A Slurp Worth Waiting For: The Fabled Ramen of Ippudo

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Among the many reasons why I know that inside I’m an old lady (my reprehensibly early bedtime, my inability to heat my extremities, my tendency to bake cookies when bored), one of the strongest arguments is my love affair with soup. Chili, stew, chowder, consomme — gimme a bit of broth and I am down to disco. Not convinced that I’m weirdly into soup? Check out my adoration of the avgolemono at Village Taverna — that’s just chicken noodle!

Combine this with my umami lust, and the first item on Maggie’s winter dining list has got to be ramen. I’ve actually only discussed ramen one time on this blog, despite its treasured place in my heart. I guess the truth is I really don’t have it that often, and perhaps that’s why I leapt when I had the chance to actually eat at Ippudo last week, despite the staggering mountains of snow streaming down from the clouds.

Calling Ippudo “popular” is like calling Yo Yo Ma “kinda good at cello.” If you’re not a fan of the “no reservation” trend in NY dining, do not go to Ippudo (unless it’s in the middle of a snowstorm, as we will see). In a world of long lines for NY ramen, Ippudo is king. Their original location in the East Village is known for handing out epic wait times ranging up to 4 hours, and most visitors put their name on the list knowing full well they’ll need to head to a nearby bar and fervently pray for ramen sometime in the near future.

Ippudo opened up a new location in Hells Kitchen this past year, with a larger dining area and their noodle kitchen in the basement, but most people I’ve talked to didn’t know about it. Thanks to a robust snowfall (and a power outage at work), Jacob and I had a snowday, and decided that ramen was the perfect cure for the wet and windy weather. We opted to go to Ippudo Westside, even with the extra hurdle of subway snarls, because of the extra seating (and the potential back-up option of Totto Ramen, which has also been highly recommended for its noodle bowls).

 

First Impressions:

With it's simple exterior and plain sign, it's easy to completely miss the entrance to Ippudo Westside.

With it’s simple exterior and plain sign, it’s easy to completely miss the entrance to Ippudo Westside.

Ippudo Westside is located just off of 8th Ave, on 51st Street, and has about as nondescript an exterior as you can get without appearing to be intentionally hiding. The entrance is on the basement level of the building, so you have to go down a small set of steps to get inside. A large plate glass window gives you a glimpse of the ramen counter in the first room, but it’s not until you pass through the series of doors and curtains to the interior that you realize there’s a whole other room full of booths and tables.

The ramen counter as nearly as busy as I had expected it to be...

The ramen counter as nearly as busy as I had expected it to be…

... but the dining room was nearly empty.

… but the dining room was nearly empty.

 

The decor is pretty much what you’d expect from a Japanese restaurant — lots of bamboo, clean lines, and accents of white, black and red. Ippudo is actually an international chain, with restaurants in Australia, Malayasia, China and more, so I have to imagine their aesthetic is standardized. Regardless, you’re not coming here for the paint job, so let’s talk ramen.

The Food:

I had honestly expected to wait, even on a Wednesday at 1pm in the middle of a snowstorm, but although the ramen counter was pretty full, the dining room had just one table occupied, and so we were ushered right in. Which means I can’t really tell you if Ippudo is worth a 5 hour wait, but for a 30 second wait, it’s really frickin good. The staff was super-attentive — our waiter must have checked on us ten times over the course of the meal, seeing if we were ready to order, refilling our water, wiping down our table, clearing and replacing our plates at every stage of the meal, and of course repeatedly asking how every piece of food was. As a whole our lunch sped by, the entire meal taking probably less than 45 minutes, which I suppose makes sense in a restaurant where you’re trying to clear the tables as fast as possible for the endless stream of diners looming in the wings.

Jacob was ravenous, so we ended up ordering way more food than I had anticipated (fool me once, shame on you, fool me way too many times at this point …).We got the Ippudo Lunch Set, which gives you a choice of ramen with a small salad and a rice bowl topped with either pork, chicken or eel. We chose the Akamaru Modern Ramen and the Eel Rice Bowl, with an order of the Hirata Vegetable Buns to start. Then, after we had finished all that, Jacob was still hungry, so he peer-pressured me into getting another order of buns, this time filled with chicken. And that didn’t prevent us from going for dessert later that afternoon (although we had a nice walk through wintry Central Park in between, and afterwards, back at home,  I fell into a slight food coma back at home).

 

The Vegetable Hirata Buns -- renewing my love of kewpie mayo.

The Vegetable Hirata Buns — renewing my love of kewpie mayo.

The Chicken Hirata Bun, distinguishable only by the color of the glaze.

The Chicken Hirata Bun, distinguishable only by the color of the glaze.

As I mentioned above, it seemed like our order of Hirata Buns (Steamed buns(2pc) filled with your choice of Pork, Chicken or Eggplant & Eringi Mushroom, served with Ippudo‘s original spicy sauce and mayo) arrived a snap second after asking for them. They were very simply plated, the pair of buns sitting solo on a rectangular plate, but just like the decor, Ippudo let’s the food speak for itself. The only way to distinguish the vegetable buns from the chicken was the hue of the patty — the vegetable a deeper chocolate brown compared to the chicken’s lighter orange brown. Both patties were deep-fried and slathered in sauce and (what I assume was) kewpie mayo (http://www.thekitchn.com/what-is-kewpie-mayonnaise-44639). The creamy mayo balanced the heat and acidity of the sauce perfectly, and in both rounds the steamed bun itself was terrific, soft and chewy against the crunch of the romaine. I thought the chicken was satisfactory, though not mindblowing, triggering nostalgia for the General Tso’s chicken you get free samples of in mall food courts (Jacob said it took him back to childhood meals at Pick Up Stix).

I was much more intrigued by the vegetable buns, especially since they combined two of my favorite veggies. The mix of eggplant and mushroom were cooked to silky smoothness, but with enough remaining texture to be almost meaty, standing up against the panko coating. I was reminded of a cheeseless eggplant parm, and I mean that in the best way possible.

 

The basic, but artfully dressed side salad.

The basic, but artfully dressed side salad.

The salad and the Eel Rice Bowl were both just entre-acts before the main event, like clown cars before the trapeze artists step out on the platform. Again, both were cleanly and simply presented, the salad in a white, vaguely pentagonal bowl and the eel in a shiny black one. The salad was made up of a variety of greens, with some red cabbage and radicchio thrown in amongst the arugula and spinach. It was tossed in a subtle dressing, lighter than the usual viscous ginger-carrot dressing you get with a sushi bar salad. I’d guess it was the wasabi goma shoyu dressing used in the Ippudo Salad, but I didn’t really taste the wasabi at all, mostly just a subtle soy-based vinaigrette that helped the salad to function as a palate cleanser between the buns and our ramen.

 

The Eel Rice Bowl -- better in bite size, sushi form.

The Eel Rice Bowl — better in bite size, sushi form.

I had pushed to get the Eel Rice Bowl because eel has become my favorite order for sushi. The broiled eel arrived brightly seared and fragrant, sitting atop sticky sushi rice and a bit of seaweed. It was salty and smoky, but overall a little one-note for my taste. I think I prefer the bite-size sushi ratio of eel to rice better than the bowl version here, where it was hard to make the eel meat last through the entire portion of rice.

 

The Akamaru Modern Ramen, which actually lived up to all the buzz about it on the Internet.

The Akamaru Modern Ramen, which actually lived up to all the buzz about it on the Internet.

As you can see from the photo, we hadn’t even made it through our Eel Rice Bowl by the time the Akamaru Modern Ramen (“A more bold, modern translation of the original pork broth; thin noodles topped with Ippudo’s secret “Umami Dama” miso paste, pork chashu, cabbage, sesame kikurage mushrooms, scallions, and fragrant garlic oil”) arrived. My pre-meal research had told me that this was the best of Ippudo’s offerings, foregoing the more traditional ramen for this variety. Well, I have to say thank God for Internet-based food crowd-sourcing, because dammit if this wasn’t the best ramen I’ve ever had. Maybe I need to experience more ramen (and get over my Jewish guilt about eating pork), but I was just knocked out by this bowl of soup. The tonkotsu broth was incredibly rich and creamy, with small circles of fat floating lazily on top of it. I know it’s an overused descriptor, but you can’t help but describe the broth as “silky.” The black ribbons in the photo are actually shredded mushrooms, the slim ramen noodles hiding just below the surface. The red dollop is the Umami Dama miso paste, which when swirled throughout the soup provides a wallop of earthiness to augment the mushrooms. Counteracting that is the bite of the garlic oil and the acidity of the scallions. The noodles were perfectly al dente, holding their structure to the last slurp without becoming tough and chewy. I mostly picked around the slices of pork chashu, but the bites I tried were melt-in-your-mouth tender, salty and satisfying, although Jacob, of more refined pig palate, thought they were fairly run of the mill. I much preferred the soft boiled egg we had added to the order. You can see from the picture the semisolid state of the yolk, and the white was warm and toothsome. My only complaint was the temperature of the ramen — Jacob was content because he’s a wimp when it comes to hot soups, but I thought the broth could have been a touch warmer to start with. Ippudo offers the option of Kae-dama, or supplementary noodles, but frankly, I think you’d have to be half-starved to want them, since there were more than enough for Jacob and me to split and feel like we’d gotten our fill.

 

Final Thoughts:

Before we knew it, our whirlwind trip to Ippudo was at an end, our waiter rushing us off with a multiplicity of shouts of “arigato gozaimasu” (thank you very much) echoed by each member of the staff as we made our way out the door. It was an entertaining, if somewhat surreal experience, so different from what I had anticipated in terms of wait and dining time that I was caught somewhat off guard. Perhaps the secret of Ippudo Westside is not really out beyond the Midtown lunchers, or maybe other New Yorkers aren’t as devoted to ramen exploration as I am, preferring to stay local when a blizzard strikes. Regardless, it gives me possibly false hope that I can find the right time to arrange a return to Ippudo. This westside location has a vegan ramen that is supposed to blow the lid off of lame veggie ramen (which I have experienced before). The company is also apparently planning a secret restaurant in the upstairs space of Ippudo Westside, allegedly called Men-Oh and offering a completely different menu from the ramen locations. Given my experience with their vegetable and chicken buns, I’d be more than willing to see what non-ramen offerings the Ippudo kitchen staff can come up with.

All in all, I’d say Ippudo is worth the hype, but I feel I have to reiterate the unique circumstances of my visit. Is it worth a bit of a wait? Yeah, I’d say I’d wait an hour to have the high quality Japanese food they offer. 4 hours, well, I’m not sure about that, but I’m also the girl who got her Cronut through an intermediary. But if you’re willing to play the game and go during an off-time, you may just have the speedy, efficient, friendly service I experienced, in which case you’re in for a treat of noodle soup to brighten an old lady’s week. So put down your knitting and aim for the early bird special — I hear we’ve got a few more weeks of winter left and Ippudo’s ramen will definitely warm you to the bone.

 

Ippudo Westside

321 W 51st St (between 8th and 9th Avenues)

http://www.ippudony.com/about-west.html

When in Rome: “Industry Night” at Osteria Morini

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As a little kid, I always dreamed about being a grownup, and getting to decide exactly what I wanted to spend my money on. From the perspective of a child, it meant getting to buy as many Snickers and Whatchamacalits (a highly underrated candy, IMHO) as I could fit in my purse, seeing eight movies a week, and keeping up with my bimonthly subscriptions to Amazing Spider-Man and Uncanny X-men. Yup, I was a pretty cool kid. The idea of “discretionary income” was an alien concept — all money is discretionary when your parents cover shelter, food and warmth, and your major concerns are pretty much confined to standardized tests and trying not to blow your allowance in one week.

I feel like most of my friends tended to spend what teenage money they had on largely the same type of stuff — slices of pizza, Starbucks lattes, songs from iTunes or videogames, and the occasional splurge on a pair of Converse or concert tickets. I’ve loved watching us all grow up and define our spending priorities — what makes the cut for a twenty-something devoting the majority of her budget to rent and utilities? These days, we all choose different indulgences, and frankly, I think we’re all justified to spend our money as we like. Most of my discretionary income goes towards eating, be it keeping my fridge stocked or hitting all the spots (and more) that appear on this blog. Could I be living on Cup of Noodle or PB&Js and be saving more than I am? Sure, but I’d like to believe that happiness should be a budget priority, too.

So although a certain black-hole of NYC dining expense is part of my standard arithmetic, I will also never turn down a good deal. Especially one of the caliber of “Industry Night” at Osteria Morini, a weekly pasta-themed bargain I took advantage of a couple snow storms back.

Osteria Morini is one of the more casual spots in chef Michael White’s Altamarea Group of high-end Italian restaurants, from sea-food centric Marea to his new steakhouse Costata, to the Midwestern-infused pizzeria Nicoletta. Even resting on the lower end of the affordability-scale, Osteria Morini is generally far from a cheap eat, and so when I heard about their “Industry Night” special, I jumped at the chance to finally try out one of White’s restaurants. The deal, running Monday nights from 9pm till close, discounts almost all of the pasta dishes down to $10 (from usually $20 or more), and offers bottles of Lambrusco for $28. Although you can’t get the pricier lasagna, risotto or polenta dishes, you still end up with about a dozen options of hand-made fresh pasta and stunning accompaniments.

So the Super Friends of Super Eating (aka, Mike, Jacob and I) assembled once more, and headed over to Osteria Morini, pretty damn hungry after waiting until 9pm to have some dinner (seriously, I don’t get how Europeans eat that late regularly).

 

First Impressions:

The warm and comfortable interior of Osteria Morini, complete with exposed brick walls.

The warm and comfortable interior of Osteria Morini, complete with exposed brick walls.

Osteria Morini is located on Lafayette, just half a block away from the Spring Street 6 train stop. The exterior balances on the edge of ostentatious, its name emblazoned on a large sign brightly lit in the winter evening gloom. Yet the interior is immediately recognizable as the understated Italian-American red-sauce joint, full of dark wood, accents of red on the walls and on the place settings and low-lighting that makes the case for intimacy amongst the hum of conversation and clinking of silverware.

 

A few retro postcards to make you miss the Old Country, plus the White House to make you love the New World.

A few retro postcards to make you miss the Old Country, plus the White House to make you love the New World.

A long bar takes up the front half of of the restaurant, starting a few feet from the entrance and running all the way back to the dining room. There are a few small tables wedged into the space across from the bar, an indication of the volume of diners Osteria Morini sees daily. The walls around the bar are covered in photos and framed retro postcards from America and Italy, while the dining room is adorned with home-style touches such as paintings and shelves lined with kitchen accoutrements, from wine glasses to pots and pans. We were seated at a banquet table in the back left corner of the restaurant, providing great views of both the bustling kitchen and the packed tables. Clearly this deal is not really “insider info” anymore (if it ever was).

The view from our table of the rest of the dining room.

The view from our table of the rest of the dining room.

A look back at the kitchen (and secret bread warming drawer).

A look back at the kitchen (and secret bread warming drawer).

The Food:

My first bottle of Lambrusco, and probably my last (though Jacob and Mike liked it).

My first bottle of Lambrusco, and probably my last (though Jacob and Mike liked it).

The game plan, as always, was drinking and overindulging in shared plates. With that in mind, we decided to make the most of Osteria Morini’s “Industry Night” deal, ordering some Lambrusco to start. I had never had Lambrusco, so deferred to Mike who picked a bottle of Fattoria Moretto off the wine list. This was my first sparkling red wine, lightly carbonated with a punch of sweetness at the start and tart acidity at the end. I’m glad I tried it, but I’m not sure I would order it again. I think I prefer my Prosecco and my Chianti in separate glasses.

At the suggestion of our server, we ordered a few starters to supplement our pastas, beginning with the Lamb Crudo Crostini and the Insalata Mista. For the pastas, we ordered the Stracci, the Tagliatelle, and the Spallina. I had just come off of splitting a Salty Pimp that afternoon with my mother (wow, that’s a sentence I’d never thought I’d write), so I opted out of dessert (ostensibly, though bites were had), but Jacob and Mike finished the meal with the Torta de Olio.

 

Excellent bread, but really, no olive oil?

Excellent bread, but really, no olive oil?

Our meal began with a basket of complimentary, thick cut focaccia. The bread was puffy and warm, pulled from a warmer drawer outside the kitchen and sliced just before it was served. You can see in the photo the crackly, salt-speckled crust and pillowy interior, leagues above the generic Italian bread thrown on the table at many restaurants. The only disappointment was that it was served solo — nary a pat of butter nor drop of olive oil in sight. I was perfectly happy to chow down on the bread, and maybe Michael White thinks it stands alone, but I’d like to try it with a bit of olive oil just for the sake of science.

 

The Lamb Crudo -- deceptively filling considering its petite size.

The Lamb Crudo — deceptively filling considering its petite size.

All of our food arrived pretty quickly, our appetizers appearing on the table before we’d even finished the bread. At first I was concerned about the portions of the Lamb Crudo (olive oil, chives), since the plating seemed to heavily favor the crostini over the meat. However, the richness of the tartare proved that the plate was balanced. Normally I’m not particularly into raw foods (see my gradual acclimation to sushi), but I am a big fan of lamb, so it seemed like a risk worth taking. I enjoyed the gaminess of the meat in contrast to the fresh herbs mixed in with it. The lamb was finely ground, giving it a soft, slippery mouthfeel that spread easily on the crostini. Osteria Morini earns more points in the bread box, since the slices were griddled instead of baked, preventing the almost-stale, cracker-like hardness that can come with bruschetta, when the bread just shatters in your mouth and spreads crumbs everywhere. Here the bread was thinly sliced, crunchy but still pliable, and a great vehicle for the crudo. All in all, I’m glad I tried it, although in terms of personal satisfaction, I’m not sure I would get it again. I definitely missed the caramelization and tender chew you get from cooked lamb, but maybe it’s simply a matter of me working my way up to the concept of raw proteins.

 

Our other appetizer was surprising in a different way -- imaginative, light and refreshing.

Our other appetizer was surprising in a different way — imaginative, light and refreshing.

I hate to sound like a broken record already (we haven’t even reached the entrees, Maggie!), but I was nervous about ordering the Insalata Mista (mixed greens salad, apples, seasonal vegetables, Morini vinaigrette) because of disappointing memories of Olive Garden lunches in my youth. Those salads were sad specimens of greenery, limp romaine lettuce topped with stale croutons, flavorless cucumbers, and a handful of grape tomatoes. However, the dish’s description suggested Osteria Morini had more up it’s salad sleeve, and sure enough, the Insalata Mista far exceeded expectations. It was a great mixture of greens — crunchy, chunky romaine intermingled with radicchio, some peppery arugula, and a little frisee. The sweet red apples were thinly sliced and tossed with the pomegranate seeds in between the vegetables, the whole shebang covered with a dressing that coated the salad without weighing it down, just the right mix of acid and sweet. Weird as it might be to say this, it was a memorable appetizer salad, a refreshing and light entryway into the heavier pasta course.

 

The Stracci, crippled by its plating.

The Stracci, crippled by its plating.

Our pasta dishes arrived basically at the same time, so I’ll tackle them in order of increasing favorability. The Stracci (wide ribbon pasta, braised wild mushrooms, rosemary oil) was the least favorite of our choices, although I think I enjoyed it more than Jacob and Mike. Unfortunately, the dish suffered due to its plating — the long pieces of pasta clumped together, like an overpacked container of chow fun noodles. Instead of distinct pieces of wide ribbon, you ended up getting small stacks of layered, slightly gluey pasta. It was clearly fresh and hand-made, but the delicacy of that craftsmanship was lost when piled in a small bowl, which made it difficult to get a bite that had all of the components of the dish in it, and led to the pasta generally overwhelming the rest of the ingredients. However, when tasted separately, the mushrooms were great, and pairing them with rosemary is always a dynamite combination. I especially appreciated the light sauce, considering the weight of the pasta, and the parmesan on top was deftly applied, although again it was hard to mix it into the bulk of the dish because of the mass of starchy noodles. It seems like simply plating the Stracci in a longer or more oval dish would make it far more successful, since the simple ingredient list seems geared to have the pasta shine.

 

The Tagliatelle -- Michael White's version of mama's bolognese.

The Tagliatelle — Michael White’s version of mama’s bolognese.

The Tagliatelle (ragù antica, parmigiano) had been highlighted in a couple of reviews of Osteria Morini that I read, so I pushed for us to order it. I’d wager this dish best captures the aim of Osteria Morini, at least on the pasta side — classic, homestyle cooking executed with real skill and presented in a pretty, if reserved manner. The Tagliatelle was pretty much an elevated bolognese, a simple but stellar display of familiar flavors. The antica ragu combines veal, pork and beef, crumbled into a classic base of tomatoes, onions, herbs and spices. Here, the wavy strands of pasta were the perfect vehicle, allowing a twirl of the fork to scoop up the chunky sauce into the little crevices between noodles. The fresh cheese on top added a nice salty addition to the meat and harmonized the elements of the dish. It seems obvious to say, but you don’t realize how shockingly refreshing authentic red sauce is until you take a break from the Prego jar. Jarred pasta sauce is so sweet, where as at Osteria Morini the sauce never overwhelms the palate — the natural sweetness of the tomatoes is balanced but their acidity and the floral herbs. It’s visually evident that the Tagliatelle was just a far more balanced plate, since you could see the nearly equal proportions of meat and sauce to noodles.

 

The Spallina -- double the ravioli, double the fun.

The Spallina — double the ravioli, double the fun.

As satisfying as the tasty, but recognizable Tagliatelle was, I enjoyed the Spallina (double ravioli, squacquerone cheese, rabbit, porcini) the most out of our pastas because it took an item  I knew (ravioli) and stuffed it with an unfamiliar filling. Rabbit seems to be increasingly popular on NYC menus these days, but I have only had it a handful of times in my life, so I leapt at the chance to try Osteria Morini’s take. I also felt it was the most visually appealing in terms of presentation. I don’t think I’d ever seen double ravioli before, so I was delighted to find our bowl filled with petite ravioli pillows with a divot in the middle, splitting up the pockets of rabbit, mushroom and squacquerone (a soft, spreadable cow’s milk cheese). The dish seemed to be drizzled in some sort of balsamic reduction, acidic with a hint of sweetness against the umami-forward filling of mushrooms and cheese. The rabbit was subtle, just a hint of gaminess. There just seemed to be a perfect ratio of filling to pasta, allowing both the interior and the exterior of the dish to shine. I would definitely order a bowl of the Spallina for myself over the other dishes — it was new and intriguing, but still somehow instantly familiar and comforting (probably the cheese, cheese makes everything comfy).

 

The Torta di Olio -- an ode to olive oil sure to satisfy fans.

The Torta di Olio — an ode to olive oil sure to satisfy fans.

Now I had every intention of abstaining from dessert, but damn, it’s hard to resist a piece of cake in front of you.  And the Torta di Olio (olive oil cake, citrus marmalade, ricotta crema, espresso gelato) was a pretty sexy looking specimen, a thick slice of golden cake glistening with mouthwatering  sheen. I’ve never really liked olive oil cakes, but Osteria Morini’s version almost made me a convert — it was like a thick slice of pound cake soaked in oil. The taste was clean and instantly recognizable, and while it still hasn’t won me over, this was clearly a well-done version of the dessert. The accompaniments ranged in texture and flavor, from the crunch of the nut crumble to the silky richness of the ricotta crema, to the potent bitterness of espresso gelato, flecked with visible bits of beans. Like the Tagliatelle and the Lamb Crudo, this was a case of a well-executed classic dish incorporating high quality ingredients. All three were satisfying, especially if you’re already a fan of the dishes in most iterations, but I found the more unconventional plates at Osteria Morini to be the most memorable.

 

Final Thoughts:

Overall, it’s hard to argue against the value of a deal like Osteria Morini’s “Industry Night,” and I’d happily come back another Monday to try some of the other pastas and appetizers. From the restaurant’s general atmosphere to the service and the food, everything felt approachable and relaxing, intended to remind the diners of a night out at the neighborhood trattoria. The only complaint I had (which happens at a lot of restaurants when you order a separate beverage) is that the staff could have been more attentive to our water glasses, but I’m an extraordinarily thirsty person, so this might not bother others as much. Basically, if you can splurge, go whole hog and visit Osteria Morini any night of the week — try the risotto and tell me how it is! But if you’re picking and choosing with your grownup indulgences, check out “Industry Night” on Mondays and have yourself a rustic, homey meal that won’t burn a hole in your wallet. That way you can still buy your weight in Snickers bars.

 

Osteria Morini

218 Lafayette St.

http://www.osteriamorini.com/

Restaurant Week at Spice Market: Eastern Quotidian by Highly Trained Hands

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I’ve always been fascinated by fusion restaurants. They take a big risk by combining disparate cuisines, since it’s pretty easy to end up simply highlighting the worst parts of your original food cultures. Fusion is also one of those trends that many argue has been overdone, nearly guaranteeing a raised eyebrow if not a full-on eye-roll when you mention the hottest new fusion spot — oh right, we really needed someone to mash together Ethiopian and Ecuadorian food. (Wait, does that exist?)

I know that poorly executed fusion restaurants are out there, but I’ve yet to encounter one that truly disappointed me. I spent a number of birthday dinners in high school at Ruby Foo’s in Times Square, marveling at their takes on Chinese food made with a quarter of the grease used by my local takeout place. I even liked the few times I went to Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine, first in Tampa, and later in Philadelphia. I’d never had Hawaiian food before, and I thought the Asian twist (logical, I suppose, given the geography and cultural heritage of Hawaii) worked as a great entry point into Hawaiian ingredients and preparations. I’ve been eager to try more traditional Hawaiian food since then (maybe even spam fried rice?), so if anyone has a recommendation for a spot in New York, I’d be very grateful.

When Summer Restaurant Week 2013 rolled around, I already had my eye on visiting one of Jean Georges Vongerichten’s restaurants. The man is a legend in the New York and world food scene, and what’s the point of Restaurant Week if not to briefly make reachable to the plebeian masses the haute cuisine of the upper crust? However, part of what made my Winter Restaurant Week meal at Kutsher’s Tribeca so satisfying was the way they reinvented familiar dishes (reuben spring rolls, anyone?), so rather than pick the more conventional Nougatine, I thought Vongerichten’s Spice Market might prove a more thrilling culinary adventure. And lucky for Jacob, his cousin Carolyn, and I, our Restaurant Week supper there last Sunday was exactly that.

 

First Impressions:

The modest exterior of Spice Market belies its intricately designed interior.

The modest exterior of Spice Market belies its intricately designed interior.

Spice Market is located in the heart of the Meatpacking District, caddy-corner to the Gansevoort Hotel. Walking up to the restaurant, I realized I had passed it a number of times, but never connected the space with the name. This is in part because of how unassuming the outside of Spice Market is — it’s housed in one of those nondescript Meatpacking former warehouses, built mainly of brick and wrought iron.

I'm pretty sure every multilevel restaurant needs to add a tower at the top of their staircase.

I’m pretty sure every multilevel restaurant needs to add a tower at the top of their staircase.

The interior, however, is a completely different story. Inspired by his experiences traveling through Asia, the aim of Spice Market is to apply classical French cooking techniques to popular Asian street food. The decor focuses mainly on this Eastern influence, blurring the lines between chic temple, nightclub, and opium den. The space is dominated by dark wood, vaulted ceilings, and Asian architectural features, from the multilevel, narrow staircase topped by what appears to be a bell tower (actually holding a lamp inside), to the draping of dark red and orange curtains all around, to the intricate wood carving that encloses the bar. The staff is dressed head-to-toe in orange Buddhist-esque robes, except for the white-and-orange-decked busboys (and the general manager, who wore a suit). Asian lanterns lend a soft glow to everything (hence my fuzzy photos), but at the same time you have the familiar exposed ceilings and pulsing music, leaving behind a zen setting for the louder tenor of the NY dining scene.

The full bar is encased in finely carved wood.

The full bar is encased in finely carved wood.

 

I was first to arrive, so I made my way over to the bar and ordered a cocktail. Spice Market has a full bar with domestic and Indian beers and a variety of speciality drinks, created using housemade syrups and sodas. After conferring with the bartender, I went with the Passion Fruit Sangria (Gewurztraminer, Gran Gala, Blackberry, Orange). Jacob and Carolyn arrived soon after, and chose the Whiskey Passion Fizz (George Dickel No. 12, Passion Fruit, Chili, Ginger Ale) and Cucumber Chill (Dill-infused Aylesbury Duck Vodka, Cucumber, Lemon), respectively. I found my sangria light and refreshing (I’m obviously an ardent fan of the drink in general — Calle Ocho, anyone?), the white wine laying a more delicate base, and the Gran Gala (an orange liquer) mixing smoothly with the fruit components. The passion fruit itself wasn’t particularly prominent, aside from lending an overall tropical flair. I’d recommend it as a great drink for brunch, if you’re in the mood for something fun and fruity.

My Passion Fruit Sangria on the right, and Jacob's Whiskey Passion Fizz on the left. You can see a small glimpse of our orange-bedecked bartender in the background.

My Passion Fruit Sangria on the right, and Jacob’s Whiskey Passion Fizz on the left. You can see a small glimpse of our orange-bedecked bartender in the background.

Jacob’s Whiskey Passion Fizz had more of a kick to it than I expected (both in spice and strength), but I enjoyed it despite a dislike of both ginger ale and whiskey. Carolyn’s was my least favorite drink, although she was happy she picked it. She said it tasted like a pickle, which immediately made me wary, but when I took a sip I found it lacked the harsh vinegar quality I dislike so much, coming off more like cucumber water with a bit of a kick, with no real flavor of vodka at all. But let’s stop dilly-dallying with discussions of alcohol — the main attraction awaits.

The Food:

We were seated shortly after our set reservation time, and in general the staff was fairly attentive. Our waiter was happy to answer any and all of our questions at first, but he only appeared a few times to take our orders and check in at the entree stage. However, I saw the general manager walking around multiple times throughout the evening, scanning the floor and checking with tables, even adjusting a place setting once to make sure everything was aligned and straight. The food itself came very quickly, served family-style so that at one point we were almost overwhelmed by the influx of dishes. I was also happy to note the frequent refilling of our water glasses, a pet peeve of mine that pettily can strongly influence my overall impression of a meal.

Bowl of complimentary pappadum chips and spicy tomato dip.

Bowl of complimentary pappadum chips and spicy tomato dip.

Our meal started with a complimentary bowl of pappadum-type lentil crackers. I found the pappadums at most Indian restaurants to be either too bland and soft, or too burnt and smoky, but these were a different breed altogether. They were like lentil tortilla chips, thicker and crunchier, and more capable of scooping up the hot tomato chutney they were served with.

Both Jacob and I opted for the Restaurant Week menu, but Carolyn was more interested in Spice Market’s regular offerings. At first I was concerned, since some restaurants make everyone at the table opt into the RW menu if any diner chooses it, but our waiter quickly confirmed that Carolyn was fine ordering a la carte.

Carolyn chose the Spicy Thai Fried Chicken Wings and the Spicy Thai Slaw to start, and then the Pearl Noodles with Smoked Tofu as her entree. Jacob selected the Salmon Sashimi, followed by the Kimchi Fried Rice, and I ordered the Spiced Shrimp Broth, followed by the Wok Charred Daikon Cake. We all split two of the Restaurant Week desserts: the Black Sesame Cake and the Malted Chocolate Parfait.

The Spicy Thai Slaw Salad: not so spicy, but a refreshing way to start a meal.

The Spicy Thai Slaw Salad: not so spicy, but a refreshing way to start a meal.

The appetizers came out in a steady stream, starting with Carolyn’s salad. The Spicy Thai Slaw (with Asian pear, crispy shallots, and mint) was one of my favorite dishes of the night. A refreshing shredded cabbage salad, it had just a hint of heat that was balanced by the coolness of the mint and the sweetness of the Asian pear (similar in flavor to a mild apple). The crunch of the cabbage and the crispy shallots kept it interesting texturally, although by the time you reached the bottom of the bowl the salad was a little soggy from all of the pooled dressing.

Spicy Thai Chicken Wings -- these aren't kidding on the spice, but they'll put up a good fight against Buffalo Wild Wings.

Spicy Thai Fried Chicken Wings — these aren’t kidding on the spice, and they’ll put up a good fight against Buffalo Wild Wings.

The Spicy Thai Fried Chicken Wings (with sliced mango and mint) lived up to their name a little more. I’ve never been into wings, so this dish didn’t impress me all that much, but even as an outsider observer I could tell that the breading was truly crispy, and the meat was very tender and juicy. Much like the inclusion of the mint in the salad, here it worked with the mango to cool down the heat of the wings, which I found a little too spicy for my liking. If you are a wings fan, I’d definitely recommend giving this dish a go — it was lightly fried so that the crust gave great texture without veering into the extremes of either too crunchy or mushily falling off the meat.

Although Jacob and I were attempting to experience the majority of the Restaurant Week menu by splitting the dishes, we both found ourselves drawn to appetizers the other wouldn’t like. We tried to find common ground in the other two appetizers, but the Mixed Green Salad and Beef Satay just couldn’t stand up against our respective love of salmon and shrimp. So we gave each other a pass on the starters, and in retrospect it was a strong strategic move.

The Salmon Sashimi, delicately layered and covered in a creamy sauce.

The Salmon Sashimi, delicately layered and covered in a creamy sauce.

Jacob seemed to really enjoy his Salmon Sashimi (with Golden Garlic and Lemon Soy), which arrived in small slivers drizzled with a creamy sauce. I tried a piece (I’m trying to get on the raw fish bandwagon, one leg at a time, folks), and like my Seattle salmon encounter, I could tell the the fish was of a very high quality, even if the flavor didn’t do much for me. The sauce reminded me of scallion cream cheese — perhaps a vaguely Japanese nod towards bagels and lox?

The Spiced Shrimp Broth -- this photo doesn't do the depth of flavor of this soup proper justice at all.

The Spiced Shrimp Broth — this photo doesn’t do the depth of flavor of this soup proper justice at all.

Now I could go on and on about my Spiced Shrimp Broth (with glass noodles and herbs). If you’re a fan of shellfish, this was a mindblowingly good preparation of it, and has stuck with me out of all the dishes at Spice Market, even several days later. Truth be told, after being in New England this weekend, and Seattle just a few weeks ago, I was prepared to come back down to earth from shellfish heaven and relearn to be satisfied with New York’s pretty solid fish scene. But as an eternal shrimp lover, I couldn’t overlook this appetizer once I spotted it. This soup is like a punch in the mouth of shrimp — pure, luscious, somehow achieving the kind of deep flavor you usually have in a dense bisque, though this broth was very light (and bright pink). The bowl contained mostly long strings of the glass noodles with small chunks of shrimp at the bottom, making me think of pho but with a seafood twist (is there some Thai or Vietnamese non-coconut soup that I don’t know about? Please let me know, I will order it always). On top of the broth floated leaves of cilantro and basil, adding an herbal brightness to the natural umami of the shrimp. I legitimately could have had a gallon of this soup and left a happy camper.

 

The simple components of the Kimchi Fried Rice: beef, rice, kimchi. Still a solid dish, though.

The simple components of the Kimchi Fried Rice: beef, rice, kimchi. Still a solid dish, though.

However, this was just the beginning — next up, our entrees. Jacob’s Kimchi Fried Rice with Korean Beef came out first. You can see from the photo that the dish was heavier on the rice aspect than the beef. I found this especially disappointing, because the Korean beef was melt-in-your-mouth good. The shortribs were presented in a small rectangle lightly dusted with sesame seeds atop the rice, the individual strands of meat visible to the naked eye. Sticking a fork in, little chunks flaked away beautifully, like long-braised brisket. I can understand the restraint given how rich the beef was, but when you come across well done shortribs, it’s just hard to stop and savor the flavors laminating your tongue. The rice was nicely chewy, and had a bit of the pop from sour kimchi. It was much more subtle a taste than I expected, given my previous experiences with heavily pickled kimchi. The dish worked as a whole, but it was much more muted overall than I had anticipated, especially considering the limited and straightforward components of rice, beef, and slices of kimchi.

 

Pearl Noodles with Smoked Tofu -- intriguing and new, if a little much for a full entree.

Pearl Noodles with Smoked Tofu — intriguing and new, if a little much for a full entree.

Carolyn’s Pearl Noodles with Smoked Tofu in Black Bean Sauce lingered with me a bit more. Carolyn and I agreed that the tofu had a deep, smoky taste, but Jacob thought the tofu was only mildly flavored. Although I think smoked food can be hit or miss, I liked that the kitchen had achieved a burnt flavor for the tofu without altering the texture too much — this wasn’t charred to a crisp, but still the soft squares of tofu you find in miso soup. The pearl noodles were thick like udon, but not quite as long, and were tender from soaking up the moisture from the black bean sauce. The sauce had a great earthy flavor, full of fermented beans and infused with soy, coming off as just slightly sweet. I enjoyed the small bites I had, but I wouldn’t order it for my main course. I think a full bowl of it would end up being too cloyingly sweet and decadent.

 

The Wok Charred Daikon Cake -- redefining the idea of "cake" and unexpectedly addictive.

The Wok Charred Daikon Cake — redefining the idea of “cake” and unexpectedly addictive.

Last, but certainly not least, was my Wok Charred Daikon Cake (with scallions and peanuts). I was on a roll with my menu selections, because this ended up being my second favorite dish of our dinner, sliding in right behind the Spiced Shrimp Broth. I wasn’t sure exactly would arrive when I read the words “daikon cake” on the menu, and our waiter unfortunately didn’t give clarity. Knowing that daikon is a radish, I had to wonder if it would be some sort of tower of slices? The bowl of food that eventually arrived at our table was far from any definition of cake I’ve ever heard of — it looked more like a curry with a thick sauce, cubed pieces of unbelievably soft radish, slices of red chiles, scallions, and whole peanuts. Digging a little deeper while writing this post, it seems like (at least from Google image search) daikon cake is usually made from radish cooked and compressed into a square or rectangle. Spice Market’s take seemed to then deconstruct that cake, chopping it up into chunks, and folding it into a stew of sauce and vegetables. This gave the daikon pieces an almost eggplant-like texture, soft and succulent. While the rest of the dish verged on smooth and squishy, the peanuts were moist but still crunchy, which kept the texture from being too monotonous. The Thai theme comes out again in this dish, which I found reminiscent of a Thai curry in terms of the deep, layered flavors, and inclusion of peanuts. Salty, sweet, with just a tiny kick from the chile peppers, I just kept ladling more and more onto my plate.

I know this must sound highly suspicious coming from me, but dessert was kinda an afterthought for our dinner. After the stream of new exotic flavor pairings that had steamrolled across my tastebuds, I found our two desserts perfectly adequate, but far from showstoppers. I felt that the Black Sesame Cake (with green tea mousse and yuzu) was the lesser of the two dishes. Truth be told, I’ve had sesame desserts before — ice cream flavors and other versions of cakes, and I’ve never really gotten the appeal. I like sesame in savory dishes, but as a card-carrying chocoholic, it’s just never been sweet enough for me in a dessert setting.

 

The Black Sesame Cake -- with tasty shards of sesame brittle.

The Black Sesame Cake — with tasty squares of sesame brittle.

The cake arrived in a small bowl, a deep green square seated upon the green tea mousse, and topped with yuzu ice cream, shards of sesame brittle, and a sprinkling of black sesame seeds. The cake itself was a little dry, but the mousse and the yuzu ice cream added brighter flavors and a bit of moisture. Overall it just read too savory to me — I know green tea is not an unusual flavoring for Asian desserts, but I really only think of it in the context of a beverage, and while the citrusy taste of the yuzu was pleasing, I’m arbitrarily picky about fruit-based desserts.

 

The Malted Chocolate Parfait -- a delicious, if oddly American dessert.
The Malted Chocolate Parfait — a delicious, if oddly American dessert.

The Malted Chocolate Parfait (with caramel crumble and summer berries) was much more in my wheelhouse, and so it’s no surprise that I dug right into it. The malted chocolate came in the form of a mousse as the bottom layer of the parfait, topped with blackberries, strawberries, and raspberries, then the “caramel crumble” (basically a streusel topping), and finally vanilla ice cream and chocolate crunchies. I didn’t get much of a malted flavor, but as I’m not a fan of Whoppers, I wasn’t complaining. It was served in a small bowl, and I appreciated the modest portion size. Combined with the lightness of the mousse and ice cream, it was a good way to end the meal, with pure, fresh-tasting ingredients that didn’t weigh you down. After the variety of Asian-influenced dishes of the night, it was a little odd how All-American this seemed, from the fresh berries to the crumble. Overall the dessert was comforting, and I was glad I had it to contrast against the more exotic black sesame cake.

 

Final Thoughts:

My Restaurant Week trip to Spice Market was a fantastic dinner that had me trying new flavors, while still enjoying some well-executed combos I was familiar with. It’s a great bang-for-your-buck spot for Restaurant Week, since the menu doesn’t skimp on portions, and offers both dishes that appear on the regular menu, as well some RW exclusives. And when you take into account the caliber of the chef behind Spice Market, it’s pretty affordable in general (they offer a $25 lunch “bento box” prix fixe, and the tasting menu at dinner is only $48). I’m eager to go back and dive into the menu a bit more, since there were plenty of dishes that appealed to me, across all the categories, from appetizers to dessert (Ovaltine Kulfi — what is that, and can I eat it now?).

All in all, Spice Market gets a strong recommendation from me for good service, a trendy and fun vibe, and for offering genre-bending dishes that challenge more staid palates without pushing too far into exotic ingredients or spice levels. To me, that’s one of the best goals for fusion restaurants — to offer a smooth entryway for diners into new flavor combinations and cuisines through more well-known techniques. At Spice Market, Jean Georges gently coaxes his diners to step through those orange curtains and sample some street food from worlds beyond the NY dirty-water dogs and a bag from Nuts-4-Nuts. Sure, you’re missing the hustle and bustle of humanity from the markets of Asia, but maybe if Jean Georges does his job right, you’ll want to pay a visit someday and see just what inspired him in the first place.

 

Spice Market

403 W 13th St

New York, NY 10014

spicemarketnewyork.com

Snackshots

In the spirit of mixing things up (slash a thinly veiled attempt at proving I am actually taking more pictures when I eat/make things), I thought I would use this post as a brief retrospective of some of the delicacies from December and January that didn’t quite make it into the spotlight. Consider this a tour of the minor league, if you will.

Mulled wine from Radegast

Mulled wine from Radegast

I discovered my absolute favorite type of warm cocktail this winter — mulled wine. I used to be all about spiked apple cider, but as my beverage tastes have moved away from sweeter drinks, I found myself ordering mulled wine (and making it at home) more and more often. I’m a sucker for autumnal/wintry spices — cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, I find myself constantly cold, and I’m hoping to expand my taste for red wine, so you really couldn’t give me a better drink than mulled wine. This particular glass came from Radegast Hall & Biergarten in Williamsburg, and was a great combination of citrus, spice, and slightly sweetened red wine. I really recommend checking Radegast out — it’s the first beer hall I’ve been to in NY, so I don’t have much to compare it with, but I enjoyed my wine, the hefeweizen I also ordered, and the German-esque food on the menu. As for space itself, the hall appears to be a converted factory, so for once in NY there’s actually plenty of space. One side of the hall is dominated by an enormous bar and smaller surrounding tables, and the other side holds the kitchen/grill and a dozen or so picnic tables.  I could see it getting a little crowded on weekend nights, but on a Saturday afternoon it was bustling without being raucous, and you can’t really argue with a Bavarian band providing the soundtrack for your daydrinking.

Momofuku Milk Bar in Williamsburg

Momofuku Milk Bar in Williamsburg

That same day I finally got to go to one of the Momofuku Milk Bar locations — albeit the one in Williamsburg, not the ones closer to me in the East Village or the Upper West Side. Milk Bar is known for its wacky takes on dessert — most famously for its Cereal Milk (yes, like the stuff left over in your bowl) and its Compost Cookie, which is a bit of a kitchen-sink type cookie with potato chips, cereal, coffee grounds, and other unexpected ingredients.

The almost overwhelming menu at Milk Bar -- where to begin?

The almost overwhelming menu at Milk Bar — where to begin? And yes, they do offer “pretzel milk” as well.

Although this was my first time actually inside of the store, I’ve had the opportunity to try some of the Milk Bar specialties like the Crack Pie and the Compost Cookie before. Still, there were an enormous number of options available, so I ended up falling back on my comfort zone of ice cream, and got the Oatmeal Creme Pie soft serve. I enjoyed it, but found it very mild in flavor, reminiscent of the way your milk tastes after you dunk an oatmeal cookie into it a few times. The texture of the soft serve was probably the best part — smooth and creamy in the way you want every Mr. Softee order to be. I wish they had given me a spoon instead of the nostalgic Dixie Cup wooden stick. I am eager to try out the pretzel shake at some point, not to mention the “fancy shakes” (aka spiked) shakes offered at the bottom of the menu, so I’ll probably make a trip back, although perhaps to one of the other locations.

The visually appealing, but somewhat lackluster oatmeal creme pie soft serve.

The visually appealing, but somewhat lackluster oatmeal creme pie soft serve.

2012-12-16 15.19.02

The next port of call was Vegan Divas, an Upper East Side vegan bakery and cafe. I stopped in to pick up some holiday goodies for vegan coworkers. The shop was quaint but not cutesy — the focus was happily on the baked goods themselves.

I picked out a bunch of the mini donuts for my coworkers.

I picked out a bunch of the mini donuts for my coworkers.

Vegan Divas has been praised for its donuts, so combined with my weakness for miniaturized things, there was little else I could pick out as gifts. I got myself a lemon-raspberry muffin, mainly to see how their baking fared. Sometimes vegan baking leads to incredible dense, lumpy cakes, so I wondered if all the wrinkles in the substitution scheme had been ironed out. Muffins can be very hit or miss depending on the baker, so I thought it would be a good test of the caliber of Vegan Divas’ desserts.

My small, but heavy muffin

My small, but heavy muffin

Unfortunately, I did find the muffin lacked the air-pocket-laden lightness of a great breakfast pastry. But texture aside, Vegan Divas succeeded in creating a healthy muffin (less than 100 calories) that didn’t taste like “health food.” The lemon and raspberry flavors were bright and very present, and I would be willing to go back and see what else the bakery has veganized, although I might opt for something more traditionally dense in makeup, like a brownie.

Chicken and Vegetable Ramen from Minca

Chicken and Vegetable Ramen from Minca

I’m pleased I was able to scrounge up at least one photo of a savory item from my recent gastronomical adventures. Shown above is the fabulous bowl of ramen I had from Minca in the East Village. I opted for the veggie-packed ramen, which to Minca‘s cooks apparently meant including an entire head of lettuce. Fortunately, beneath all that roughage was a deeply rich chicken broth with a hardboiled egg, an assortment of vegetables, and pieces of thinly sliced chicken. It was an umami-bomb, and I mean that in the best way possible. This was probably one of my favorite meals in the past month or so — simple fare but cooked expertly, and pretty inexpensive to boot. Although I personally prefer non-pork based ramen, Minca offers a wide range of soups from vegetarian to all the pig a person could want. Heads up, though — like a lot of ramen joints, Minca is cash only.

2012-12-30 19.14.56

Much like my love for the miniature, I also have a deep affection for holiday-themed versions of food. So despite it being well past Christmas when I baked this, I had to pick up the Nestle Holiday Baking Bits (aka red and green semisweet chocolate chips) that were on sale at Stop and Shop. C’mon — Christmas themed AND on sale? How could I resist? The monstrosity above was made for a New Year’s Party: Magic Bars/Seven Layer Bars/Munchies — whatever you want to call them, they involved graham cracker crumbs, sweetened condensed milk, chocolate, butterscotch and white chocolate chips, shredded coconut, and Heath bar pieces. Let’s just say they were well-received.

Last, but not least, a picture from my recent visit to Salvation Taco. Although I decided to enjoy the meal sans compulsive photographing, I just had to share my last cocktail. Salvation Taco is the latest project from April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman, the people behind the restaurant in the Breslin Hotel (great, but expensive brunch) and the Spotted Pig (supposedly a fantastic burger, but I’ve yet to make it there). Salvation Taco is a lounge/restaurant in the Pod 39 Hotel in Midtown, and although its over-the-top “hip” vibe is a little out of place in the mild-mannered just south of Grand Central neighborhood, I found the food and drinks to be playful and innovative. My favorite taco by far was the least taco-ish on the menu — ground Moroccan lamb served on a tiny piece of naan. My first cocktail was the “Fly By Night,” a mixture of “gin, lemon juice, cinnamon-vanilla bean, orange blossom, sea salt,” and came in a normal glass. But when I ordered the “5 Island Horchata,” which is listed as “5 island rum, coconut horchata, cold-brewed coffee, fernet-vallet, cinnamon and vanilla,” the waitress neglected to inform me of how my cocktail would be delivered:

Yup, in a parrot.

Yup, in a parrot.

It was a great drink, if a little on the heavy side. It ended up tasting mostly like a rum and coffee flavored slushy, which I was happy to slurp down, but left a bit of a snowball-esque lump in my stomach afterwards. Regardless, it was worth it, if only because I can now say, “why yes, I have had a cocktail out of a ceramic bird.” You know, in case that ever comes up.

I leave you with one last tidbit from my kitchen. Between Winter Restaurant Week and the Superbowl, there seems to a lot of serious eating in my near future. Of course I’m trying to be virtuous and eat salads and veggies where I can, but I did just get a cast iron skillet, and there’s really only one way to properly break that bad boy in:

2013-01-27 14.35.00

AW YEAH, GIANT SKILLET COOKIE. And yes, those are some leftover Nestle Holiday Baking Bits. Like I said, they were on sale!

 

Radegast Hall & Biergarten

113 N 3rd St, Brooklyn

radegasthall.com

Momofuku Milk Bar

Various locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn

milkbarstore.com

Vegan Divas

1437 First Avenue, (between 75th and 74th Street)

http://www.thevegandivas.com

Minca

536 E 5th St.

Salvation Taco

Pod 39 Hotel, 145 E 39th St

salvationtaco.com

Domo Arigato, Mr. Daido (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Eat All the Fried Food)

Now that the countdown to Christmas has turned to a mere handful of hours, we’ve officially reached the apex of that time of year when calorie counts break down and anything we’d already consider decadent is battered, fried, and topped with ice cream (aka the parallel universe known as November through January in America). I can’t tell you the amount of buttered, dipped, iced, or glazed things I’ve consumed in the past few weeks (not that I was much of a poster child for moderation before that). And so with holiday fast approaching, and my willpower at its annual low, I find myself recounting yet another chapter in the tale of The Demise of Maggie’s Cholesterol. Let’s dig in:

As my previous post discussed, one of the reasons I actually like the holiday season (inflatable lawn ornaments aside) is the emphasis on tradition. Chanukah may only be a minor festival in Judaism, but there are certain habits and rituals that my family and I use to mark the occasion, and that’s what truly makes it significant for me. This past weekend I was lucky enough to be invited to join in a tradition of my friends Laura and Steven — a day of cooking and eating Japanese food. This tradition isn’t necessarily holiday-season-bound for them, but being included at this time of year made me feel like a kid being asked up to the grownups’ table for the first time, and that table was covered in fried dumplings.

For at least as long as I’ve known them, Laura and Steven have been going to this Japanese market in White Plains called Daido. For years it was a mythical place for me, where the strange candies like Koala’s March and Pocky in Laura’s lunch bag came from, but lacking in a real geographical location. Of course, when we actually went there on Saturday I realized I’ve driven by it literally hundreds of times (in my defense, there is poor signage!). Aside from supplying unique desserts for their lunchboxes, Laura and Steven would occasionally go to Daido to pick up a hodgepodge of dumplings, croquettes, noodles and meat for their ritual fried feast. Basically, I was prepping myself for a meal at a Japanese Cracker Barrel (and if you think I’m referring to the cheese company, then you’ve never had the joy of highway rest stop chicken fried chicken, and I’m sorry for your loss).

The rather unassuming entrance to Daido

The rather unassuming entrance to Daido

Daido was larger than I anticipated, given the specialty markets I’ve been to in NY. While certainly no Super Stop ‘n’ Shop, Daido had enough room for 5 or 6 aisles, plus a meat, frozen, and produce section. Not to mention the small Parisienne bakery (what?) near the registers.

2012-12-22 12.56.58

Oh, you know, in case I want to throw a croissant in with my udon noodles.

Oh, you know, in case I want to throw a croissant in with my udon noodles.

One of my weirder interests is my fascination with foreign fast food (much like my fascination with foreign public transit systems — you know what, the mundane stuff can tell you a lot about a culture), so if I’d had more time I would have roamed the aisles to really explore all the strange frozen meals and snacks. But we were on a mission, and the first step was procuring rice balls. I was told rice balls are to be eaten in the car immediately after checkout and before going home, as a prelude to the main event. Some eating before our eating? I am fine with that.

Rice balls in their native habitat. There were probably six or seven types available.

Rice balls in their native habitat. There were probably six or seven types available.

Despite multiple efforts on my part, I remain not a huge fan of sushi, so I was a little reluctant to dive into the rice ball world of salmon roe and seared tuna. Laura, Steven, and my friend Sarah (of Thanksgiving dessert amazingness fame) were kind enough to guide me to the tuna/mayo rice ball. Comforted by the safety of that purchase, I went out on a limb for my second rice ball and picked out kelp, an admittedly odd combination. Then Steven and Laura went off to pick out the necessities for dinner, and Sarah and I wandered the aisles as she picked up some wasabi-flavored rice crackers and I scanned the cookies. While I didn’t find any Japanese Oreo products, Sarah and I stumbled upon the terribly unfortunately named Couque D’Asses. Predictably, a quick search on the internet leads to many other bloggers with the same juvenile reactions we had, but not explanation of what these Japanese confectioners were going for.  Even Google Translate just explains it as “Biscuit of Asses.” Clearly we had to buy it. I’m disappointed to report that these cookies had no clear connection to either donkeys or bottoms — it ended up just being a delicate chocolate-filled wafer cookie that tasted like a mild Milano. So I guess kudos to Pepperidge Farm for winning the “classiness” competition, simply by not trying?

I'm sensing a strangely incongruous Francophone trend, here...

I’m sensing a strangely incongruous Francophone trend, here…

Once all our comestibles were purchased, we headed back to the car to commence stage one of our day of eating: rice ball consumption. Little did I realize there is a specific procedure for prepping the ball, which Laura walked me through. First, remove the rice ball from the plastic, then carefully slide the separately packaged seaweed wrapper out (careful not to tear it), and finally, rewrap the rice ball in the seaweed. Then stuff it in your face as quickly as possible, because these things are unfairly delicious. The first few bites are mainly sticky rice, but eventually the filling in the center is revealed. The tuna/mayo was nothing special visually, but I was surprised by the kelp — it was almost a paste in consistency, as opposed to the strings of seaweed like material I thought I would be eating.

A riceball, properly assembled.

A rice ball, properly assembled.

The tuna-mayo filling looked like, well, tuna and mayo.

The tuna/mayo filling looked like, well, tuna and mayo.

It’s hard to describe why I liked the rice balls so much, since the flavors were straightforward. The tuna/mayo tasted pretty much like the tuna sandwiches my dad would pack in my lunchbox for school, and the kelp tasted mostly of salt and “beach grit,” if that makes any sense (although oddly, I found it pretty satisfying and would get it again). Perhaps I liked it because rice balls focus on the elements of sushi I actually enjoy — the well-cooked sticky rice contrasting with the salty pucker of the seaweed wrapper. Now that I’ve tried them, I actually do want to be a bit more adventurous with my next sampling, so I need to see if there are any Daido equivalents in Manhattan.

Reasonably full of starch for the moment, we returned to Steven’s house, where the chef and sous-chef set up shop in the kitchen and the guests settled in to watch the mandatory holiday viewing of Love Actually. While awaiting the main course we tried the Couque D’Asses and an equally odd American snack — Pizzeria Combos. This was probably the third time in my life that I’ve eaten Combos, but I was floored by these. Not because of some outstanding salivary experience, but because they don’t taste like pizza — THEY TASTE LIKE A PIZZERIA. Some magical food scientists distilled the olfactory sensations of being in a pizza shop and shoved it into a pretzel crust. It was mind boggling, and makes me glad that I neglected to look at the ingredient list.

In the kitchen, Laura and Steven were contending with hot oil and boiling water as they got our dinner together. The menu consisted of an assortment of items to be refried: shrimp shumai, shrimp spring rolls, chicken and shrimp dumplings, calimari, and vegetable croquettes (okay, so not my best attempt at keeping kosher, I admit). Add to that shrimp wontons, rice, yakisoba noodles, seared tuna, and the collection of random desserts, and well, you know why I was basically in a coma for the rest of the day.

Chef and sous-chef braving oil burns for our future satisfaction

Chef and sous-chef braving oil burns for our future satisfaction

My favorite part was probably the fact that Steven has all the paraphernalia, from rice bowls to real chopsticks — not just the remnants of your takeout collection. We all sat on the floor around the living room coffee table to eat, and while I definitely felt super not Japanese, it was fun to attempt a nod to the culture of the cuisine.

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Oh god, look at that beautiful, massive plate of fried things, top left.
Only a small portion of the full dessert options -- Koala's March (chocolate filled little marsupial cookies), chocolate/animal cracker like mushrooms, and strawberry candies

Only a small portion of the full dessert options — clockwise from top: Koala’s March (chocolate filled little marsupial cookies), chocolate/animal cracker like mushrooms, and strawberry candies

Overall, while totally delicious, the meal ended up being a little heavy for me. I hate to admit it, but I think my stomach is not the steel-girded machine it used to be. My favorite dishes were the vegetable croquettes (like a hash brown with peas), and the yakisoba noodles. Mostly it was just a really wonderful day of sharing in someone else’s foodie ritual. Between Colin Firth speaking in broken Portuguese and nibbles on Koala’s March, somehow the holiday spirit snuck in, without a Christmas ornament or menorah in sight. Sometimes friends and good food is really all you need. Oh, and Hugh Grant dancing to the Pointer Sisters. That’s like, a basic requirement.

Nippan Daido, USA

522 Mamaroneck Avenue,

White Plains, NY 10605