Friday, September 6, 2013

A Tale of Trustworthy Dudes

In a saturated cyber and printed word world (he said self-reflectively), there are a handful of folks whose opinion I truly trust when it comes to food; this list narrows when it comes to new pastry shops (talk about a saturated world). Today, one of these people, Michael Gebert, he of James Beard bling wearing, Sky Full of Bacon fame, wrote a piece on a 2 month-old pastry shop in the deliciously smoky environs of the Paulina Brown Line stop called Bad Wolf Coffee (check his article for lovely pictures and superior prose on the place). I was serendipitously in the neighborhood for once, and thus immediately went in.

I'm not going to say more about the pastry I ate--the kouign-amann--beyond that I was amazed and soothed by it's integrity--the virtue of good butter and purity of technique right in your hand. You've got to go try it yourself. The espresso that the one man show of owner Jonathan Ory pulls is crafted with equal care--get him chatting and perhaps he'll tell you a juicy story about that. But what ultimately won me over was an in-person example of the the following ethic, as written in Gebert's article:

Talk to him—which you should do as part of the coffee transaction, in his opinion..."The last thing I want is a place where I'm staring at the backs of peoples' heads with headphones on. People forget how to talk to each other. I'm afraid my generation doesn't know how to talk."

He's right, and that's why upon leaving, I was so damn pleased that we hung out and talked shop for some time, and to me, that is one of the tell-tale signs of a truly special place: you come for the food, you stay for the company it created. Of course, this was on a slow Friday afternoon. What would it be like on Saturday morning? Packed I'm sure, and the product backs that up and makes a visit worthwhile. But if you get a chance to stop in and taste some of Ory's pastry, do so. And you might luck out if--in the midst of a triple-digit hour week--he pulls his trick of making you feel as though he's got all day to talk. Dude is a true craftsman.

Bad Wolf Coffee is at 3422 N. Lincoln Ave. in Chicago, just next to the Paulina Brown Line stop.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Gibanica, Hamsicles and Other Earthly Delights

All photos courtesy Jordan Martins
We had a great potluck Sunday--starting with a flock of pigeons dramatically taking flight, vacating the Comfort Station island to make way for the crew as they arrived with an overload of toothsome food. To name a mere few: Tamale Pie, Peach Cobbler, a bucket of Romesco and Meatballs, and a crowd favorite, Gibanica--a lovely pastry layered with a cheesy custard--also labeled as "Serbian crack". Johnny Casserole himself even stopped by with a mountain of Hoppin' John. Good luck for everyone!
A new addition to the potluck: Bring tupperware! Everyone is so generous with what they make, we've got a lot left over to take home. My Comfort Station partner and I are getting plump as we refuse to leave the building after everyone's gone until we've eaten every last bite of leftovers. Rest assured there was nary a bit of pickle-ham-cream cheese roll up to be found left in the place.
The potluck isn't without it's conundrums. For instance, what to do with those who come in, bring nothing, donate nothing, eat and leave without talking to a soul. Clearly the potluck is not about gaining anything tangible for ourselves or the Comfort Station; rather we are looking for a cosmic drawing even of sorts. Ultimately, we've decided that the price these woebegone souls have paid in dignity suffices. On the other hand, at each potluck, we've had people walk in, take a look around, both chit and chat with us, and even if they haven't a penny to spare, we make sure they get something to eat. You see, we're not looking to make money, or to be prom committee tyrants telling people where to sit; we just want the potluck to be a gathering at which some kind of exchange happens. Think of a G-Rated version of the "cash, grass or ass, nobody rides for free" bumper sticker. One guy even came in and played piano for about an hour--and I'm not talking about that one annoying guy at parties where there's a piano and he saw The Sting once, so he sits down and kind of plays a hacked-up drunken version and just ends up embarrassing everyone--this guy was carrying around sheet music and sat down and rocked the walls of the Comfort Station with something along the lines of Chopin for nearly an hour, maybe more. When he was done, we asked him to eat; when he said "aw shucks, I ain't got no money to donate and I didn't bring nothin' to serve," we forced some Colorado Green Chile down his throat. But it's interesting to note the statistics evening out as we go along--each potluck sees a couple skinny Logan Square hipsters stop by, throw some change in the donation jar, and eat the squarest meal they'll have all month. But it's awesome, because they hang out and talk with us, and we love it.

A guest once asked us what our goal was with the potluck. It's important to have goals, sure. But I think our goal with the potluck is, well, to kind of not have a goal. We're not looking to put up numbers; we're not looking to light cigars with Andrew Jackson's after everyone clears out. If we had to name a goal, it's to give folks in (or out of) the area a spot to come, max and relax on a Sunday afternoon with some really good, unfussy, unprecious food and some extremely decent people. And, if you're lucky, some amazing classical music.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Comfort Food at Comfort Station

Last month we hosted the first Comfort Food at Comfort Station Potluck to great success--all told, about 30 people came through with a staggering array of top-notch food all the way from a deep, cool tray of citrusy ceviche to several dozen handmade tamales from first time makers, long time eaters. There was a lovely Filipino menudo, Frito pie, hashbrown casserole; chicken mole and skillet cornbread made the scene, too. A dude even strolled in, asked if he could play the piano, and dropped about an hour of Chopin on us.
photo courtesy Nando Espinosa
The point here is that there was a lot of great stuff, and you should be there next time. But the funny thing about a potluck is how food--siren song sung and job of getting people to gather complete--ultimately takes a backseat to things like meeting new folks and hanging out with old friends on a lawn in the middle of Logan Square on a damn near perfect early summer day. All this, then someone rides up with a couple huge containers of Italian ice.
photo courtesy Nando Espinosa
Wondering what the Comfort Station is? It's that funky little building on Milwaukee Ave. right smack in the middle of Logan Square. It was initially built as a shelter for trolley riders...then turned into a shelter for nothing...and was finally a shelter for the City's lawn mowers. Restored in 2010 by Logan Square Preservation, it became a community-focused art space in 2011. And it's been expanding its lineup of offerings every since.

That said, we’ve got more planned in the works for the Comfort Food program at the Comfort Station, something I’ll be curating alongside Jordan Martins--CS's Program Manager, a great Chicago artist, and one of the top food guys I know. Based around the once-a-month potluck series (which includes a visit from the Read/Write Library's clever BiblioTreka, a book bike with select cook/food books), Comfort Food will offer other food-related events with the goal of maintaining the Comfort Station's role as an intersection of culture, arts and living history. Stay tuned to F.o.t.D. or like Comfort Station on Facebook for updates. Meanwhile, come to the 2nd potluck, being held Sunday, July 14 at 3pm - 5pm, and bring something good to eat (if you are coming, won't you please let us know on the event page?). As always, there are no requirements beyond you making something (i.e. don't stop off at the gas station and get a box of snowballs or ho-hos) and bringing a utensil to serve it. We'll provide plates and bowls and cutlery, but keep in mind there are no facilities for heating anything up. The event will always be free, but if you wanna throw a buck or two in the donation jar to cover the costs of supplies, we wouldn't hold it against you. Any questions can be directed to me at hughamano{at}yahoo{dot}com. If you have any ideas for future events, we're open to submissions as well. Hope to see you Sunday--until then, eat & share well!
photo courtesy Nando Espinosa

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Sticky Skinned Thieves and The Mint Julep

It was blazing hot in Chicago this week, and looking at the 93 flashing on the bank sign alternating with the unchanged-since-daylight-savings-so-it-is-still-an-hour-off time, I cringed thinking of when it'll be really hot, and really humid. All I could think to do was slink over to the community garden down the street, steal some herbs and make mint juleps.

NOW, it should be said that I didn't actually steal the mint. There's a sign on this tiny garden of about a dozen plots that lists the DOs and DON'Ts, including things like "DO enjoy the garden" but "DON'T drunkenly vomit in the garden". Seems like "DON'T take any plants or herbs or vegetables unless you've grown them" is a given--but the sign actually has taking herbs along the side of the road as a DO! But still, I felt weird about it, like I'm being set up for the crime of crimes, taking a deliciously aromatic weed like mint. So, on Sunday, under the guise of walking a rambunctious wiener dog, I sauntered by in hat and sunglasses with the hopes of snagging some. Alas! The whole gardening club was out in full force, and I lost my nerve, certain that a dachshund trampling the lettuce patch while I sheepishly tried to snip mint would be frowned upon.

The next day I gathered my courage and returned--sans wiener dog--relieved that no one was there. I scanned the sign again to confirm that I wasn't being an herb-sucking leech of society, then bent down and started clipping. I'd gotten a decent load, when I heard a voice say, "what are you making?" I started, instantly transported to the mischievous lilac summer days of my youth, sure to see a scowl and a set of crossed arms in front of me. Half-written stories of excuse whirled through my mind, yet I somehow stumbled out "mint juleps" as I met the eyes of my exposer. Instantly I could see it was okay--everything was all right--and yes, in fact, the community mint meant community mint. Phew, I thought, and had an excellent conversation with her; she is one of the gardeners who has a plot there and was enthusiastic as all get out about my using the herbs. I confessed my apprehensions, and was assured no crime had been committed. I felt silly about the whole thing but then was told that there actually is a thief in the neighborhood; a mysterious, well-gardened lady who really knows her plants, stealing a fig tree and more. I promised to do my part and keep a look out.

At any rate, I shook off the social rust of wariness the city inevitably puts back on me over a long winter and learned a bit about what was being grown in the garden. A sack full of mint in my hands, I returned home and crushed a bunch of ice. I rinsed the mint and muddled it with sugar in a pewter cup and packed that ice over it, a mountain for the streams of sweet bourbon to run through. A slight stir and more mint for garnish, slapped one or twice to activate its mojo, I sat back on the porch with that layer of sweat, or humidity, or a combination of both sticking to my skin and let the julep do its thing. The below vision of the poetic bartender from our soulful south filled my head with the story of the mint julep; and the diesel air, concrete and fear of garden thievery flowed away.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


Handmade noodles
Ramen, as I know it, is the kind of thing that varies greatly depending on where one gets it--meaning who is making it and what prefecture/town/side of the road you happen to be standing in/on when you order it. It’s one of those foods that has myriad interpretations, and produces endless arguments about what is real and what is authentic. And, as with all things churning in the gears of food hype, ramen is a food that brings forth the pundits, wanting to decry that as sacrilegious, and exalt this as the gold of authenticity. As it was just recently put to me, “it’s like a sandwich; at the end of the day, it’s (hopefully) good stuff between bread,” but the shit being slung at Subway--while allegedly popular amongst millionaire athletes and bizarrely cast tv semi-stars making a living on being chubby nitwits--might not move people who, say, have eaten a reuben at Muss and Turner’s in Atlanta or stood in massive lines at Gurney's Harbor Bottle Shop up on the top of the Michigan mitten. Or take breakfast--a tough meal to cook in a restaurant due to the necessity of speed (often through the cloud of the hangover), general customer crankiness, and the fact that everyone’s mother made eggs this way and if you don’t recreate that, you suck. Or, the king of this conversation--barbecue. I just had a friend in town, doing one of those eight-meal per day Chicago visits, and as soon as I suggested BBQ down on 75th street, he said “Dude! I’m from North Carolina!” treating my suggestion the way Memphis’ great DJ Stephens treated an opponent's shot back in March.

There are lots of sides to lots of coins, and I feel to experience things, one has to be versatile. Digging ditches all day in the hot sun probably won't lead you to a cellar temperature Belgian Dubbel the same way it'll take you to a tall Busch Light--but show up at the Hop Leaf asking for the latter and you're kind of missing the picture. Laugh at diner food on your way down to Fulton Market, then feel foolish realizing that in your basest, most in-need-of-comfort moments, that's just the sort of thing you're looking to eat.

A couple finished bowls kicking around the house, with a sticky pork broth, braised pork shoulder, Benton's ham, pickled shiitake mushrooms, an egg poached in said broth and homemade noodles, imperfect but delicious
Me, I've made some ramen in my day, and not just the 30 cents-a-pack kind, though I do love dressing that up from time to time with odds and ends I've got in the fridge. At Soup and Bread a couple years back I served a super rich broth with some tasty garnishes despite the mistake of using really-difficult-to-keep-together-and-serve-at-a-thing-like-soup-and-bread frozen noodles (learning moment); at a collaboration dinner with Xmarx way back Crazy Hair and I made the noodles, broth and every last bit in the bowl for a belly-busting ramen course; every now and then around the house I'll make and freeze some broth for a later quick bowl. Here's a savagely long recipe I wrote for Soup and Bread one year, where instead of noodles, I used pork and ginger tortellini. So not technically ramen. But you get the point--who doesn't like a really great broth, with good noodle-type things, and some tasty garnishes thrown in? There isn't a one-size-fits-all blueprint.

Lots of feet for a nice, sticky stock
During my recent trip to Japan, I ate a lot of ramen, but none better than in Kofu, Yamanashi. My brother in law has a secret joint he likes to go to named Hanedaya--complete with a standard ticket vending machine at the entry and a standard crowd huddled around an extremely non-standard spacious work area for the two guys in the kitchen and their floor burners with massive boiling pots, and about 30 people waiting in a line curling around the edge of the room. The big boss is the guy making each and every bowl; the second guy cuts and slices and busses and shifts people around Tetris-style as party size needs dictate; they both scream the usual "irrashaimase!" greeting when anyone enters. When the four of us were up next, a single lone diner slurped with one empty seat to his left and two empty seats to his right as we sat on a bench directly behind him staring into the deepest part of his skull. Talk about pressure--but he was a speedy single dude and finished quickly. We moved into our slot, placed our vending machine tickets on the counter, and when our time came, got down to business. This place has the added luxury of verbally customizing three important components of your ramen:
  • Men, or noodle: how long you want them cooked for. I take mine nice and dense and chewy;
  • Abura, meaning grease, or fat, or oil, depending on which translation you are more comfortable with. I took a good, heavy dollop of pork fat from the top of the broth pot;
  • Kosa, essentially meaning how strong and salty you want your broth.
The tonkotsu broth was obscenely good, and rich even before my request to turn it to 11. This is the type of broth made, basically, by hammering the hell out of pork bones, thereby disobeying everything you ever learned in your western-style culinary upbringing and/or training as you suspend all the great fat, collagen and flavor in the broth itself. Hence the richness and cloudy, whitish color. The noodles, pulled from a great stack of boxes delivered that morning (a la the lesson learned at Flour and Bones after hand rolling hundreds of orders of noodles: just because you make it, just because it is “homemade”, doesn’t mean it’s the best out there--someone does this for a living, and if it's taking a massive amount of time, then perhaps it’s best to focus on making other things great and let the noodle man showcase his craft) were chewy and satisfying, the pork tender and, well, porky. I think I was the only one of my crew to finish everything down to the last drop, except maybe my brother, who is a bit of an animal himself. Here's a link to a site about the shop, though I offer two warnings: 1) it is entirely in Japanese, and 2) in the precious words of said brother, it is a "yelpish site, with typical a-holes commenting..." It does have some photos of the place though.

Back home, Mike Sula over at the Chicago Reader went with a chef by the name of Jeff Pikus way out to Mount Prospect to eat some ramen in a karaoke bar. It's a good read, and has added a destination to my ever-growing list, and seems to end on a note that inspired this post: there are many styles and sub-styles of ramen, and many ways to analyze them all; it might be impossible to approximate a single taste for everyone. Just look at the comments below the article. But let's put it this way: I'd much rather eat a bowl of ramen, or a fried chicken leg or a smoked rack that someone put a lot of care and craft into, even if it isn't exactly done how I'd do it, than the same carbon copy day in and day out because I thought it was perfect or it was all I ever had. Maybe it's because I'm not Italian ("that's not how mamma did it"), or because I'm not from the south ("that's not how momma did it"). But when all is said and done, authenticity is in the eye of the beholder. And we have lots of opportunities to try new things--just follow my Carolinan friend's example and eat eight times a day.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Sour, or The Way I Feel After The Broncos' Last Game

At this point, you've gotta know how important the sour taste is (note: when I say sour, think pleasantly tart as opposed to the battery acid sting of Sour Patch Kids). Just like the textural relief that crisp offers soft, or the more delicious culinary cousin of Icy Hot that is ma-la (numbing-hot) in Chinese cooking--even those first couple of lines of that famous Doors song describe it--contrast is key to keeping interesting things interesting, and even making boring things, well, less boring. And sour is king of keeping things honest and balanced in your mouth.

Sound advanced? It isn't. Everyone has had a dill pickled cucumber with a juicy monster burger (or, say, one of the world's great patty melts at Jeri's), tomato soup with grilled cheese, tzatziki sauce on a gyro, kimchi with any/everything. This is why Tabasco is so popular (sure it's the heat, but don't unwittingly discount the co-pilot of vinegar). Sour balances sweet wine and gives it character. It raises coffee from the over-roasted (nay, burnt!) abyss of Starbucks to the delicious, more subtle and complex heights of the smaller roasters that make thinking about coffee so interesting these days.

The world of sour is complex, too; different acids are produced/enhanced via different means, whether they are just born that way (citrus), are there waiting to be revealed (wine reduction) or are invited to set up camp (fermentation). Fermentation is one of the trickier ways to get at the acid; time, temperature, attention (but not too much attention) all matter in order to receive the desired results of good bacteria growth and not make one miserably sick.

I've been reading The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz. It's not so much a cookbook as an encyclopedia-like volume that explains a ton of different kind of ferments, with some theory and equipment information, but mostly a whole lot of first-hand experience (whether his own or from others who have written to him or published on the web). There's even a great little aside about a friend of his, who got an extra scoop of trouble in federal prison when she was caught trying to ferment the prison coleslaw into sauerkraut, and the mean ol' warden thought it was hooch. The best part is that he readily and humbly admits that he is not a food scientist and claims that he is not an expert--he's just a guy who loves food and embraces the ethic of "the more I learn the less I know." That said, he's had a ton of experience doing so. His earlier book, Wild Fermentation offers more recipes than this one does--this one gives the "why" and a bit of "how," leaving some variables up to you, which, if a bit more challenging that being spoon-fed amounts and ingredients, teaches one so much more. Read this F.o.t.D. post from (gulp) nearly four years ago to understand why I think that.

Anyway, back to the merits of sour. Sour refreshes your palate, opens it up to receive other tastes and flavors, splashes cool water on the face of your tongue. Often times, it is accompanied by its good friend crunchy--the sour of textures--which shakes up the round monotony of rich flavors and soft textures. Used as a seasoning agent, sour goes a long way to finish what salt starts--that is, to open your palate up to other tastes. Once you understand salt, and that it is used to season things, to open things up, and not to simply make things salty, you're on the right path to understanding the same thing about sour. If you are making, say, soup for Soup and Bread, and you've salted it well and it's just not unlocking all the other flavors you worked so hard to cultivate--give it some acid. A squeeze of lemon or a dash of good vinegar, and things will open right up.

I've currently got a big batch of kimchi fermenting on the counter (see, it's not just sour, spicy and garlicky and funky get invited, too), and some yogurt doing its thing in the closet next to the furnace, as well as Indian-style lime-fermented chiles I picked up from the book above, which Katz picked up from a guy writing as Fried Sig who in turned picked it up from Madhur Jaffrey, of course. Whew! The process is simple. Using a variation on Fried Sig's method due to what I had available, I sliced a variety of chiles--use a good range of heat levels here. Heated a bit of olive oil (original recipe used mustard oil, which has certain preserving qualities, but I had none, and, well...) gently, with some mustard seeds and about five cloves of crushed (but still whole) garlic just until the garlic started to bubble. I let it sit for a few minutes to diffuse flavors, then poured it all over the chiles and added a 2" knob of ginger, peeled and sliced into thin discs. I seasoned with salt and mixed everything, tasting until the salt level was right (the chiles should taste good, nice and salty but of course, not too salty). Then packed it all into a jar. If your friend makes pickles, he'll have one you can borrow.
 I let it hang out on the kitchen counter for a few days, shaking it now and then, turning the jar upside down, so that everything had a fair shot at being in contact with the liquid being produced by the chiles being cured by the salt. And because of this curing, the chiles shrink in volume. I added the juice of a lime or two, tasting things again, and let the jar continue to do its thing on the counter. Tasting every day, I waited until they attained a tasty level of funk and sourness, and the chiles have since become delicious hot, sour and salty accompaniments to nearly everything I eat. I was a touch worried about the lack of mustard oil, but so far things have worked out. The chiles are in the fridge now, holding a spot for the kimchi as it finishes it's big fermentation at room temperature (mind you, the room is in a cold apartment with high ceilings in Chicago).

At any rate, you don't need to run out and buy big books and turn your kitchen into a laboratory/zoo to enjoy the sour taste--there's a lot of great product out there. And you might be more familiar with it than you think. If you've ever put lemon juice or malt vinegar on a fish fry, you can appreciate what I'm saying here. So, invite a pickle to each meal, get some kimchi from your Korean neighbor, or plant a lemon tree. Just don't suffer without the sour!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Hoodwinked Into Delicious!

A trip to Tokyo requires a trip to Tsukiji Fish Market (read about it here--their actual website is atrocious). Thing is, my family is in Kyoto and the mountains outside Tokyo, so in all of my trips to Japan I've only been to Tokyo once, and that was when I was a fourteen year old nitwit, up from Kyoto to see a Denver Broncos exhibition game. The pinnacle of culture during that trip was going to a big fancy banquet at which the Broncos were in attendance. I remember having the same jumbly-stomached trepidation I'd had at the 8th grade graduation dance not long before, where I sat in ill-fitting clothes, not talking to the people I finally had such sweet, coveted access to because I was so painfully shy--the difference this time being that these were enormous and scary men as opposed to young and scary girls. So you see, I didn't get a whole lot out of that trip.

This time however, Tsukiji was high on the list. I was fortunate to have a family friend in Tokyo, who has a great apartment--a short two bridge walk from Tsukiji--she rents out that she graciously offered to us for free. In Japan, free accommodations go a long, long way, further than most places. She offered to "point us in the right direction" from the corner for the convenience store, subway stations, which way to go to get to Tsukiji the next morning; this turned into a mega-brisk walk over the Sumida River into a section called Tsukishima, and through a rather industrial area speckled with tiny little shops selling tsukudani (items such as seaweed or seafood simmered in soy sauce and mirin, which preserves and ups the flavor--talk about umami!). We got a small bit of shio kombu (a thick kelp, usually used to flavor dashi broths, simmered as tsukudani) to snack on along the way, though it's usually eaten with rice, or in onigiri (a rice ball packed with various flavorful fillings taken on the road). As we started weaving in and out of alleyways, the sun began to set, and I realized I was doing something I'd never be able to do on my own--I started to grasp that she wasn't taking us to the Hot Doug's of Tokyo. Before I knew it, we were squeezing into seats shoulder to shoulder with red-faced businessmen in black suits, cigarettes dangling from mouth corners, knocking back shōchū in a small wooden dive littered with paper signs describing, in Japanese kangi, what was available that day. This was the kind of place where even the numbers for the price were in Japanese (i.e. if we wrote out "Five Ninety-Nine" here in the states). Those are easy enough to understand, but meaningless if you don't know if you are ordering the sake or tuna face. Which is essentially the first thing that came out. I saw someone eating large, jagged, mismatched chunks of really red meat as we went in; I thought to myself, "how odd to be eating beef in a place this close to Tsukiji market. And what lean beef!" The glow of an idiot's realization warmed my cheeks as a plate of the same was delivered to our table, with a small amount of wasabi. Knowing that raw beef just does not happen in Japan, and gathering my wits under me, I asked what it was. "Tuna!" Circular motions were made around our host's face. "The cheek!"

I gleefully attacked the tuna, and it was obviously some of the freshest, cleanest tuna I'd ever eaten. Chewy--not melt-in-your-mouth like fatty tuna--and a real treat for us mastication fanatics who choose, say, hanger over tenderloin. More chewy=more flavor. And a whole huge plate of it for 500 yen, not too much over 5 bucks! Beer arrived, and we tucked into the next offering: a steamed bass collar. Great, clean, flavorful flesh--but it was the fat under the skin that made this one so amazing. Rich, not fishy, and it gave me the same warm shivers as a good vein of ribeye fat. A quick rearrangement of seats as a group of pretty rough looking older ladies, high on shōchū and green tea (yes, mixed) slid down for a new batch of diners and drinkers. The already rambunctious noise grew, then out came a stew made of beef tripe and intestine--hard to fathom for some, but cooked long and low, and if you can get your head around it, the richness is super comforting on a chilly night. Deep, deep flavors; myriad textures; powerfully satisfying and beefy. Umami falls well short of a proper description of the flavor. Pickles arrived to bring us out of our stupor of indulgence, then yakitori (grilled chicken and scallion skewers) for a grounding familiarity, and more beer.

And finally, monkfish liver. Foie gras of the sea. Often times, you'll get a nice little disc of it, rolled like a torchon and steamed, served humbly and delicately in ponzu sauce. Not in this case. This was an enormous chunk, served in a rather oily stew. Just looking at it was a challenge--this was a whole lotta liver.  But it was delicious; rich, of course, and not as clean as foie. I took several happy and exuberant bites, then a few courteous bites, then I just plain forced down a few more...and I was done. It was A dozen people could eat this thing and then roll off into the street clutching their bellies. Which is what three of us did. We squeezed back through the crowd--you think Fat Rice is busy and crowded? This place had around 20 seats, and there were about 35 people sitting down. Don't ask me how. Sweatshirt-clad girls delivering food and booze to tables and freshly sliced fish (wrapped in plastic on styrofoam not unlike our packs of ground beef here in the states) to a small table outside for take-away sale split the crowds effortlessly, though not without some helmet-to-helmet contact. Me, I climbed over people to get out--not an easy thing to do, and quite humiliating when you are a 100 kilo white guy. The chef had kept glancing over at me during the meal, most likely thinking of what my liver might taste like, and this was decidedly not the place to pull out the camera and start shooting (a battle I had to have with myself at any restaurant in Japan, with the side arguing "hey--it's going to be a long while before you see this food again" frequently winning out over the "yeah, but there's nothing I can stand less than people taking terrible pictures of their food for several minutes from several angles before even considering eating it" side), so I snapped a quick shot of the chef's face from outside, framed in the door's glass panel.

Slowly, I realized that I'd just had one of the great meals. I was dazed from the entire experience, and there was nothing left to do other than stumble away into the night, back over the river, and eventually through the narrow night streets of the Golden Gai, making a now half-hearted effort to find a bar I'd heard was frequented by Wim Wenders, an expert in devastation, but giving up and falling into an anonymous matchbox joint to contemplate the whole thing. I'd see Tsukiji the next morning, but for now, senses assaulted and ravaged, I sat, and I drank a bit.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Try It, You'll Like It, or, How Did I Get Fatter In Japan?

Copious pickled veg on offer in a little back alley bar off Ponto-chō
One doesn't think of Japan as a place you'd bring an extra 10 pounds back from. Wouldn't the modesty and humility in the culture be reflected in the cuisine? Of course it is--only not for me when visiting my family; they aim to keep the American boy plump and well-fed, and ne'er was the night I climbed out of the bath and into the futon without being amazingly full of food and drink.

My time at Fat Rice reemphasized what is too often a background note here in the States: the importance of texture as a player in the complex scheme of something being delicious. To re-quote a friend and believer: "There are two types of people in this world. Those who put chips in their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and those who hate life." I remember standing with Old Crazy Hair in the kitchen at Fat Rice as he sliced some tiny jellyfish, moving with his usual frenetic energy to toss them with loads of flavor via chilies and black vinegar and sesame and whatever else. He held a piece out for me to taste, and yeah, the flavoring was delicious, but what I remember the most is the texture--the snap and so-satisfying crunch these little guys had, with nothing backing up the fear of a coelenterate planet we in the States were raised with.

My time at Fat Rice also exhausted me (boo-hoo, I know, because the whole crew there and in so many other restaurants is still, and will still be doing it day in day out while some of us gallivant off to foreign lands to behave badly in karaoke bars at 3am) to the point that my palate became an absolutely plowed field, and the week between putting that last Arroz Gordo in the window and my departure to Kyoto allowed said field to rest and relax and prepare to attack some new tastes and flavors and textures. So off I went.
Tai and Aji Sashimi, Kofu, Yamanashi
The chef here took me horse racing the next day. Think cigarettes and paper bag booze--not tall boots and funny hats.
Upon arrival, I was whisked to Gaku, the favorite local izakaya, right on the outskirts of the Suntory distillery in Yamazaki. No whiskey tonight; it was beer, then hot sake, then a steady parade of simple but delicious standards: agedashi tofu (fried silken tofu in a light broth), cured cod roe (snappy and creamy), gyu suji (beef tendon braised until soft and incredibly succulent), tamagoyaki (familiar layers of egg rolled together), tori karaage (essentially fried chicken, super garlicky and crisp), not to mention several various cuts of sashimi, stunningly fresh, more so given my usual (non) proximity to the sea. My brother is famous for (not) discerning types of fish by shrugging and saying "it's a fish!" Though I can see where he is coming from, within the criticism lies the answer; the character of raw fish is extremely subtle, and if one's affinity is toward the heavier, saltier snacks, there isn't going to be much there to pick up. But, if you turn your other senses way down, you'll find that on the lower frequencies, the personality of the fish will speak loudly. Your palate will gain your other sensual faculties and you'll taste/smell/see/hear/feel the freshness, the smooth melting fat of otoro, the cool salinity of tai, the crunchy snap of the extremely-small whole baby squid.
Super tiny baby squid, crunchy and sweet
Monkfish liver torchon in ponzu sauce
The last tokkuri squeezed of every drop of sake, my brother in law gave us a much coveted ride home (the thought of adding one more train ride to my two flights and blue line scorecard was too much to handle), we all had a groggy nightcap, and I floated off to bed. If you find yourself headed to Japan, I have a few pieces of advice: arrive in the evening, or as near to it as possible, stay up late, and don't sleep in forever. You'll be on track and away from jet lag in no time (unlike the trip back this way, which is always so much harder to overcome). Smile at people and say--in whatever busted up poor man's version of Japanese you can muster--things like "arigato," and "sumimasen," and "konnichi-wa". You know, put some effort forth. And most importantly, eat every single thing that is put in front of you. There's a reason people eat what they do; a different definition of delicious for every palate, every culture. Look past the usual bacony suspects of fat and salt and into what makes that particular food great. The worst thing that could happen is it bites you back.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

From Montana to Macau to Japan

Another three months have zipped by; another term helping a dear friend get a business up and running has come to a close. And in the morning, I'll head to Japan to see family and try to redeem myself for so many visits as a child where my main interests consisted of keeping one foot in America via McDonald's and Weird Science as I tried my best to take advantage of rather loose drinking age requirements. In preparation, I've saturated myself in things such as football and the double fatso over at Phil's Last Stand, and now look forward to some of the cleanest flavors on earth in Kyoto and Tokyo; things I was unable to appreciate in my early visits. Anyone will tell you that I'm the world's biggest bath enthusiast, and I've prepared myself for the onsen (while soaking the aches and stresses of the restaurant away) with visits to King Spa in Niles and plan on becoming one of these guys while spending a bit of the winter in Japan.

I realize that I've once again, in my standard fashion, neglected my dear F.o.t.D. whilst in the depths of the trenches of Fat Rice, and you can be certain that I won't be computing too much while wintering on that tiny island, but I've come to accept it--all in the name of gathering some good material, I suppose. People ask if I'll start the Salon up again, and I hope so, but that is further down the road than I'm ready to commit to right now.

That said, I plan to write a bit more about my time at Fat Rice upon my return. If you haven't been, please go. If you have, please go again and get something new. Old Crazy Hair and Adrienne have put all of their heart and soul into this place, and it is rare to see people care to the degree that they care on such a consistent basis. They're putting out astounding food, and breathing new life and fire into a cuisine that is rapidly disappearing, and it's been an honor and pleasure to work alongside them and the rest of the crew. Even though my past couple of jaunts have been planned as short 3 or 4 month deals (lest the perils of friends working with friends overcome us), it's still difficult to say goodbye at the end of the term. I mean, I'll see Old Crazy Hair, and Tasty T and the rest of the crew again, just like I'll see the folks in Montana again, but it bites a little bit to remove oneself from a great group. Alas, it will afford me more time to go into Fat Rice, sit at the bar, throw my weight around, and heckle the new grill guy (who happens to be Crazy Hair himself). See y'all in a month.