My Happy Place Is Japanese

IMG_2462Smoked duck breast and spinach salad, Yakitori-ya, Little Osaka, Los Angeles

Contrary to derision by those who don’t understand foodies, being a foodie is not simply about eating a lot of food and sharing those experiences with the world. It is also about being adventurous and curious about a variety of tastes and cultures and how that continually opens the mind to new palate horizons. It is about the act of eating and the experiences you enjoy while doing so amongst the myriad people and places in the world around you that would otherwise be unfamiliar. It is about paying sacred homage to what goes in your mouth beyond just chomping down on three meals a day for fuel. It is about tiptoeing into various communities and coming out with a feeling that you have just picked up a few extra family members. It is about memories of your own family and friends and the past, which carved and sustained you. It is about pleasure, sensuousness, being present, nourishment and life.

IMG_2464Skewered, grilled chicken gizzards atop a bowl of fried gizzards, Yakitori-ya, Little Osaka, Los Angeles

Food also becomes an influencer to a foodie. I am a firm believer that we are born into this lifetime into a certain family, which serves as a sort of laboratory Petri dish of learning experiences that inform how we act and react within the world. But as we grow and come to know who we inherently are, we tend to look outwards to cultivate new compatriots and tribes born from our individual interests and desires. For the foodie, this is oftentimes molded through food and the ambiance that surrounds certain dining experiences.

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Chicken skin, Yakitori-ya, Little Osaka, Los Angeles

For example, if you were to ask me what defines me as a woman in relation to the food cultures I grew up around or have been inherently interested in, I would be: one-fourth French bistro whore on a lazy Sunday at noon with escargot, chicken liver mousse, Champagne and cheese; one-fourth Mexican senorita dancing on the tabletops doing shots of tequila in a dive bar/bordello with a platter of taco and burrito fixings; one-fourth Greek fisherman pounding ouzo and chomping on olives, lamb, bread and feta at sundown in a tiny, remote village by the sea; and one-fourth old Jewish yenta filling the kids and grandkids with rugelach, pastrami and rye and kugel on an average morning from my rocking chair complete with newspapers open to the crosswords page on a pile beside me.

IMG_2467 Duck ravioli with mushroom broth, Yakitori-ya, Little Osaka, Los Angeles

But when it comes to the culture and cuisine that I relate to more on a whole package level, it is Asian hands down. And although that “Asian” encompasses a lot of distinct personality including Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, et al … it is Japanese that has the attention of my full mind, body and heart—in fact, it is Japanese that I aspire to be when I grow up. Japanese cuisine is the simplest in the world, yet the most complex to get right. Skewered chicken parts may seem easy to the naïve onlooker; raw sashimi may seem like nothing more than cut pieces of raw fish; a three ingredient salad may seem like something a ten-year-old could make but when I have tried any of these at home, I have usually failed. It’s that subtle refinement that I aspire to that I don’t find in many places, laying beneath a steadfast devotion to and legacy of craft. As I age I want to be quiet, not loud and I want my food to be mostly pure, healthy, delicious and straightforward.

IMG_2469 Soboro Rice with skewered chicken tail, Yakitori-ya, Little Osaka, Los Angeles

When I was in my early thirties, I even made a manifest board with friends that stated the man of my dreams would be a Japanese gardener and it was because I was tired of all the boisterous boys who were no good for me and instead hankered for something gentle yet sophisticated, world class but modestly applied. It was the same for my future food life that had run the gamut of over rich, over sauced, over processed and over spiced. The reason for my love of the Japanese is so elusive in specific nature as are most things that stem from the soul but I am lucky to live near two thriving Japanese food scenes with the Little Osaka and Little Tokyo areas of Los Angeles. I am also lucky enough to have found that Cute Gardener who consistently finds the best yakitori restaurants in town while being able to master a delicate soup of matsutake mushrooms and mussels on the fly after years of rigorous practice in the fine art of whipping something up out of virtually nothing.

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 Cute Gardener’s matsutake mushroom and mussels soup with baby bok choy with pork and rice

 

Short Lived Sandwich Spree With Reuben

IMG_8997It’s always dangerous when I find old copies of food magazines around the house. Especially when that magazine is a Saveur and the theme of the issue is the all mighty sandwich. After salivating through the pages for a week, I announced quite boisterously to the Cute Gardener that I would be spending the entire college football season making sandwiches on Saturdays while we loafed in the living room rooting for USC. This would merrily take the place of my normal cooking night because I had visions and grand plans dancing through my brain of sky high Dagwoods, tender Cubanos, tangy muffalettas, proper cream cheese and cucumbers and saucy brats and roasted peppers on all size and shape of fluffy bun.

So this past weekend I opted for the Reuben to grandly debut my pop up delicatessen in our kitchen. What I quickly realized is how intensive a sandwich shop really is. It is easy to take a sandwich for granted when it comes already assembled on a plate, ready to devour in moments with a crunchy side of chips, but when one is making the sandwich that is a different story. For my Reuben, I was sent scrambling to the grocery store for sliced corned beef, high class Swiss, German horseradish, good rye (thank goodness the Ralph’s I chose is in a ritzy neighborhood that demands fresh baked bread from local bakeries alongside the traditional processed, package brands), mayonnaise, sauerkraut, Tabasco, and more. You never realize how many ingredients you are currently out of, or lacking in the first place, until you try to make a noted sandwich from scratch. Who knew that mere smear on bread of a Russian dressing could be so complicated. Now that I had all the fixings, I was ready to make a great Reuben for my mate but wait, what about side dishes. Argh, I also threw some sweet potatoes for baked fries into my cart and headed home.

When it was time to cook, the process was relatively simple and the Reuben turned out really tasty. It was totally worth the trip and the CG even made a nice garden fresh, warm tomato and basil soup to dip the sandwich into which added an extra layer of belly warming unctuousness to the meal. But then when we were done, my stomach started to hurt, thinking of the next Saturday and the sandwich I would have to prepare then. The CG’s head started to hurt as he placed three fourths of a rye bread loaf into the freezer and all my new condiments on the bottom shelf of the fridge. Would we be able to eat all of that loaf in a week to make way for another? We couldn’t simply use rye again when the whole point was a slew of different sandwiches. Where would all the new condiments go that next week’s sandwich would require. Would we ever be able to go through all this new food on a weekly basis?

And so that was that. The sandwich spree ended just as quickly as it had started, falling into the ethers of memory where resides all that has been already eaten.

But at least I conquered the Reuben, savored with a crisp white Riesling, combining three of my favorite things: Jewish deli fare, classy wines, and couch Saturdays with the CG, into one delicious early evening, even if my intentions bit off more than they could chew.

THE REUBEN
(from Saveur Magazine’s April 2001 issue)
SERVES 4

INGREDIENTS

½ cup mayonnaise
1 tbsp. American chili sauce 1 tbsp. finely chopped parsley
1 tsp. finely grated yellow onion
½ tsp. prepared horseradish
¼ tsp. Worcestershire sauce
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
8 tsp. unsalted butter, softened
8 slices rye bread
8 slices Swiss cheese
2 cups drained sauerkraut
1 lb. thinly sliced corned beef

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Whisk together mayonnaise, chili sauce, parsley, onion, horseradish, Worcestershire, salt, and pepper in a medium bowl. Set Russian dressing aside.
  2. Working on a cutting board, spread 1 tsp. butter on each slice of bread; turn over and top with Russian dressing. To 4 of the slices add 2 slices of cheese, ½ cup sauerkraut, and 4 oz. corned beef each. Top each with remaining bread slices.
  3. 3. Heat a 12″ skillet over medium heat, and working in batches, add sandwiches. Cook, pressing constantly and turning once, until golden brown and crisp, about 10 minutes. Serve hot.

Restaurant Trends Rehash

2014_trendy_restaurant_menu-thumbIt has been a steady three years since my palate first encountered the Los Angeles restaurant scene on a regular basis; long enough that I have steadily been out to eat at least 100 times, qualifying me for bona fide foodie status in the area. From highbrow white tablecloth dinners at the (sadly missed) Royce to down and dirty, oozing cheese taco truck mulitas, I have seen and tried a lot. So when Eater LA came up with the above graphic spoofing Every Trendy Restaurant Menu, I had to laugh with a semi-uncomfortable familiarity while also lauding myself for not completely being a slave to the status quo.

Trendiness is a weird thing. It is sort of like a stereotype. You don’t want to be a person who believes in stereotypes but you know deep inside that they sometimes exist for good reason so you are leery of discounting them completely. But then you feel really bad for giving into a stereotype when it bites you in the butt and you realize you were actually far off in left field from the truth. No one wants to jump on the trendy bandwagon, but nobody wants to be left out of a good experience either. You should not shun something based on its trendiness but you should not jump head first into it either just because it is popular. So I have broken the menu down below to reflect things that are in my life for a reason, season or a lifetime –the psychological way to gauge personal relationships, because we all know that food is one of my lifelong love affairs.

IMG_8875The Cute Gardener’s Hash is the trendiest item in my own home, and I don’t see it losing its allure anytime soon. Sometimes trends are followed for a reason.

1. The good stuff (aka in my life for a reason):

Housemade potato chips – the last time I ordered them, I was sitting at the Traxx Bar at Union Station with the Cute Gardener and a big fat martini. The chips were thick and starchy, slightly chewy in the middle, crisp on the edges and obviously an emotional purchase due to my love affair with the idea of eating things at bars where trains mass transit people from point A to B. Yes, you can buy cheap potatoes and make them at home, but who wants to go through all the effort?

Tarted up pork belly – I am firmly convinced that there will NEVER be a portion of pork belly on this planet that I don’t want to eat. In ramens (best done at Silverlake Ramen), on top of blue cheese mashed potatoes, or caramelized and fork tender all by itself.

Two bones with enough marrow to spread on a single piece of toast – When this dish is done well, it makes me happy. Especially when it’s done creatively like at Scratch Bar where the marrow bones are made out of sourdough bread.

What a weird uni dish – yes, uni is an extremely popular trend with no signs of slowing, but just like the most absolutely perfect, charming, and beautiful homecoming girl at school, you can’t help but hate and love it simultaneously. Plus, I fell in love with the CG over a plate of cold, black squid ink pasta with uni at Osteria Mozza so it’s stuck in my heart.

Gnarly looking whole fish with half a charred lemon – the last time I cooked a whole fish at home, I forgot to have the butcher remove the scales. In other words, I am still learning this one. So in the meantime, there’s still something exciting about getting a creature plopped in front of you at a high-class restaurant while everyone around you, less adventurous, becomes freaked out. This was super fun at Lukshon and Girasol.

Business class carrots – Odd inclusion to this meat heavy category of mine, but the Moroccan carrot dish (yes, in cute little crock) enhanced with harissa and a cool cucumber sauce at Pizzeria Mozza is my favorite vegetable dish in recent history.

2. The “I Wish It Would End Already” item (aka in my life for a season).

Newfangled deviled eggs – The CG is an egg whore and can hardly resist this delicacy. I am an egg whore too but my mom made the best deviled eggs this side of Iowa and my curried version is pretty darn good and I have a problem spending five bucks for two halves of egg.

City slicker fried chicken – the CG makes a superior version to any I have tried in restaurants of late. I always find that if the breading works, the chicken’s too dry. If the breading falls off, the chicken is too weak and flavorless. I can’t stand when there are grease spots next to hard spots. I am so picky about the dish I am hard pressed to ever try it. Although, I did have a few bites of the CG’s chicken at MB Post with honey drizzled over it alongside a cheddar biscuit that inched a little close to my soul.

Kale anything – kale grows in my yard and is thrown into smoothies and made into salads when I am feeling a certain lack of greens in my life. It is a vitamin. It is not something to be savored at dinner or paid for; that just seems so wrong and way too healthy for a night on the town.

Burger that’s crazier than it needs to be with fries – too big to put your mouth around, too many imbalanced ingredients, overcooked when asked for rare, or an aggressive single vegetable or piece of cheese –there are too many ways these burgers can go so wrong. I’ll take the balanced, meaty, messy and juicy alternatives at Comme Ca, Plan Check, Short Order, 25 Degrees, or Stout any day.

An unconventional riff on Brussels sprouts – at Tin Roof Bistro they char the living daylights out of these veggies and everywhere else they seem to halve and roast them in some bitter, acidic caramelization. Each time I have had them out, I become more nostalgic for the way my mother used to make them—steamed like tiny cabbages with butter, salt and pepper.

Fussy fries with truffle oil – I agree with Chef Aaron Sanchez, who said on an episode of Chopped to a contestant who was so darn proud of his dish spiked with truffle oil, “I wish they would ban that product from the marketplace.” If I want truffle I will eat a real one.

3. The “Purposefully Refused to Try Thus Far Based on Principle” additions (aka already in my life for life):

Tiny stuff you’re supposed to share. No, we don’t want eight olives in a ramekin that are already chilling at home in a half pound container from the Armenian grocer; nor nuts and herbs from the communal bin. We refuse to pay for toast unless it accompanies a pot of pork rillettes and the next generation of pickles is already brining in a jar in our fridge at home via the free cucumbers in our yard. We will make exceptions, though, for Littlefork where we can’t resist choosing a jar of spicy watermelon radishes from the pickle wall.

The CG has a saying that you shouldn’t eat things out that you could easily cook at home, that when you are in a restaurant, you want to be surprised and delighted. This usually applies to all salads and egg dishes but for the purposes of this menu, it means:

Shishito Peppers – throwing peppers into a hot oven until they blister is great but not for $14.

Painterly plate of beets and goat cheese – This got real boring after the 100th time I ate it when it first became trendy in the early 2000s.

Fish slivers doused in citrus juice – This can be bought at the grocery store. It’s called sardines in a can. Then squeeze lemon over the contents on a plate. Enough said. (I will however never forego a good plate of fried smelt on a menu.)

Amish chicken in the big city – I cook perfect roasted chicken in many forms. I don’t need any competition.

Wild salmon strikes back – see chicken.

Of course, whenever the palate tires from the same old thing, we learn to appreciate the unique dishes we make together at home or pull out the recipe books for a little adventure. I have been reviving my saffron risotto of late and the CG has been searing tomatoes in cumin for some extra spice in our life. We are looking forward to a new food season this fall with new menu items. Of particular note is our anticipation of Chef Bernhard Mairinger’s new spot Imbiss.