car, your business card dictates. Presumptions of stature.

In resuming to write on this blog, I find myself sandwiched in two divergent worlds, like pb & j and foie gras – unless someone can prove me otherwise. At one end of the table sits the machinery known as Corporate America, a merciless, meticulous creature that thumps according to its own artificial heartbeat. At the other end sits a new-found interest to reconnect with earth, the soil, the mountains, through the primitive art form known as running. Nothing foamy about that.

So as I resurface with a new job and a new mindset, the most appropriate topic for this entry is the oyster.

Oysters deliciously ironic. In many parts of the world, oysters – paired with that can of imported caviar – represent another presumption of stature. A little bubbly, some of them black pearls, and slurp one’s way into the first world. But if one truly thinks this through, one cannot resist from laughing.

Out of the thousands of natural ingredients available to man, the oyster is one of few that takes the least pampering before consumption. Yes, lemons, horseradish, cocktail sauce are understandably on standby. However, let us not kid ourselves; we eat oysters for their oysterness. Shuck and slurp.

The most simple, primitive, minimalistic ingredient as a symbol of something more. While I cannot pinpoint exactly what that is, the aftertaste is remarkably reminiscent of tiny plates with tiny bites and green sauce spooned across.

Food and coffee culture has begun a wide turn to return to its roots: good food, good coffee, good company. White tablecloth and double skim soy mocha flat something chinos are, in some instances, losing their grip to down-to-earth real cooking and meticulous coffee brewing that focus on one thing: taste.

“Food minimalism” is not a new way of viewing food. It is a way of redefining who we are. It is the inherent process of stripping down to the core of cooking, which circles around food that tastes good and eating in communal fashion. Everything else is secondary.

And by the way, these are clams on the half shell, courtesy of the Blue Pig Tavern in Cape May, NJ. Delicious, at a fraction of the price of their cousins.

Breaking bread at the table has always meant more than caloric input for physical survival. While nourishment is important – and while, tragically, millions are still starving today – food has a way of communicating the noncommunicable. When no amount of words are sufficient to convey remorse and sorrow, food is the medium in which one heart is transplanted to another.

Food’s role as communicator also transcends borders and race, and this truth was recently displayed on the shores of Jindo, where hundreds of distraught family members still await the return of their loved ones from the sunken Sewol ferry.

Koreans and Turks affectionately refer to one another as “Brother Nations.” This bond was initially forged when a sleu of Turkish soldiers fought and died with other allies during the Korean War, and was readily apparent after the bronze medal football match between the two countries during the 2002 World Cup. That is why Enes Kaya, Bal Zuma and their Turkish friends drove five hours from Seoul to Jindo on the wee morning hours of April 24 – with enough kebab for 2000 people.

Enes Kaya first immigrated to South Korea in 2002, enrolling as a student at Hanyang University in Seoul. Transitioning to a new country and culture was rather smooth, and he described his Korean acquaintances as friendly and understanding, especially regarding his religious beliefs on pork consumption and alcohol. When Kaya heard of the Sewol tragedy, he and few of his friends agreed to act out this notion of “Brother Nations” by physically trucking down to Jindo. The entourage was formed. Eleven individuals – both Turkish and Korean – prepared the kebab at a Turkish restaurant in Gangnam, Seoul, and loaded a food truck at 2 a.m. On the outside of their truck, the entourage clamped on a banner, in Korean, which read: “May the victims rest in peace. We pray for the safe return of those still missing.”

Upon arriving at Jindo at 7 a.m., the entourage checked in with authorities and set up their kebab truck near the community gymnasium, where most of the family members have been camping out for the past week. Heads started turning. First, the sight of foreigners in a sea of Koreans was not a common sight around the campground. Second, the smell of slow-roasting meat was also a novelty on those shores, particularly at that hour. Nevertheless, the entourage started serving free kebabs to anyone willing and able to eat breakfast.

Turning heads lead to voiced complaints. Other volunteers from all over the country allegedly approached the entourage and the authorities and complained that the “smell” of kebab was “inappropriate” for such time of mourning. Many of the family members have not eaten for days, they said, and the smell of meat permeating the Jindo air was not appropriate for the occasion. Despite such dejection by some, the entourage carried on, serving fresh-made kebab to hundreds of volunteers and family members, and even hand-delivering the food to those unable to come to the truck.

In tragic times like this, one is always careful about voicing one’s thoughts about anything. However, acts of kindness and compassion are always worth discussing. The “Kebab Volunteers” were not part of any large organization. They paid all of their expenses out of their own pockets, and drove five hours to a remote town, with the sole purpose of providing free food to devastated family members. This effort, however, was scolded by some because of alleged “cultural” differences, that the smell of roasting meat is inappropriate for times of sorrow.

One cannot easily agree or disagree with such “cultural” notions. I am aware that, in the past, meat was reserved for festive occasions in Korea. However, this meat rarity was largely due to the country’s economic situation, where meat was expensive and one could only splurge on it when absolutely necessary, such as birthdays. In large part, that is not the case anymore. For the vast majority of the Korean population, meat in some form is consumed almost on a daily basis and is no longer reserved for festivities (although, admittedly, one still finds more quantities of meat during festivities). The same goes for the “smell” of roasting meat.

One cannot help but imagine. If the Kebab Entourage was entirely composed of ethnic Koreans, and if they had served a different type of food, say sullungtang (ox bone soup with boiled beef) or bulgogi, would the people have reacted the same way? If, instead, Roy Choi of Kogi BBQ was there with one of his Kogi taco trucks, would they have reacted the same way? Sullungtang, bulgogi, Kogi tacos – all dishes would arguably perfume the area with the “smell” of meat. Was the scolding truly due to the smell of meat, or was it largely due to “unfamiliarity”? Unfamiliar people, unfamiliar food, unfamiliar smell. And what does this scolding say about Korean society as a whole?

Maybe “meat during tragedy” is still inappropriate in Korean culture. Maybe the scolders were truly concerned for the well-being of the family members, that the smell of kebab would truly upset them. What the entourage did, however, resonates powerfully. Empathy transcends cultures.

As with the entire Sewol situation, many questions remain. But one thing is certain.

Food speaks, and these gents spoke loudly. Thank you.

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The images used in this post are owned by Newsis and Yonhap News.

When it comes to Greek cuisine, I usually prefer the quick bites, the grab-and-go lamb souvlaki, wrapped hastily in pita bread, tsatziki imminently and inevitably dripping over the not so far reaching aluminum foil. Take, for instance, Kosta of the Greek Deli in the heart of DC. A legendary figure, with a bellowing “Next!” not so unfamiliar with the “Soup Nazi” character from Seinfeld. The food is prepped and cooked daily, the line almost always protrudes into the sidewalk, and there are only a handful of tables, used when the sun permits. You go in, you order with Kosta, you get your food in a paper bag, and you’re out. Next.

Greek cuisine at a white tablecloth establishment was new to me, until I dined at Nostos in the Tysons Corner area of Northern Virginia.

Previously, I stopped by to try the moussaka – it was unearthly. Perfectly baked, with distinct, unforgettable flavors at all layers. On this occasion, I had one thing on my mind: lamb. As its Easter Sunday lunch selection, Nostos offered a three set course menus, each one featuring a different lamb creation. The traditional roasted lamb, dashed with herbs and olive oil, is an homage to traditional Greek flavors. The lamb skin was crisp, while the lean meat was moist. And bless the chef’s soul – there was a slight mound of extra skin on the side. My obsession, however, was with the lamb shank. Slowly cooked in a tomato-based sauce, the meat – and the gelatinous, melt-in-your-mouth fatty bits – literally fell off the bone.

Chef Eugenia Markesini Hobson understands fat, texture, and flavor. Lamb, when not prepared correctly, is not a thing of beauty. But when masterfully done, the interplay of skin, lean meat, and fat offers a depth of flavor not easy to find in other red meats. Not only was the lamb superb, the chef’s other items on the Easter menu were spectacular as well. Chunks of liver and sweetbreads is something I have not tried in a soup, but together with fresh dill, I had glimpses of hearty offal heaven between spoonfuls. The grilled octopus leg, a house specialty, was dreamy soft and had a great charred flavor. The rock fish was cooked well, and the assortment of bread and traditional red eggs tied everything together on this occasion. (And I assure you we had more than one basket of bread.)

The Easter meal finished beautifully with crafty desserts and tasty coffee. The galaktoboureko (semolina custard wrapped in phyllo, sprinkled with honey and cinnamon) was other-worldly, and the kantaifi (shredded phyllo dough stuffed with walnuts and honey), although a bit on the sweet side, had great texture between the shreded phyllo, honey, and walnuts. Nostos serves coffee from Eagle Coffee, a Baltimore-based roaster founded in 1921 by Greek immigrants. While the Eagle House Blend did not light up any new light bulbs for me, the balanced coffee matched well with the honey-laden desserts.

Lamb on Easter. Fewer things are more beautiful, especially when it is prepared by Chef Eugenia Markesini Hobson of Nostos.

As expected, the lead curator for modern, “New Nordic” cuisine does not use a standard, traditional kitchen. In a video made for the Culinary Institute of America, Noma’s René Redzepi explains why his kitchen is designed the way it is, and why he does not have a traditional kitchen brigade, composed of saucier, poissonier, and so on.

“We’re trying to move away from the traditional steel cage.”

Sometime in 2015, Noma will be uprooting and replanting itself, in its entirety, from Copenhagen to Tokyo, while its current home undergoes renovations for two months. This begs the questions: how will Noma’s menu change halfway across the globe? Noma’s rise to the top of the gastronomic elite was, in my opinion, its near-obsessive focus on locally-sourced ingredients, mostly in the plant kingdom; Mr. Redzepi is an expert in sourcing and gathering edible creations around their current location.

I know for a fact, however, that reindeer moss does not grow in the wild anywhere near Tokyo. If Noma is to stick with its current mantra of using seasonal, local plant matters, one should be more than intrigued to see how the restaurant will adapt to its new temporary home. Will the torch-bearer for New Nordic Cuisine act as ambassador for its roots, or will its dishes resemble some new creation, a Nordic + East blend?

One can only wait to find out.

Until then, Noma’s ingenuity buzzes on in its kitchen.

With no hesitance, I may say that I return to restaurants for the food. If the food leaves even a slight inscription, I most likely shall return.

At times, however, the inner markings of an establishment, in conjunction with the distinct quality of the food served, also leaves more than a slight inscription on my palette of memories. At times, the mere act of entering an establishment, sitting, and staying seated, has significance that surpasses any level of deliciousness, and exponentially multiplies the joys of dining.

This is why I find myself repeatedly returning to Eamonn’s in Alexandria, VA.

The beer-battered, deep fried cod is a popular classic, the grouper is also fantastic, and my favorite, the ray, literally evaporates on your tongue, bones and all. Eamonn’s fish and chips are superb, but here I focus on its innards.

The innards of Eamonn’s – classic, rustic, new, old, discombobulated, random. Everything you’d want in a chipper. As with many old Alexandria shops, the original brick walls are still in tact, serving as the base of everything that goes on it, in front of it and above it. The dark brown wood frames seem almost as old as the bricks themselves, the chipped crimson hue and the wood creating an overall rich, dark setting.

This darkness is balanced with the somewhat out of place chandeliers and “stained” glass on one side of the wall. The warm yellow lights slowly ooze from the candle-like fixtures, creeping through the Guinness and oil permeated air. The lighting, both man-made and natural, convert the “darkness” to “warmth,” a temperature of the mind that calls upon relaxation and a desire to stay.

As with great pieces of art or fashion ensembles, there are splashes of vibrant color throughout the establishment. Purple, green, and red from the displayed Maltesers and other candies, the not -so-subtle, forest green Guinness balloon, and the sexy fish on the wall, swimming in a sea of mustard yellow.

“Thanks be to Cod.” Yes, and Thanks be to the Capital E.

Eamonn’s A Dublin Chipper

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In an era in which everyone and their grandma seems to be opening up ramen shops around every corner, an American chef dedicated to the precision, the art, and the slurpiness of the ramen is a breath of fresh air.

Ivan Orkin took a chance in Tokyo.

Originally from Long Island, Orkin packed his bags and landed in the Far East to master the art of ramen from its motherland. And remarkably for a ‘gaijin’ foreigner, he became a culinary marvel after opening two successful ramen joints in Tokyo.

Now Orkin is back in New York.

Momofuku’s Lucky Peach magazine first introduced Orkin’s return to the West. Re-assimilating to Manhattan was not an easy task.

“I had terrible culture shock when I came back to New York two years ago. During my 30-year relationship with Japan, I had spent a long time learning how to do things a certain way.”

But Orkin embraces his new brothy challenge.

“As a white guy from New York opening a shop in the heart of ramen land, I dealt with some pretty hard customers. But New York’s the same—there I’m still a white guy making ramen trying to convince people that I can cook noodles.”

In this short film, director Jake Sumner captures Orkin’s New York comeback, the Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop at Gotham West Market in Hell’s Kitchen. Not all bowls of ramen are created equal, and Orkin knows that. He breathes that truth. A fresh gust from the East is about to blow through New York, and one only hopes Orkin’s ramen truth overflows to DC and elsewhere in a hurry.

Enjoy.

The Eight Chapters of Ramen on Nowness.com

The “Soup Nazi” was probably not an unfamiliar site in many developing nations in the last century, minus Manhattan. A big cauldron filled with odd bits of animal parts, radishes, cabbages, and the most basic of seasonings, boiling away for hours upon hours, to be replenished at intervals with stock and more cabbages, until all the marrow escapes the carcass and into the soup.

While many forms of soup have now become “exotic” must-haves or hangover cures for Sunday mornings, soup, at its inception, was the lifeblood of the working poor.

Therein lies the true beauty of soup.

“All my life one of my greatest desires has been to travel-to see and touch unknown countries, to swim in unknown seas, to circle the globe, observing new lands, seas, people, and ideas with insatiable appetite, to see everything for the first time and for the last time, casting a slow, prolonged glance, then to close my eyes and feel the riches deposit themselves inside me calmly or stormily according to their pleasure, until time passes them at last through its fine sieve, straining the quintessence out of all the joys and sorrows.” Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco

I love Nikos Kazantzakis, not only for his fictional work (such as Zorba the Greek), but also for his travelogues. As if his eyes photo-captured every lasting detail, Kazantzakis masterfully portrays the vast layers of his destinations – its people, scenery, architecture, scent, and food.

What made him an “expert” traveler  (and even more gifted travel writer) was not merely his in-depth depictions and artful prose. What made him great was his willingness – and yearning – to get out the comfort of a car and walk the streets, smell the meat market, and chat with locals about anything and everything.

Peking in the early 1900s was no easy place to travel.

“On a cool square a multitude sits cross-legged. In the center, a girl, slender, with disheveled hair, holds the large scissors which she opens and closes continually while she sings and dances slowly. A harsh voice, a hyena howl, an incomprehensible harmony. An old woman sprawled on the ground, stooping, bald, plays a strange elongated lute. Nearby, an old man with glasses and sparse gray beard and two or three thick hairs on his upper lip is sitting on a stone reading a religious book. As he fans himself, his body from the waist up moves rhythmically with his monotonous voice in a lamenting lullaby. And all around, women listen to him, gaping, with bleary eyes plagued by flies. Sweltering heat. And across at the butcher shop the butcher hangs his jacket over a loin of beef.

Two-wheeled carriages drawn by the coolies who run, panting. The sidewalks are covered with goods – old eggs preserved in lime, innumerable pickled vegetables, sour fruit. And next to them, the fairy-tale shops that sell silk lanterns, ivory fans, precious green gems and transparent porcelains with light drawings.” Nikos Kazantzakis, Japan China

The wonderment of this passage is that Kazantzakis’ description of “food” is inseparable from its surroundings. The loin of beef, eggs preserved in lime, pickled vegetables, and sour fruit are almost painted in black and white with limited verbiage, while the old woman, old man, and coolies are written in splashes of color.

And yet I feel as if I could taste the pickled vegetables. The eggs are right there, within reach of my grasp. My mouth already waters from the colorful fruit sprawled about on mats in this busy marketplace. Not from the words used to describe them, but from the accurate and lively depiction of that hot summer day in 1935.

So what, then, is the true beauty of soup?

The true beauty of soup is that, for many of them, it simply cannot be recreated from a “recipe.” A recipe is only useful for one purpose: to bring about a taste portfolio intended to be drawn out by its author. So if a recipe fulfills its purpose successfully, a cook will no doubt recreate the “flavors” of a soup, maybe even better than its original intentions.

But what a recipe does not contain are the blood-soaked wars, ravenous famines, and suppressive dictatorships from which these soups were conceived.

Take “gamjatang” for instance (first photo above).

An exquisite Korean delicacy, this stew is made from pork spine, rehydrated Napa cabbage leaves, and peeled potatoes. The soup – a culmination of pork marrow, dwenjang, garlic, and hours and hours of boiling – is simply divine. It is not a taste one can create easily in haste, and in my gastronomic experience thus far, there is not a single Korean restaurant in the U.S. that is worthy to be called a true gamjatang joint.

While it is something I eagerly scavenge for these days, gamjatang was born out of utter poverty. Pork spine (and other odd bits of animals) was cheap and easy to get, and potatoes (“gamja”) were the staple for the poor. Napa cabbage leaves from last year’s harvest were hung to dry in the autumn wind, to be rehydrated during the winter. So during the crude winter months, when good eating meant nothing more than bowls of barley, folks would throw these together in huge pots with dwenjang and boil away. And voila, gamjatang (literally means “potato soup”).

Many soups were born out of necessity – the necessity to eat, the unavailability of ingredients, the compulsion to multiply quantitatively. More from less.

Soup is beautiful because it’s a story in a bowl. It’s not just maddeningly flavorful broth you are slurping, but also heritage and history. Food, and soup in particular, cannot be accurately depicted without its cultural context. As many of you would agree, a bowl of pho one had a few Friday nights ago somewhere in American suburbia is nowhere near the same thing as a bowl of pho one had squatting on a bright red plastic stool on a street corner in Hanoi.

As the saying goes, you had to be there.

Especially for soup.

 

“Breaking Bad” was blue crystal meth. Chances are, you’ve never heard of crystal shrimp.

Crystal meth is cooked in a lab. Crystal shrimp, in the kitchens of far too many sushi bars in Reno, Nevada. Deep fried shrimp (for the “crystallization”), finely chopped, mixed in with a concoction of mayonnaise and sprinkles of other things. Stuff that into any sushi roll and people’s eyes would roll over with a “Mmm that is like so good!”

From the age of three, I roamed the aisles of Noryangjin fish market in Seoul to sample fresh squid and flounder. From the age of four, I appreciated sashimi. Ten years in Reno (a surprisingly good destination for reasonably priced, reasonably fresh, all-you-can-eat sushi bars) meant stuffing my face with many many servings of crystal shrimp. More recently, I experienced the “art of nigiri” at Sushi Sunsoo in Seoul (read my review here).

In short, the breadth of my experience with Japanese cuisine ended there. Sashimi, nigiri, and yes, crystal shrimp.

Don’t get me wrong. Sashimi and nigiri sushi, I think, are exemplary diplomats of Japanese culinary heritage. In fact, I will take a masterfully crafted course of nigiri over any steak dinner. But I always knew there was more out there and struggled at the thought of never being able to expand my limited exposure.

Then I dined at Makoto.

This is the temple of authentic Japanese dining in DC, if not in America. Since opening its doors in 1992, Makoto (which means “harmony”) serves a chef’s tasting menu (“omakase”, which literally means “chef’s way”), with menus changing daily depending on what’s fresh and what the chef feels like serving.

Makoto is not a sushi bar. While sashimi and nigiri was featured during the omakase, they are not the focal point of the dining experience. I got a chuckle from its website, which says “Our sister establishment upstairs, Kotobuki can provide you with all your diverse sushi cravings.”

Three things caught my attention even before I even stepped into the cozy establishment.

One, “proper attire” is required. Even without instruction, I pulled out a suit to prepare myself for what was to come. Only the best for the best. And one must remove one’s shoes before entering. When you put on those slippers, you are entering the omakase domain. Two, no electronic devices allowed. Phones and cameras were okay, but no tablets, no laptops. Focus on the food, says the chef. Three, no strong perfume or cologne, as strong odors (other than what comes out of the kitchen) may inhibit one’s senses. This was a first for me, and it makes more than perfect sense. Again, focus on the food, says the chef.

 

“Food should fill the soul, not the belly,” says the chef and owner Gene Itoh.

After finishing his meal at Jiro’s sushi bar in Tokyo, Anthony Bourdain exclaimed something like, “That was like a symphony. The way that one course leads to the next, it’s like a masterful symphony.” If Jiro’s sushi is a symphony, Makoto’s omakase is a playful jazz set. (For one, the restaurant played great jazz throughout the dinner – lots of Coltrane! – which was unexpected. No elevator music or mysterious “Asian” sounding stuff.) A masterful, perfectly devised jazz set. The ebb and flow of the meal never bores you, never fails to surprise you, and never fails to tug at you, like the rabbit in “Alice in Wonderland” making you fall deeper and deeper into its hole.

Reproduced here is the omakase menu from January 25.

 

First Course (starter): Daikon Wawa Salad (julienned daikon skin, wild cilantro and carrots served with sesame dressing), Ichigo Shirae Champagne Fume (strawberries, tofu sauce and Gorgonzola cheese, with Champagne essence)

Second Course (Kobachi): Unagi Sunomono (grilled freshwater eel with cucumber and carrot, served with amazu dressing), Hokkigai to Rapini no Sumisoae (arctic clams and rabini with vinegar and miso), Kampachi Tartare (amberjack tartare garnished with shiso leaf), Gyu no Kanroni (thinly sliced beef with sweet and savory sauce)

Third Course (Yaki Uni No Age Mochi Basami): seared sea urchin roe in crispy mochi cake, served with scallions, spicy radish and agedashi broth, instructed to eat all the elements together and drink the broth (dashi) at the end

Fourth Course (Tsukuri): maguro (tuna) and hirame (flounder) sashimi, instructed to enjoy the hand cut daikon and shiso leaf together with sashimi

Fifth Course (Agemono): langostino karaage (deep fried langostine served with ankake fish sauce)

Sixth Course (Yakimono): choice of grilled fish (we had grilled cod with miso) or organic local prime tenderloin

Seventh Course: nigiri assortment, chef’s choice (we were served maguro, hirame, and hamachi)

Eighth Course (Futamono): Salmon Suimono (Norwegian salmon in clear dashi, with scallions, shiitake mushroom and ikura)

Ninth Course (Dessert): grape granita with Grand Marnier

 

The entire presentation was like a fantasy, a dream that started with a flavor I’ve never experienced elsewhere (tofu sauce with Champagne essence) and ended with refreshing Grand Marnier, with layers and layers and layers within. Like the movie “Inception”  – a very delicious, immaculate movie.

Shoes come off, slippers come on. The dining area is tight, but not crowded. Cozy. The kitchen, partly behind the bar, is not entirely visible, but you see glimpses of the chefs prepping, chopping, frying. The steady humming of the knives and the murmurs of the chefs is somewhat comforting, a sort of lullaby luring you into a multilayer omakase fantasy.

Chef Itoh is a master of flavor and texture contrasts. He understands how to tickle every corner of your tongue and all your senses. For a number of menu items, he specifically instructs you on how you should consume that particular dish. Here is a chef that truly understands the human palate.

 

 

Here are four observations on the omakase.

1. Layers of Flavor

Fresh strawberries with tofu sauce and Champagne fume. First you get the sweet tartness of the strawberries, followed by a creamy, nutty tofu puree. Just as you detect the nutty flavor, the Champagne rises up, pleasantly. All that in one bite. No photo can do justice to those layers of flavors.

2. Dashi!

Dashi means broth. There are dozens of different dashi, and Itoh uses different kinds in several of his dishes. Some more delicate with nuanced flavors, some bolder with a more prominent, even smoky profile. Dashi ties the omakase together. The rare beef in the second course, the uni mochi, the fried langostine, and of course the salmon soup – dashi (or sometimes dashi-like sauce) is a major component of each dish, highlighting the main ingredients.

3. Texture Contrast

I love uni. No words could describe my love for it. And I’ve never seen someone deep fry it, until Makoto. The sea urchin roe is placed in mochi (sticky rice cake), deep fried, and served with agedashi broth. The fried mochi develops a crispy skin, but maintains its softness inside. After the initial bite, the indescribable creaminess of the uni rushes in. I thought the mochi and the nori garnish overpowered the uni a bit, but when I sipped the dashi (as instructed), the subtle sea-goodness of the uni came back. Delightful. (And daring, as not everyone should attempt to deep fry uni).

4. The Japanese Know Their Steak

“Beef steak is served rare only,” says the menu. No further comments necessary. But I will say, the rare, thin sliced beef during the second course was possibly my favorite bite of the entire omakase. The perfectly red beef was rolled with a few sprouts inside, and served with a “sweet – savory sauce.” This sauce is more like a dashi – an enchanting creation that says “hey you are eating the best beef in the world.” The freshly grated wasabi on top completes the bite with a hint of spicy tartness. Bottom line is, the Japanese really know their steak. Really.

 

Good restaurants (good food in general) pay attention to the little things. Subtlety goes a long way. Nuanced flavors, balanced approaches, push and pull of texture combinations all speak volumes of a chef’s ability to show you what he wants you to see in his food. Cups, tea pots, logos, seats, wood – minute design details also add value to the dining experience, leaving a permanent etching of an establishment on one’s gastronomic memory card. The noise, smell, colors and patterns, plating of food, all culminate to complete an omakase.

Makoto does everything right.

Chef Itoh gets it. Makoto is not a sushi bar – and thankfully so. It illuminates the depth of Japanese cuisine, highlights the limitless potential of everything beyond crystal shrimp rolls. After a whirlwind of an omakase, you’re left begging for more, inquisitive as to what else is out there.

The shirt I wore that night still smells of the smoky fumes of the flame-kissed eel. And I don’t mind.

*          *          *

Makoto Restaurant

4822 MacArthur Blvd, NW
Washington, DC 20007
www.makotorestaurantdc.com

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