Saturday, December 20, 2008

My First Warm Rice Omakase: Echigo

Nozawa-style sushi has been on my list for some time in all its saucy, warm rice glory. Sushi Nozawa, the home of the original "Sushi Nazi" Chef Nozawa, has been spit out apprentice sushi chefs left and right. Sasabune here, Sushi Wasabi there. I decided to go to Echigo because it has a reputation being a cheaper, more low-end Nozawa sushi restaurant. I wanted to try the warm rice sushi first at an affordable restaurant before going all-out into Sushi Nazi territory.


I felt uncomfortable taking pictures at the Echigo sushi bar. The interior and exterior, part of a strip mall, doesn't scream high-end sushi. Also, since I came to Echigo to celebrate, I wasn't in a photojournalism mood. I was however, in the mood for a glass of jun shimeharitsu junmai ginjo, my favorite junmai at Tokyo Table's sake night. It was clearly as aromatic and crisp as I remembered, no harshness going down, and only a pleasant rice taste lingered on my palate.

At Echigo, the sushi bar is reserved for omakase only patrons. I had braced myself for the sticker price beforehand, and I didn't think I could get a good enough experience outside of omakase. What did bother me was that the omakase was a set course of one sashimi, eight nigiri sushi, and a blue crab handroll. The price is determined based on what's available. So far, my omakase experiences have always been "keep on coming till my stomach or wallet bursts." In the end, I think we received more than the eight pieces of nigiri, but I was still a Double-Double hungry afterward (after the Jungle Food Marathon, I'll measure satiety in In-n-Out Double-Doubles).

The sashimi course was actually three plates, a baby abalone, abalone liver and soft squid stuffed with blue crab. I've never seen a pretty little abalone shell so small, and biting through the crunchy flesh, I felt slightly guilty that whoever farmed it didn't wait for it to reach maturity. Unlike veal, which I have no qualms about eating, there's a catch limit on abalone. I'd rather wait for it to grow fully before adding it to the annual quota. Thought I'd be compassionate for the abalone--nope, it's a shellfish. I'm just thinking in economic terms.

The abalone liver tasted clamy and warm, not a particular inviting combination. Plus the raw taste of iron, which is always a liver deal-breaker, turned me off. Soft squid filled with crab could've just been a plate of blue crab. As I will discuss later with the blue crab handrolls, the crab was the star and the squid merely the container.

Our first nigiri was some surprisingly lean toro. None of that melt-in-your mouth, make you pray to Tuna heaven, deliciousness. The engawa (halibut fin muscle) was served warm, strange since I don't think it added anything to the fish. In fact, I could hardly taste any fish under all that sauce. Such a shame considering my favorite sushi is engawa. The hotate (scallop) tasted strangely more like a fish than a scallop.

Now the fish got a little more interesting. This was my first experience with sayori (needle fish), but again I couldn't taste any of the fish itself because of the heavy use of warm dashi sauce. As far as I could tell, needle fish doesn't have a distinct flavor of its own. Next, I got a pinkish fish that I could only understand as aji no kanpachi. It tasted like kanpachi although I'm not sure what "aji no" means. The chef put a large dollop of yuzu kosho pepper on the fish, giving it a spicy, citrus finish.

This was my first ono (butterfish) served raw. The chef served it with a small dab of sweet miso in the center. Its flavor resembled the miso-cured butterfish I had at Asia de Cuba. I guess ono and miso are a popular pair, although I think the fish has a memorable flavor by itself that may not be supplemented with sauce. The aji (Spanish or horse mackerel) felt cold and lifeless. It had no elasticity biting through the fish. I enjoyed the kinmedai (Golden-eye Snapper) and the spicy skipjack, but both had no memorable attributes besides sweet and tart respectively.

After a service of mostly lackluster, though somewhat exotic, sushi, the night culminated in the famous blue crab handroll. I could sing praises to the temaki, which I fondly recalled for days after the dinner. As far as I could tell, it was simply outstanding crab meat, but it tasted so rich I wondered if there was a secret mayonnaise addition. Echigo even offers a lunch combination of eight pieces of sushi and a blue crab handroll for $13. That would be quite a steal. In total, my omakase experience came out to about $48 pp plus drinks.

None of the sushi was terrible, but besides the blue crab, nothing seemed to stand out either. One complaint I had was that I couldn't taste the fish in some of the nigiri. Either it was masked by sauce or the fish itself just wasn't that flavorful. When it comes to sushi, I guess I like to keep it simple. I had the warm rice, and while it didn't detract too much from the sushi, it didn't seem to add anything to the food. I would be willing to try one of the higher end Nozawa places, but for now, Echigo's fine by me.

12217 Santa Monica Blvd, Ste 201
Brentwood, 90025
(310) 820-9787
Omakase ranges. Mine came out to $48 pp, but it can only go up from there.


Friday, December 12, 2008

What Does It Mean to Be a Blogger?

Looking back through my backlog of entries written by my fellow bloggers, I found Kevin's review on his second trip to Bazaar. Except, this entry was not as much a review as it was an examination of what it means to be a blogger. From his interview with Chef José Andrés and the subsequent comment by Rameniac, I took away something issues I'd like to address on my own.


The title of this entry is phrased as a question precisely because I am not sure what responsibilities a blogger has. The evolution of communication has created this sub-class of journalists open to anyone with an opinion and a clever (or not so clever, as in my case) blog name. I remember before the term "blog" was even coined; my friends and I traded URLs to our then "online journals." It's something we seem to take for granted these days, the empowerment we gain from such easy access to publication. I started many blogs in my lifetime, but always as journal for myself. As such, I sometimes forget that this blog isn't a diary; it's written for an audience.

So now that my readership has expanded beyond just myself and one or two loyal friends, I encounter the issues of responsible blogging. This is the area highlighted by Chef Andrés to Kevin, I found most thought-provoking. I do believe that bloggers should be held to a higher standard in their field of self-prescribed expertise. By broadcasting your opinion, you have assumed authority in your subject matter. There are even places like Article Writing Services that will provide you with alternative viewpoints on whatever your subject matter is. Of course there are many people who write with no authority, but at what point can you continue to write ignorantly, especially when you have gathered a sizable readership? Of course Kevin has grabbed this horn by the bulls; his research and thoughtfulness is easily apparent. Personally, I enjoy food research, so I try to be informed about what I write. I try to make my blog more than a collection of places I ate and what I found delicious. Food writing shouldn't simply be a documentation of food. A major benefit of blogging versus Yelping is the personalization of the eating experience. Exceptional food writing inspires me to eat or to find joy in eating, not just tell me how salty the fish is at so-and-so restaurant.

Another issue brought up in Rameniac's comment was the need to "blog with a conscience." The consequences of our writing actually has a real impact on restaurants. Something I may have lost sight of, in an effort to become more critical, is that restaurants are businesses. Reviews are an important metric related to financial success. Therefore, I will strive to be more considerate of the things I write. Although, nasty food will still warrant nasty comments.

As I mentioned before, actually having readers certainly shifts the focus of the blog. Now that I'm writing for others instead of just myself, I feel like I have a duty to present honest criticism of restaurants. It is the balance between the conscientious blogging concept and the duty to readers that will be increasingly difficult to uphold. Ultimately, I believe we should write honestly, but make that writing as accurate and informed as possible. And if that's not hard enough, make it fun and delicious to read as well.


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Big Black Noodle House: Daikokuya

Ah, living in Los Angeles with an affinity towards Japanese food, it's inevitable that I would stumble upon Daikokuya. But why does this little noodle shop gather so many supporters? As Rameniac, astutely points out, it is always overrun by "Giant Robot subscriber" hipsters searching for the newest "it" place. Certainly now that Daikokuya has been overhyped, it's on it's way down like the left-over noodles circling the garbage disposal. Those who are still waiting for hours outside the borderline sketchy part of J-Town are probably just a little slow on the times. Or maybe they really do find something special in each greasy bowl.


I ordered the kotteri style ramen, extra fatty like I thought I would enjoy. In retrospect, enjoy is a tough word to apply when I felt sick to my stomach after eating a bowl of so much fat. Maybe it was my mistake for choosing the fattier bowl, but the normal bowl didn't look much lighter. Although the menu says the broth is prepared overnight and flavored with special sauce blends, I didn't get that much depth in my spoonful. The noodles didn't stand out in any way, a big disappointment in a famed noodle house. I suppose Daikokuya's fanbase comes from the Berkshire kurobuta pork, but watching the cooks slop the cold chashu into a bowl made the entire thing several notches less appetizing. The runny soft-boil egg was the most enjoyable thing floating in there.

Way overrated ramen

Besides the ramen, the salads served with each meal had some appeal. Chopped cabbage topped in the creamy Japanese dressing, it's simple but satisfying. Both the unagi donburi eel rice and the tonkatsu pork cutlet were also decent. That's the thing: Daikokuya makes good food, just not that spectacular a ramen. Of course, I do admit I have an udon bias, but I would not wait in line to get this ramen. In fact, we had to wait twenty minutes to eat at the counter at 4:40 in the afternoon. I'd much rather go to the nearest Santouka and not feel as sick afterward.



Unagi Donburi

327 E 1st St
Little Tokyo, 90012
(213) 626-1680
$8.50 a bowl of ramen


The Rise of the McDouble

The New McDouble. Looks pretty familiar, but with one important difference

I love McDonald's. There, I said it. Shower all the hate and shame you want on me, but I don't think it's a paradox to be a foodie and like McDonald's. I've posted about it before on a lighter note, but now I have some grave news. I went into the restaurant today for my $3.25 lunch of double cheeseburger, McChicken and small fries, only to discover that the double cheeseburger is no longer on the Dollar Menu.


I never understood how the double cheeseburger costs the same as a regular cheeseburger. No wonder it was the best selling item on the wildly successful Dollar Menu. According to the LA Times, it costs McDonald's $.06 for each slice of cheese. In an effort to cut costs, the double cheeseburger has been removed and replaced with a McDouble, the same thing minus one slice of cheese. I applaud McDonald's effort to maintain the Dollar Menu, which makes up 14% of their sales. It takes a lot to maintain that Dollar Menu when so many other places have opted for "value menus" instead. And I'll be honest, I ate the McDouble and didn't miss that extra slice of cheese. Would I pay $1.15 for the extra cheese? Nah, definitely something I could live (longer) without.