Thursday, April 30, 2009

My New Love for Ginger in Candy Form

I was searching through a Marukai Japanese housewares store in Gardena for a wire ladle for my upcoming hotpot dinner when I noticed this box on the bottom shelf of the checkout counter. I despised ginger as a child, always picking it out of my food whenever I encountered it. However, as my palate as matured, so has my distaste for ginger abated. In fact, ginger candy is now one of my favorite snacks.


My common gripe with ginger candies is that they're too often just candied ginger. While suiting the mood for just the right circumstances, candied ginger is not what I'm searching for. It would be as if I liked orange candy but could only find candied orange peels. So seeing this box of Reed's Ginger Candy Chews, I decided to give it a try. I've had great experiences with Reed's Ginger Beer before; they don't go light on the spice.

What I found inside the box was exactly what I've been yearning for. A ginger flavored candy that wasn't just preserved ginger. Of course there was plenty of ginger kick in each morsel, but the chewy texture of the tapioca starch drew out the flavor of each bite. It's not so sweet like the candied ginger, which is commonly coated completely with sugar, but much more balanced between spicy and sweet. The website says this is a generations old Indonesian recipe. I can see that; it's certainly a candy throwback dusted lightly in starch and wrapped in wax paper.

According to the website, it seems that this is most commonly sold in health food stores. I wish they were more readily available, but give it a try next time you see the white box with the circular Reed's logo.

Reed's Ginger Beer is also good for a "Dark 'n Stormy." I believe it's some combination of Ginger Beer, rum, and lime juice. You'll have to ask Rumdood for details.


Sunday, April 26, 2009

Childhood Memories of Wonton Noodles

I recently went back home to the Bay Area for the weekend. A quick trip true, but I managed to get most of the hometown eats that I crave whenever I return. My mom greeted me with steamed cod my first night in town. The next morning I got dim sum at East Ocean Seafood Restaurant, a mediocre place, but one that I've been going to for as long as I can remember. It's nice to go back to a restaurant where you can identify various points of your life with memories dining there. All Chinese Alamedans know East Ocean.

The day I drove out to Oakland Chinatown and got four banh mi at my favorite Vietnamese sandwich place BC Deli to bring on the plane. But the best food I had while I was back at home was a bowl of wonton and fish ball egg noodles with a side of roast duck and char-siu at Gum Wah Restaurant in Oakland Chinatown.


During the years I toiled at Saturday Chinese school, I was always bitter about missing the cartoons in the mornings. But after class, my dad would take me to one of two places for lunch--McDonald's or Gum Wah. While our repertoire surely wasn't limited to the two, all my memories are of these places. I always ordered the same thing, the aforementioned bowl of noodles. This last time I went back and had the same thing. Phenomenal. Usually it's the case where something is never as good as you remember it, but this bowl of wonton noodles had all the savory, MSG-laden, deliciousness that I fondly recalled. I'd also recommend the roast duck and char-siu over rice.

It got me to think about the "last meal scenario." Inmates on death row invariably pick something that reminds them of home. Few people really choose a decadent last meal like Francois Mitterrand. Instead, they tend to default to their mom's fried chicken or Thanksgiving mashed potatoes. While I wouldn't choose Gum Wah wonton noodles for my last meal, it would certainly be in the running. Sometimes in this hobby, it's easy to become too focused on what's universally good. The real focus should be on what makes you feel good.

Gum Wah
345 8th Street
Oakland, 94607
(510) 834-3103


Saturday, April 25, 2009

Savor Scottsdale: The Kitchen

Like a Whole Foods deli counter without the Whole Foods, The Kitchen has an incredible selection of hot and cold foods ready to be eaten or taken to go. While I was out in Arizona last month, this was the place my team was constantly returning to. Given its proximity to our client, that's understandable, but after going there the first time, I knew I would be back...a lot.


Again, I'd like to apologize for the iPhone pictures for my adventures in Scottsdale. I was there for work, and blogging wasn't on my mind. I created this series mostly for the wandering professional who might find himself out in Arizona for a random training or conference.

The Kitchen is divided into several stations in a cafeteria style. The center island showcases their cold prepared foods (e.g. pasta salad, ready-grill paninis, coleslaw), the olive bar, charcuterie, and cheese

I grabbed a panini here once. Mediocre, but the glass cases are generally better for picking out cold sides like the dill potato salad. One night, I picked up two-foot baguette and a wedge of Gloucester chive and onion cheese and just dined on that. A word of caution, eating a whole loaf of crusty bread yourself can have a detrimental effect on your jaw. So as you can imagine, The Kitchen also has a bakery that churns out fresh pastries. Following along the wall of the bakery, there is a salad and cold sandwich station. I've heard good things about the cold sandwiches, but I never got anything there.

My attention was always on the rotisserie station. Their rotisserie chicken made a wonderful meal, more suitable for a dinner though, given the price of $11.99 for half a bird and two sides. I preferred the roasted chicken to the fried chicken, which I had on another day. The fried chicken was dry and over-priced at the same price for two pieces as a half a roast chicken. The basket of sweet potato fries is way too much for one person. Same with the French fries with cumin ketchup. Sure, add cumin to the ketchup, it makes it more interesting but doesn't make it taste any better.

The team's favorite item from the rotisserie, judging by the frequency of ordering, would be the prime rib sandwich though. Flavorful and juicy, you can't go wrong with this sandwich. Actually, you can see it in the background of the fried chicken picture.

The Kitchen also had a wide variety of dry grocery items, such as pastas, olive oils, crackers. They even cater to the gourmand with canned escargot and amazingly fruity artisanal gummy bears (Great Skott Gummy Bears from Wisconsin). I also discovered Fentiman's Curiosity Cola, an intensely herbal, deeply flavored cola somewhat like a cross between ginger beer, sasparilla and Coke.

The Kitchen is simply a wonderful place for a wide variety of eaters. You can get the sophisticated epicure picking out obscure cheeses and wines, or you can get the same turkey sandwich every day and not be disappointed. Don't dismiss it as just a high-end grocer without the rest of the groceries though. I don't know a Bristol Farms or a Pavillion's that could make a prime rib sandwich like The Kitchen.

The Kitchen
8977 N. Scottsdale Road
Paradise Valley, AZ 85253
(480) 612-0100
$10-12 for a usual lunch, but goes upwards from there


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Savor Scottsdale: Whataburger

Admittedly, the title is somewhat misleading. "Savor" implies that the following restaurant is delicious or at least worth enjoying, but this is not the case. My entry for Whataburger is a warning instead. "Savor Scottsdale" is simply the name of my Scottsdale series. See a good Arizona burger at my Stax entry.


I first heard about Whataburger from a San Antonio native who described it to me as the "In-n-Out" of Texas. So when I finally saw a branch of this Southern institution, I was determined to give it a beefy audition.

Upon receiving my meal, a Whataburger combo, I realized immediately the Texan appeal. Apparently, size is everything in the South, because taste sure isn't a factor. They serve 5 inch patties for their classic Whataburger. That 32 ounce drink is a medium. Fries undersalted and underflavored, burger dry and boring. I've had more interesting burgers that come out of my microwave. As you can tell from my Counter and Father's Office reviews, I'm now a big advocate of simple burgers made with quality beef. All the fancy toppings can't save poor meat, and good meat can easily trump any accoutrements. Whataburger was almost as disappointing as my first trip to Sonics, although not nearly as bad because I wasn't constantly bombarded by commercials for a fast food chain that didn't exist within fifty miles of me. Honestly, where the hell is the a Sonics and why do they spend so much advertising in markets without restaurants?

But back to Whataburger, what a garbage interstate import. You can keep your Whataburgers Texas, we'll just keep sending you avocados so you can continue to make everything "Californian."

Update: Whataburger rep for Arizona actually emailed me and invited me back to the restaurant as a guest to try "what a What-a-burger should be." While I won't be back in town, I would go back because I appreciate the effort they go through for customer satisfaction. It may not change the burger, but it speaks volumes about the company.

9990 N 90th Street
Scottsdale, AZ 85258
(480) 767-9281
$5 for a classic Whataburger, fries, and humongous drink


Monday, April 13, 2009

Sensory Overload: The Urasawa Experience

If Urasawa is not what a perfect dining experience should be, then I doubt anything else in LA could be. Granted, the cost is prohibitively expensive, and if I were to come back more than once, it would weigh more heavily on my review. But for a one-time visit, I felt good dropping $540 for the six-hour dinner. I suppose the cost just didn't bother me because I knew exactly what I was getting into fully anticipated handing over my paycheck to the Urasawa Corporation.


Hiro in intense concentration
Hiro in intense concentration

The most common response I receive when describing my meal is always, "Was it worth it?" To most people, the idea of paying this much for a dinner is outrageous. But to them I reply that it is precisely that type of thinking that makes it so expensive. It isn't just a dinner, it's an experience. Why would you pay for a concert when you can download the song for a dollar? On the surface, if you view dinner as just a form of sustenance, you're doing yourself a disfavor. A life of subsistence is not a life worth living. People take pleasure in different ways; this happens to be my vice. But hopefully I can convey to those who don’t already know the multi-faceted pleasures of eating.

Throughout the night, I constantly found myself rubbing my palms and fingers against the silky smooth blonde wood of the bar. The attention paid to this counter was indicative of the meal to come. No varnish, no sealant, this wood was sanded daily to a soft finish. It was a theme I noticed throughout the night, elegance in simplicity. All ingredients served a purpose; the experience was sensory on all levels. Whereas most use of gold leaf is ostentatious and completely unnecessary, its effect as a visual stimulant spoke to the complete sensory arousal in this meal. Too often sushi is too flashy, especially in American rolls, monstrous creations often appropriately named Godzilla. Elegance in simplicity comes with care and expertise, not with a squirt of rehydrated “eel sauce” and hastily battered tempura. Our first course had the weighty responsibility of setting the standard for the night, but the toro senmai-maki demonstrated a graceful interplay of seared tuna belly wrapped monkfish liver, garnished with shiso, topped with caviar and dashed with ponzu. Layer after layer of flavors hit me, as each ingredient harmonized yet played its own melody. Like the successful concerto, culminating in rich euphony, this was a great way to start the meal.

First course: Toro Senmai-maki
First course: Toro Senmai-maki

Even if it's not his intention, Chef Hiro Urasawa is an entertainer. The fact that this is dinner and a show helps to soften the wallet blow. With your seat in front of the master himself, you are privy to watching the exquisite knifework and attention to detail. Had I not been seating in my prime spot, I wouldn't have enjoyed the experience at quite the same level. He answered our questions cheerfully, and I could tell when he took out his prime Ichigin junmai daiginjo sake that his passion is really in his craft. Our Cristal failed to impress him; he’s seen all manner of victuals over-hyped. It was Brian’s bottle of Nihonbashi 2007 Gold Medal winner sake that made Hiro’s ears perk. I would’ve scoffed at any hip hop glamorizing this bottle, but it was music to my ears to hear Hiro exclaim “so good” after a taste. That was how the entire evening felt; he was enjoying it right along with us, talking, joking, sharing.

Hiro displaying his Ichigin Sake
Hiro displaying his Ichigin Sake

While there were several dishes I've never encountered before, most of the menu was fairly familiar for a regular Japanese food consumer. Of course, it was the highest quality examples of said items. I didn't mind that there was nothing so rare I would find no where else. The Saga beef, wagyu from the Saga prefecture was unique enough by itself. No Kobe here; I’m convinced now that Saga is the only way to go. The beef, whether seared lightly on top of sushi or braised for three-days with snow pea, had tenderness without sacrificing meaty flavor. Carved from the block of cow behind Hiro, the meat could be chewy in one moment, and melting the next. Texture influences so much of the sensation of flavor that we too often forget that the touch of your lips, tongue and teeth are integral to the eating experience.

 Seared Saga Beef Readied for Sushi
Seared Saga Beef Readied for Sushi

 Three-day braised Saga beef
Three-day braised Saga beef

I'm certain that the menu would be quite different coming here at another time during the year. For our early Spring dinner, the variety was not quite so extensive. One seasonal difference—the shabu shabu course of amaebi, Saga beef and foie gras came in metal bowls instead of the summertime paper. A quick dip in the broth and the shrimp was ready. Sweet as is, a splash of dashi helped bring out flavor depth. The unctuous beef and goose liver inundated the soup, making the resulting broth richer than many French stocks and so full of umami that I hesitated to swallow, lest one mouthful be gone. As indescribable as umami is as a flavor, I would direct you to Urasawa’s shabu shabu for a demonstration of its full potential.

Individual Shabu Shabu
Individual shabu shabu

The orchids along the wall are supposedly hand-picked by Hiro. I’ve heard of chefs personally picking the fish for the day, but Hiro goes beyond the food. He knows that he has staked his reputation on more than just the food; he has to make everything beautiful. While “stunning” is not usually a word used to describe Japanese food, the hand-carved ice block with Spanish toro, Kyushu tai and Toyama kanpachi flanked by a clean white orchid and bright orange slivers of Kyoto carrot was much more stunning in person than in the pictures. Colors abound, the taste almost took a backseat to visual appeal in this course…almost.

Sashimi platter

Most of the night was marked by a myriad of aromas, sometimes in front of me, sometimes wafting in from behind the curtain. The smell of the shiitake mushroom, grilling on the back-counter made me anxious for the renowned shiitake sushi, the only place I’ve heard it served before. Though the flavors of the fungus and the rice were slightly incompatible, the smell of wood permeated my nose. Yet this course paled in olfactory indulgence compared to the kani miso korayaki grilled hairy crab innards topped with uni. Each diner got his own hibachi with a simmering shell. Each bursting bubble sent waves of crab aroma into the air. My favorite course of the night.

 Simmering hairy crab
Simmering hairy crab

We got to walk behind the bar after dinner and witness a huge kitchen for such a small front. I was somewhat dumbstruck by the massive mechanism behind the scenes, pushing forward twenty-six dishes or so to ten anxious diners. Come to Urasawa with an open mind and ready body. Hiro’s dishes hit all your senses, putting your body at ease so that your mind can enjoy. With your head floating in the Nirvana of culinary delight, you can truly forget the weight of your wallet.

Special thanks to Yoko for providing the photographs. Thanks to Kevin for his notes and borrowing his kick-off phrase. To all else who joined me on this adventure, I appreciated you sharing it with me.

For the play by play, please visit Kevin or Kung Food Panda's blogs.

218 N Rodeo Dr,
Beverly Hills, 90210
(310) 247-8939
$350 omakase pp