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Friday, June 28, 2013

HN^2 at Trace, two pop-ups in one week

Madness, guest cooking two pop-ups in one week, but, this time it was food prepared by the good folks at Trace Restaurant, along with the head chef of the Chairman (Bao) food truck and Chef Nagahara. If you are unfamiliar, Trace is the restaurant and lounge in the San Francisco W Hotel, The Chairman is the food truck that has made a splash in San Francisco, selling Gua Bao with a Western twist and Chef Nagahara is the chef who consulted on the original menu for The Chairman Truck (nee The Chairman Bao Truck).

And again, far too lazy to haul my good camera on BART, I missed a couple of course, and blurred a couple of others. Still, you can get an idea.

Roasted Corn Flan, Sweet Potato, Lotus Root, Yellow Curry

Starting with some passed appetizers, I missed a shot of the marinated Hawaiian Albacore with apple, mustards and Battera konbu. But got this shot, overall, on the sweet side, a play on the sweet Japanese version of curry.

Duck Tater Tot, Pekin duck, Shiso Bernaise, Citrus

Obviously, a play on tater tots, but, meaty, crispy and meaty, with the brightness of Shiso and citrus playing counterpoint to the richness of the duck. It became clear that this menu would be far more whimsical than the experience at Parallel 37.

Chicken Nugget

Seriously, a chicken nugget and it had the right texture and crunch, although far more flavorful, with Cucumber and peanuts adding to the umami of the dish. Did I mention that this was a 13 course tasting for $40?

Feesh, I don't really dig feesh

And here, yes, a salmonid, my least favorite of non-favorite food, although, this was perfectly cooked char, with Kanzuri, Sunchoke puree and Red Shiso. I am really digging the appearance of the Shiso sprouts, whereas I find Shiso to often be over-powering, the sprouts are perfect, punchy herbs. I will be sprouting these soon. For those wondering, Kanzuri is a red pepper paste, with Yuzu citrus, and shio koji added.

Now, this, I can enjoy

Scallops, diver scallops, seared and with English peas, Hijiki and spiced Greek Yogurt. Yes, this was really a $40 dinner and no, I did not get to eat it all, this was family style. It was fun to see what a food truck can do, when a real kitchen and a full staff is suddenly available.

Tofu and stuff

House made tofu, and I got to hear the chef of the Chairman truck discuss how making tofu is not his favorite thing, but, this had a great texture and flavor. The effect of taking the time and extra effort to really craft a food item shown through on this dish. Accompanied with tiny squash and tiny Shiitake, this was a very savory dish. The interaction of a food truck and a restaurant was particularly intriguing, as the age of innovation that was spurred by food trucks is slowly ebbing back into many kitchens.

Gua Bao, well, it is The Chairman Truck

The standard for the Chairman, and incredibly well-conceived gua bao. Roasted leg of lamb, Fresh cherries, Marcona almonds and Mint, a rich dish, again, balanced with the acid of fruit and the bright herbal flavor, this time from mint. One thing I have noticed, is that the innovation that once was the hallmark of the food truck business has slowed, with more and more trucks seeking to sell what sells, and not being about young kitchen turks turned privateers. Could another trend be forming?

Soup in the middle

Yes, a soup course, mid-dinner, in this case, Charred Eggplant Agnolotti in a Miso soup, with pcilled cherry tomatoes. What a dish, spectacular. Yes, the odd little soup course, killer dish of the dinner. The pickled tomatoes (which were all peeled) along with the agnolotti and a pure miso shiro, flavor bomb of the dinner. Chef hit this on the head, the slight bitterness of the charred eggplant playing against the sweetness of the miso, and the tartness of tomato, balanced perfectly. I live for those items on a menu, or in coursing, that turn my head. Something like this, not a fancy or huge course, yet, perfectly achieved.

There was this rockfish plate, no photo, it was good.

Yum, gland meat...

I am a texture eater, and contrary to what it might appear, I am a picky eater. But, I have a theory that I have to at least try and eat everything presented at a tasting. And hence, I ate this dish, Sweetbreads with Japanese Turnip, Maitake Mushroom and Red Miso. And other than the sweetbreads, a texture I really dislike, everything was delicious. I would rather eat fish.

Dessert, YAY!

Actually, that would be First Dessert, a White Chocolate Namelaka, with Chocolate Sea Salt and Honey. Namelaka, a Japanese creamy dessert, in this case, much like Panna Cotta, with an amazing white chocolate flavor and chocolate sea salt, so good. The strawberries did not hurt this dish either. Dessert should be spectacular. It should carry you forward with a final memory of a great meal. Not everyday, but, after something like this, it should really create an image of the dinner journey. This wasn't that dessert.

Second Dessert

This was! A extraction of strawberries, made into a sauce almost like a soup, with a slice of olive oil cake, and the hints of Earl Gray tea and Lavender informing the sauce beautifully. This was, all at one, savory, sweet, fresh, herbal and lingering. This was what you wanted to walk away from the dinner tasting, a long finish to a meal.

Over the course of two dinners, I got to see one chef influence two meals, telling his story, first in a brilliant technical presentation, using every skill and nuance, painting each dish with beauty and presenting his vision of how science, traditional Japanese food stuffs and fine dining can meld into one dinner; and the second dinner, whimsical, with humor and simplicity, working with simpler ingredients and quicker platings, still telling of his vision of using modern techniques and old world ingredients. With the added fun of the guys from The Chairman, creating that one bite hit, so important to a food truck, can easily translate to a dinner plate.

Monday, June 24, 2013

HN^2 at Parallel 37-Summertime at Parallel 37

First off, I want to apologize for the photos, if this had not been such a great dinner, I would have buried these shots. I was lazy and should have brought my real camera. The dishes plated by Chef Nagahara and Chef Rotondo deserved a better photographic effort. No matter, one to the food.

Last night, I had the opportunity to dine at Parallel 37, the restaurant located within the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in San Francisco. Far from your standard hotel restaurant, Parallel 37 has brought in Chef Michael Rotondo, formerly with Charlie Trotter in Chicago, to create a destination fine dining restaurant in the middle of San Francisco. For this dinner, he joined forces with Chef Hiroo Nagahara, who was the Chef de Cuisine at Bar Charlie, former coworkers under the Trotter helm, this was their chance to share the spotlight again. We partook of the 6 course Tasting Menu, along with the pairings, which allowed the somellier, another associate from their Trotter days, free reign in the cellar. And he hit home run after home run with that access. A few prep scenes...

Chef Nagahara and assistant

Details, details, chefs at work!


Why am I showing butter? This was no simple butter, there was a beautiful and subtle herb butter and an amazing quenelle of compound butter, that has a distinct hit of umami, and a nice coarse salt, it showed early, that this would be a dinner where the details were taken seriously. There was also a Lemon Basil Aperitif that was a great opening statement that was mixed by the bartender.

The Amuse Bouche-Grande
 Pairing: Henriot Blanc de Blanc NV Champagne

This was the largest amouse I have ever seen, and sadly, I can barely remember anything about what was on the plate, as eating commenced prior to listening.

Amuse Part 1-Oyster, Tomato Pulp, White Stuff

Yuzu-cured Hamachi(?), Tomato 'Aspic'

This was delicious

Ayu Tempura

That last dish, largely, was why I have no clue what I was eating as the Amuse. Ayu, a small fish known largely in Asia is considered a delicacy in Japan, to see one in the States is quite unusual, and the presentation was striking. Plus, the tomatoes are such a favorite of mine, to see how the chef's wove this amuse together was a joy. Sometimes you just eat.

First Course: Dungeness Crab, Radishes, Amazake, Junmai Dainginjo Sake.
Pairing: Conreria Dei Scala, Brugeres, Garnacha Blanco, Priorat 2011

No, it is not soft roe

This dish should have been photographed prior to the amazake being poured over. The Dungeness crab was served chilled in gel, there were baby radishes, Hijiki (a form of seaweed) and the sweet amazake poured over it all. Beautiful and delicate. The pairing was brilliant and not standard in any way, the Garnacha lending it's typical generous and flashy aroma, and a great earthy palate, but, minus the tannins that results from being on the lees.

Second Course: Sonoma Squab, Liver, Strawberry Juice, Ham Essence
Pairing: Franz Hirtzenberger Rielsing, Smaragd, Wachau 2006

Not Blood

A breast of squab, perfectly roasted to rare, with a nice crispy skin, technique, subtle and perfect. The liver dots with fennel and croutons, which looks like an afterthought, added texture, crunch and herbal notes, that worked right in with the sqaub. The strawberry juice was pure sweet berry and the ham essence kicked in salt and crunch. A beautifully conceived dish. The Riesling, which had some age on it, worked beautifully as a pairing, quite typical of an Austrian Riesling, the layers of fruit, mineral, acidity and slight petroleum played across the squab and liver, and was lifted by the berry. A great match.

Third Course: Tamba Kuromame Tofu, Aori Ika, Peaches, Lemon Verbena
Pairing: Yves Cuilleron, Viognier, Rhone Valley 2011

I Love Tofu

This dish, a tofu made with kuromame, the black soybean so integral to Osechi Ryori, the New Years meal, and an ingredient that is a favorite of mine, exemplifies what I consider to be the crossing of technique and the visceral sensation of a dish so familiar. This dish took a lifelong favorite and presented it in a way that was totally unfamiliar. Black tofu, fried crunchy, so rich and perfectly played off of the cauliflower, peaches, ika. For me, this was where the dinner hit on every note. There could not have been a better dish, speaking to me on every level. The pairing with the Viogner seemed odd to me, but, once tasted, I realized that this was not typical German summer wine, this was Rhone to the core, with a slight funky earthiness, and stony backbone, the stone fruit picking up the peach, a great pairing for a difficult pairing.

Fourth Course: Kagoshima Shiokko, Bing Cherries, Summer Beans, Pink-tip Parsley
Pairing: Beaux Fréres, Pinot Noir, Beaux Fréres Vineyard, Willamette Valley, 2008

I hate fish

To be clear, Shiokko is Young Amberjack, and this was perfectly seared. The initially odd combination of cherries, beans and parsley just worked, playing sweet, herbal, earthy against the mild fish flavor and the toasty undertones from the sear. As to the wine pairing, Beaux Fréres rarely misses, but, this Pinot is one of the best bottlings you can find in Oregon, the best of Oregon Pinot noir, smooth, silky yet distinctly New World. The fact that it had a little age and picked up on the cherries and earthy bean-ness of this dish, made what the sommelier had said what he though to be a risky pairing, into the perfect pairing. Red with fish, perfect.

Fifth Course: Lamb in Many Forms, Green Curry
Pairing: Delas, Cote Rotie, Seigneur de Maugiron, Rhone 2006

Lamb, Lamb, oh, and, um, Lamb

The final savory course, lamb tongue, lamb saddle, lamb flank, lamb tenderloin, each getting it's own preparation, ranging from meltingly tender tongue to that little crispy nugget of fat. The curried peas and herbs were a great counter point to the richness of the lamb and the crispy bits of dried lamb. There was a distinct cardamom and cumin accent to the flavor profiles that tied all the preparations together. The chosen pairing of a predominantly Syrah wine from the Rhone was clearly a classic play, but, the wine chosen was a beautiful example that played well with the lamb, as well as the normally challenging warm spices used on this dish.

Sixth Course: Guanaja Chocolate, Blood Orange Dipped Doughnuts
Pairing: Maury, Banyuls, Mas Amiel, Roussilon 1969

Chocolate! Yay!

This dish was a terrific dessert, the chocolate 'dirt' was a slightly discordant note, but, the doughnuts were brilliant, the orange cream and the ganache in the center of the dish was just perfect. Now, to the pairing, the wine was exceptional as a pairing. However, the wine was brilliant and I think would have been perfect alone. It was an exceptional selection, something that is a rare treat. I truly felt this wine could have been presented on it's own, it was so exceptional.

The dishes prepared by Chef Rotondo showed that there are some amazing things being done in the kitchen of Parallel 37, the restaurant definitely is worth a second look based upon this dinner. Chef Hiroo showed an amazing combination of respect for the food stuffs of his heritage, with the techniques of modernist cuisine seamlessly. This was an unforgettable dinner and effort by the chefs and their staff.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Japanese Food - Birthday blow-out 2013

Izakaya Yuzuki became an instant favorite of mine, the first time I had the Tsukemono, which they ferment in 'Nuka', a rice bran product, that informs all of my best experiences with Japanese food, every dish rang true to what I had come to know, through my grandmother's preparations. On my recent birthday, Rob, my friend and frequent dining companion surprised me with a trip to Yuzuki, along with our friends Kevin and Hiroo, we found ourselves being treated to an 'omakase' feast and it was amazing.

To start off, we ordered some beer, the Ozeno Yukidoke IPA, which was a surprisingly good, almost West-coastish IPA, with excellent malt body and great hop bitterness and aroma. Then, we had to order a bottle of sake, it is an izakaya, after all. And we found, much to my surprise a Junmai Daiginjo, the highest rating for a sake, and it was from Hiroshima, the place in Japan that my father's family originates from, it seemed appropriate, as my dad and I share a birthday. The Maboroshi Kurobako (Junmai Daiginjo Genshu) is rather a unique and delicate sake, something that was a wonderful accompaniment to the meal. 

And on to the food. One of the great things a chef can do, especially with a large tasting menu, is to take you on a journey, the way the food is served, the order in which dishes appear, it can all tell a story of what the kitchen is seeking to do. This would end up being a 15 course tasting menu, with a deft and subtle path.

Course 1: Zaru Tofu - made in house, a soft textured and very subtle tofu, served with Maldon sea salt on the side. This is unlike any tofu you can buy in a store.
Zaru Tofu with Sea Salt

Course Two: Pirikara Cucumbers - Fresh cucumbers, that are marinated is sesame oil and shichimi pepper powder, a delicate, almost pickle-like preparation, with a hint of heat on the finish.
Pirikara Cucumbers

Course Three: Ika Shiokara - This dish was squid that had been marinated in salt and squid liver, along with some ikura (salmon roe/bait), flowers, and micro Shiso leaves. It was amazing the impact of the Shiso on this dish.
Ika Shiokara

The detail of the knifework, stunning

Course Four: Satsuma Age - a fried fish cake (rock cod and shrimp) with vegetables, and this was of exceptional quality, very light and tender. fried just enough to be crisp. We make this at home, but, nowhere near this level of skill. Honestly, the best example of this dish I have ever had.
Satsuma Age

Course Five: Karage - Chicken marinated in Shio Koji (a salt and fermented rice mixture) then deep fried. For some reason, no photo was taken.

Course Six: Aji no Hiraki - now, in any situation where you give up control of the menu, there is a risk that something you detest might show up. This was that dish. I hate mackerel, can't stand it. So, here was a Shio Koji cured, air dried and grilled mackerel. Yay... With the spine grilled and eaten like a cracker...double yay...I have no idea how good, or bad, this was.
Aji no Hiraki

Course Seven: Tsukune and Negima - Shio Koji cured chicken meatball and chicken with scallion, known as standards of Yakitori, this was a welcome dish, after those mackerel. Chef uses an exceptional 'tare' (think of this as a bbq sauce/glaze) to create additional depth of flavor and color. Hiroo, who is something of an expert of traditional Japanese foods and I, a dilettante at best, agreed that this was cooked over 'Binchotan' charcoal and quite properly done.
Negima (back) and Tsukune (front)

Course Eight: Yaki Surume Ika - This time, squid cured in Shio Koji, then grilled and presented with a 'Yuzu' mayonnaise. Yuzu is one of the main flavoring ingredients in Japanese cooking, a small citrus, it is incredibly aromatic. 
Yaki Surume Ika

Course Nine: Obanzai - Vegetables cooked in the Kyoto-style, three ways, and I had a little trouble here, as I could not figure out any vegetable in the tamagoyaki, it tasted like egg wrapped around eel, which makes no sense, although it was delicious. I have no idea what the middle dish was made from, and the sweet potato was delicious. Sorry, by this time, I was just eating away.
Some stuff cooked in three ways

Course Ten and Eleven: Two Rice dishes and Tsukemono - my favorite dishes at this restaurant, and I feel best eaten together, although that is quite 'village' of me. Tsukemono, the traditional 'nuka' fermented pickles, along with the Koshihikari rice, cooked in traditional ceramic pots, presented with clams, or with Hijiki and cured vegetables, I added the tsukemono to mine. 
Koshihikari Gohan with Hamaguri

Koshihikari Gohan with Hijiki and Tsukemono

Course Twelve: Chawanmushi with Uni -  also known as the palate reprieve, another classic of Japan, a very delicate egg and 'dashi' custard, with uni floated on top. It was my sense that the herb Mitsuba was also there, in the leaf floating on top. Mitsuba is a great addition to any broth or stock, adding a nice herbal touch.
Chawanmushi with Uni

Course Thirteen: Kobe Beef Tataki - raw Kobe beef, presented with a bright onion salad and a yuzukosho miso sauce. Yuzukosho is a mixture of pepper powder, yuzu peel and salt. It added a nice punch to the fatty raw beef. And yes, it is a terrible photo.
Kobe Tataki

Course Fourteen: Kakiage - We had seen this dish walked past our table several times, and it was beginning to become a problem. It looked so good. Essentially it is shredded root vegetables and meat, in this case, shrimp, that are deep fried in a 'Tempura' batter. I grew up with this, but, not with this level of refinement. But, the flavors reminded me of many dinners with my grandmother and mother, both of whom loved this dish, hence, it means a lot to me. The Daikon-oroshi is mixed into the sauce, the lemon is squeezed over the fritters and then the green tea salt is sprinkled on.

Course Fifteen: Yaki Omusubi - Grilled sweet rice balls with a compound butter of soy and uni. To say this is unusual as a flavor combination is understating. But, the rice was perfectly grilled and flavored with the 'Tare', the butter was incredibly rich and flavorful. We had to ask the kitchen to stop at this point.
Yaki Omusubi

This was a meal to remember, with every dish being executed with tremendous skill and care. So many of the dishes speak to me, perhaps in a language far more sophisticated than I am used to, but, in the flavors, aromas and compositions that speak to me of my family and childhood. It was a most thoughtful and amazing gesture on Rob's part. And it reaffirms my belief that this is one of the best restaurants in San Francisco.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Reunion Bento

An unusual thing happened on the way to this blog post, about a month ago, I received an email from a old friend, it had been almost 30 years since we had last spoken, and he was seeking to organize a reunion of our Landscape Architecture class, folks that I spent 3 of the most enjoyable, and torturous years of my life with. I looked forward to this event like few other. I wanted to cook something special, something that reflects me, as a person and a cook, and that is the particular fusion of Japanese and American food I have grown to appreciate more and more. I made enough that I felt I could generously share, as that was what I hoped this event would be about.

Bento, as I grew up knowing it, existed as a picnic food, not the formalized boxes we see in restaurants, but, the neat little boxes of food, in my youth, these were wonderful lacquered wood that would stack and tie. I used the modern, and sadly lacking, plastic box version. The ones for clumsy children, like me! On to the photos...

Chuka Wakame and Kuromame

I bought these, sweet black soy beans, and a sesame seaweed salad. To be honest, I could have made them, but, the store bought is quite good and I had limited time to prepare the foods. This was a great cheat. All of the food here was prepared and cooked in a split 5 hour period.

Simplified Oden

I ended up making a simple and quick dashi, as I know of no other way to prepare Japanese food, this was one of the dishes that needed it, a simple oden, of seared kamaboko, braised carrots and shiitake mushrooms, with a broth of the dashi seasoned with sweet potato.

Tsukemono, Moyashi and Kuri

A basic salt and sugar pickle, the standard for my family, Moyashi, the bean sprouts, accented with a little toasted sesame oil and rayu. The Kuri, cucumbers, with just the vinegar. These are needed, as they provide a great counterpoint to the rice and richer dishes. Sweet and sour is one of the basic flavor profiles of all Asian foods.

Char-siu, Takuan, Onigiri
I made a basic char-siu, which is a recipe I have covered previously in my blogs, this was cooked in the oven, due to time restraints. It was still terrific, and since it was to be served cold, the lack of smoke was not a bad thing, as smoke would have affected the other elements in the box. The takuan was a purchased item, although I plan on making some, this was not the time. The onigiri, which forms the basis of the next three boxes was a very high quality rice, with I dressed with a 'su' and added some nori furikake, a seasoning for rice, in this case, nori, sesame seeds and katsuoboshi (dried bonito ground to fine flakes), and sea salt. I also topped the pork with the same.

Thai-influenced Chicken Wings, Onigiri
Okay, a touch of fusion here, these are not Teriyaki wings, they were marinated in a mixture of fresh ginger, fish sauce (as usual, Red Boat), lime, green onions, whiskey, shoyu, chile pepper and rice syrup. The object was to add just a little top note from the pepper, still trying to stay with a Japanese palate, so not the typical heat one might expect.

Onigiri, Gomae, Tamagoyaki
Here, you can see the seasoned rice balls (onigiri, onee-gee-dee, please, not on-ee-gear-ee), along with the spinach gomae, a blanched spinach seasoned with toasted sesame oil, and the tamagoyaki, my nemesis, a rolled egg omelet, in this case seasoned with a little sweet sake, sake, shoyu, and dashi. It is my nemesis, as the rolling often doesn't work for me. My family does not do the thick layers so common now, our standard would be layers that are more like thick paper.

Strawberries macerated in whiskey, balsamic, rice syrup
Something fresh and sweet is always a nice way to finish. I happen to like strawberries just plain, but, wanted to dress these up a bit. These were organic, as was all of the produce I used, and these were coastal grown from older, non-hybrid plants, so the berries are smaller, more uniformly ripe and with a sweet and tart flavor that stood up to the flavors nicely.

I ended up bringing a little bit home, but, the food held up beautifully as it sat on the picnic table. One of the great things about these types of Japanese foods is that they adapt well to being served cold, tepid or hot. As for the reunion itself, it was as if 30 years melted into a day apart, when we saw each other, time disappeared and we were the same people, except for the fact that we were a little grayer and a lot less worried about turning in our projects.