Friday, March 28, 2014

Back in NYC! Hunan Manor

Spicy Diced Chicken with Hot Chilies 

Hunan cuisine is hugely overshadowed, in NY at least, by the flashier and more aggressive Szechuan style. New Yorkers have lots of choices for Szechuan restaurants, sometimes even several from the same chain, but Hunan Manor in Midtown East, as far as I know, is the place to go for authentic Hunan food in Manhattan--and it's a good one.

Chairman Mao's Braised Pork

What a relief that not every thing was swimming in a pool of chili oil! But the food can still be fiercely spicy. With the Szechuan pepper corn mostly absent, the numbing factor is out. While I think I'm addicted to that numbing sensation, can't say that I missed it here. 

Shishito Peppers 

All three entrees were terrific--the diced chicken was crunchy and sweat-inducing, the braised pork was expectantly tender and sweet, and the pot of pork intestine sounds gross but was meaty and chewy in an almost perversely good way. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Maruhide Uni Club in Torrance, CA


Simply, if you love uni like I do, this place is heaven. Morsels of top-quality Santa Barbara uni generously covering a big bowl of sushi rice for just under 15$ is unreal--one could easily pay 5 times or more if ordering it at a sushi restaurant. The reason is that Maruhide Uni Club is operated directly by the fishing company that harvests and sells uni in the US. But the restaurant is tasteful decorated and serene without being formal--a perfect place of pilgrimage for uni lovers!  

We sampled a few options but I truly believe uni is best left undisturbed. Its delicate and fruity taste tends to get diluted when it is cooked as part of a sauce. You can add salmon roes and raw scallops to the uni rice bowl, and you can also have your uni grilled and cooked. There's an omakase option for 90/120 dollars at dinner but a 7-day reservation notice is required. 


Uni Cream Pasta

The sauce is very creamy and buttery--a good choice for people who prefer cooked uni. 

Friday, February 7, 2014

Bar Dinning at Spago Las Vegas

Wolfgang Puck, a name that can make Emeril Lagasse sounding hip, has, for the lack of a better term, an empire of food conglomerates that is mind-blowingly vast (just check out all the restaurants under his wings, not counting the cookwares and canned soup and frozen pizza). Even in a world so saturated with celebrity-chef chains and brands, his is mightily impressive. 

Perhaps with such secured success Puck doesn't feel the need to pamper for TV spotlights, except when trying to sell his cookwares on QVC. The original Spago opened more than 30 years ago on Sunset Strip and there are now a handful of duplicates all carrying the Spago name tag. 

We stumbled upon the restaurant: after failing to get into a supposedly fabulous buffet that sold out for the night by about 630pm, we had no plan B in sight and were seriously starving (we were ready for a buffet!). Somehow, whether it was due to the crippling hunger or some odd algorithm my brain managed to do, I made the decision to bypass Rao's, Gordon Ramsey's Pub and Grill, and Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill to get to Spago--it turned out to be one of those sweet surprises in life when you least expecting it.  

Kurobuta Pork Schnitzel

I wish this was bad so I could write something nasty about how Puck couldn't even muster his own country's signature food...no chance: this was stunningly done and easily the best Schnitzel I've tasted. The breading held its crispiness without getting in the way of the juiciness of the pork. It was nicely seasoned so any condiments would be superfluous. The "sides" were delicious, of course, but the pork was the star here and there was a beauty in its simplicity and straightforwardness.   


Beef Sliders

Everybody does sliders nowadays, but these were really well-built and perfect appetizers. 


Crab Cakes

While I don't claim to be a veteran in crab-cake adjudication, I just remembered getting lots of flaky and sweet crab meat in the bites. Both the aioli underneath and the garnishing salad provided nice acidity and accompaniment. 


Steak Frites

I don't dislike this, but the steak was on the stingy side, especially placed right next to the oven-mitt sized schnitzel. Since a glass of beer is in the picture, let me mention that they have a selection of few but well-curated beers on draft. It was here I got hooked on Full Sail Amber... 

Peanut-Butter Souffle with Lemon Sorbet

This must have been created by someone that loves peanut butter, which I admit I don't eat on a regular basis. But I would if it's served like this all the time! Heck, I'll just come out and say it: best way of using peanut butter!  

Ideal Meal: Schnitzel and Peanut-butter Souffle

Spago Las Vegas
Caesar Place Forum Shops
Food: 4/5, Service: 2.5/4, Vibe: 1/3 (probably better in the main dinning room, but the bar/cafe area has good energy), Value: 2/3 (not over-priced at all), Total: 9.5/15

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Star Kitchen Chinese in Denver

Colorado has been in the news lately for legalizing marijuana--many people have traveled to the state for that purpose. But having had eaten in Star Kitchen, a Cantonese restaurant in Denver, on my way moving to Salt Lake City late last summer (yes, sadly, I'm no longer a New Yorker), I've been contemplating on driving 8 hours to Colorado just so I can have another meal there. 

Perhaps this has some, or a lot, to do with the sub-par Chinese-food scene in Salt Lake City, but Star Kitchen can match up with many of the best Chinese restaurants I've been in New York, Boston, and other cities. The food here is authentic, and the scallion lobster dish was surprisingly stellar--as good as the ones I found in Boston.  

We went there very early one evening so the place was almost empty, but the food quickly warmed us up and the service was attentive and unobtrusive. Everything we had was wonderfully satisfying and pitch-perfect from what I expect of a Cantonese restaurant. 


The unassuming facade 

Sea Cucumber with Oyster Sauce

Black-peppered Cubes of Beef


Cantonese Fried Noodles with Mixed Seafood

Friday, November 22, 2013

Hmm...Ribs...ahh... (Oklahoma Joe's in Kansas City)


Despite some marked improvement in New York's BBQ scene in recent years, none of the ribs there would stand a chance against these from Oklahoma Joe's in Kansas City. Brisket and pulled pork?  Maybe. But if you believe ribs are what make a BBQ restaurant--for I certainly do--then New York must admit defeat by a most worthy opponent.

Alas, I haven't had the chance to try other BBQ joints in Kansas City (according to Wikipedia, there are over 100 in the city), but if the others can even survive and look Oklahoma Joe's in the eye, they must be quite good as well.  While it's not fair to narrow the attraction of the city down to one food type, I would gladly spend 3 days there eating and thinking nothing but BBQ.     


It's actually the impeccable balance that I most admire in Oklahoma Joe's ribs: they are tender but not over cooked, the juicy and succulent inside is nicely contrasted with a slightly crisp crust on the outside, and plenty of smokiness balanced with just the right amount of sweetness.  Simply gorgeous and masterful.  



My good friend Koji (a KC native) pointed me to the original "gas station" location, which admittedly gave me pause prior to the trip--would I have to endure gasoline smell while having my BBQ, or is it just a gimmick?  Well, it turned out the place is a real gas station, except the space where normally houses a small convenient store is instead a full-service restaurant with plenty of seats (they were nevertheless all filled up, pardon my lame puns) and all one could smell was smokey BBQ goodness. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Carbone


These were delivered shortly after you took your seat and were free for the table--wonderful foccacia, prosciutto, and cheese--but were they really free?


And after you ordered and finished the first round of freebies, more carbs and oil (with a few pickled cauliflower bits) in case you have just ran a marathon.  

Despite booking the reservation a month ahead, I didn't get the fabled tables "in the back."  Instead, our table was near the front, right next to the server station hallway/area...  

And after reading so much about how the waiters here would put on the 'old-school' theatrics, ours was subdued and disinterested, to say the least. 

The freebies were generous--until you see the price of everything else on the menu. Look, I knew that going in, but Carbone did not make us feel special and welcomed, and the food weren't nearly spectacular enough to justify neither the price nor the accolades. 


Here's a guy (not our waiter) making 'table-side' Caesar salad on a trolley, which was probably not as fun as making table-size guacamole. He did use actual anchovies--but, honestly, it was hard to get excited about seeing a salad getting made. I couldn't think of anything clever to chat with him, and he didn't want to be bothered.  

But the whole point of doing this kind of table-side assembly is to put on a show, and when the show isn't slicing of a Peking duck or mixing a steak tartar, you have got to offer something more (even some bad jokes or simply talking about the ingredients would be nice). Otherwise, frankly it just felt awkward. 


Well, hard to justify paying 19$ for this, especially the pre-show was so uneventful, but these fantastic, tiny-tower like croutons were the best I've ever had (can I please watch how these were made?). 


I did the math: 3$ each if the tax and tips are added. They were okay but forgettable. By this point Carbone had already made the money back to cover those freebies earlier.  


While I always say it's hard to f**k up meatballs, these were better than most. Both the clay bowl and the fried basil leaves were a nice touch (see, I'm being fair). 

A half plate of Lobster Mezzaluna

This was good as well. Somehow these reminded me of both the Chinese dumplings and fillings for some dim-sum items; of course, the ingredients here were top-notch and I appreciated the fact that the filling wasn't mashed up too finely so the texture was robust and plump.  



Obviously meant for sharing, at least for people who aren't freshmen in college, the price of this imposing dish is in that sense comprehensible (you'll have to look up the current price on the website because it keeps creeping upward little by little). It was delicious and there's no way to duplicate this at home. My favorite part was the bone, which had some juicy fat and tendons. It was weird that the fried basil did not impart as much flavor as I was hoping to get. But they were careful with not over dousing the tomato sauce so the edges remained crisp. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

Nan Xiang Soup Dumplings

It's one of life's mysteries: what's popular isn't always what's good. Just look at all the bloated, brainless summer blockbusters churn out by movie studios every year--they usually turn a profit eventually and ergo the cycle continues. 

Doubtlessly it is much harder for a restaurant to sustain its popularity, especially in a city like New York. It is not unusual for a restaurant to see an initial hot streak cools down to a lukewarm irrelevancy. On the other hand, those that have managed to attract a loyal following can have a momentum that equals that to the 2004 Red Sox (GO SOX!).

Nan Xiang Soup Dumplings in Flushing has never let go of that momentum and in the few years of its existence has expanded and flourished (it took over the next-door space, originally a gone-down-the-hill beef noodle shop). I have always remained more or less uninterested except for the exceptionally good Noodle in Scallion-oil Sauce (see below). But now as its popularity soar, I sat down on a recent morning hoping to be impressed. 



The restaurant is reasonably comfortable and clean by Flushing standard. Unfortunately, its service rather conforms to this standard, which is to say that it borderlines on being merely competent and poor. Adding to the success of the restaurant, this now seems snobbish and arrogant. But anyway, I half expected that and just wishing for the day when efficient robots can replace bad servers. 

Crab and Pork Soup Dumplings

The expansion and renovation of the restaurant now showcases this dish by placing the dumpling makers and steamers near the entrance where everyone can see.  I was a little surprised that only two women were needed to make all the dumplings for the entire place. 

The good part of this was the filling, which was rich without being grotesquely greasy. But these were really too large and therefore lacked elegance and felt clumsy and hard to eat since their perimeters extended beyond the spoon.  The folds were also a bit thick so you get a bit too much of the dough in the center top of the dumplings.   

Noodle with Scallion-oil Sauce

I'm not sure whether to call this a hidden gem and I haven't tried this in other restaurants, but this was a pitch-perfect bowl of noodles.  Comparable in concept with Aglio et Olio, this simple dish was so satisfying and flavorful that you will want to order another bowl when you are done. And after having this repeatedly over the years, I can vouch for the consistency in execution. For me, it's the main reason to eat here (it doesn't fair well in take-out form).   

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Szechuan Gourmet

Szechuan Gourmet is my go-to Chinese restaurant chain in the city with its several well-placed locations--two in midtown, one in upper east side, and one in Flushing. Having tasted all four, the quality is quite consistent across the board, even though the Flushing location is in desperate need of a renovation--the chairs and booth seats are filthy and terribly worn, and there are also the undesirable down-stairs seating space.  The 39th St. location is the jewel of the bunch due to the two-star NY Times review it received in 2008, and the meal I had there did not disappoint. The following pictures, however, were taken from a meal at the 56th St. location, which is a bright and clean space with very good over-head lighting. 

The menus of any Chinese restaurants usually dwarf those of other cuisines in terms of the items listed, and here's no exception. For this reason, I didn't discover this behemoth pot of spicy goodies until quite recently, after continuous urging from a good friend of mine. It's best to find it by looking at the prices--at 32.95, it's one of the more expensive dishes (but one that can satisfy 3 to 4 people easily). 

What makes this pot wonderful is the fact that the various ingredients were of high quality and cooked well before being assembled in the pot.  There was an immense satisfaction I got from spooning out one thing after another that all tasted delicious.   

Braised Tripe, Duck's Blood Jello, Jumbo Shrimp
with sea scallops, fish fillets & veggie in roasted chili spiced broth

Duck Tongues Appetizer

Chilled Mung Bean Jello Salad

Cold Spicy Noodles

Bacon with Spicy Garlic Dressing

It is imperative to order some of the cold appetizers. In fact, a few of them put  together can easily resemble a small feast. I frankly prefer duck tongues, which are popular in Taiwan, than chicken feet (deboned duck feet are terrific too...), since both require one to pry away small bones. I particularly like the garlicky spicy Cold Noodles with a strong vinaigrette. The vinegary note in these dishes is often overlooked--without it, the high level of salt and spices would be too overpowering and less appealing.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Babbo

For me, Babbo isn't just a restaurant.  It symbolizes much of my fascination with the current food culture. For one, this is the restaurant that put Mario Batali on the map and is the purest version of what he is about. Babbo revolutionized the Italian food scene by serving pastas that don't swim in sauces and introducing offal parts that were previously unheard of in an upscale restaurant.

But it doesn't end there. Bill Buford's immensely entertaining, informative, and somewhat overlooked book, Heat, gave me an extraordinary, behind-the-scene look as the author recounts the time when he actually apprenticed at Babbo. And, finally, there are the numerous personal memories that accumulated throughout the years. Almost without fail, Babbo is model of consistency, hospitality, and fabulous food at a surprisingly reasonable price. It has recently regained its one Michelin star, which I don't quite understand how it lost it a few years back. 

Perennially packed, it can seem impossible to get in. Having called one month ahead and getting seated at the quiet, upstairs space, I actually much prefer to drop in without a reservation and be seated at the front near the bar. Being sensitive to noise, somehow I don't mind it here. The stellar and attentive service plus the excellent food have always allowed me to tune out whatever is around me. And you get a good view of all the people coming and going, many ladies in alluring attires and everyone having a good time. 
  

Black Spaghetti with Rock Shrimp, Spicy Salami Calabrese and Green Chilies
I almost always end up getting this--three very strong components working well together and incredibly addictive. The salty and spicy calabrese provided a nice smokey flavor and its oil coated the pasta beautifully.  


Every meal at Babbo begins with this: vinegary chickpeas on toast. This replaces the table bread and it is tasty enough to invite you to take a few extra sips of wine but not so tasty that you'll ask for more or talking about it afterwards. 

Grilled Octopus with “Borlotti Marinati” and Spicy Limoncello Vinaigrette

Warm Lamb’s Tongue Vinaigrette with Brown Beech Mushrooms and a 3-Minute Egg
These appetizers were packed full of flavors and had more nuance than one might expect. Arrived at a gentle and perfect temperature, the proteins of both dishes were expertly done with accompanying elements providing textural contrast and acidity.   

Linguine with Clams, Pancetta and Hot Chilies
Somehow this familiar dish took on another level here. Sauce seemingly invisible, every bite was nevertheless packed full of essences of clams and Italian bacon.  

Duck with Rainbow Chard, Pancetta and Baby Beet Agrodolci 
The most elaborately plated dish at Babbo and therefore rather unusual. While most dishes are more carefully plated than their appearances suggest, Babbo is not a restaurant you come for showstopping and inventive plating--except this dish. 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Le Philosophe

I can't vouch for the authenticity of Le Philosophe's Tournedo Rossini--a decadent dish of excess comprises of butter-seared fillet mignon, foie gras, slices of black truffle, crunchy crouton, and madeira demi-glace sauce, nor the lobster Thermidor--supremely tender morsels of lobster coated in a light yet intensely creamy sauce, but, boy, did they taste wonderful! They instantly transported me to the ideal Parisian bistro of my dream, which I've never been and probably doesn't yet exist, and re-ignited a craving for the deeply satisfying traditional French cooking that is just as elaborate and refine as the modern nouveau style. 

With a wall of the restaurant devoted almost entirely to pictures of famed French philosophers (we were handed an answer key after being seen guessing at them rather pathetically) and the color tone of the restaurant leaning towards the dark and sleek, the place could be an artisanal coffee shop. It also managed to not feel cramped despite being quite modest in size. 

Roasted Bone Marrow--roasted shallot, lemon, capers, watercress

It was nice to have three relatively short chunks of the bones because I ended up chewing off the tendon and fat on the back of them! Also nice was the fact that the bone marrow was allowed to shine on its own without other unnecessary distractions.

         
Frog Legs--hen of the woods, sunchoke, watercress, garlic

For me, frog legs are chicken meat crossed with the delicateness of crab--okay, I know I'm stretching it, but the French and the Chinese know what they are up to. I was a bit disappointed in this because, if I remember correctly, they were boneless.  I was looking forward to take the frog legs in hand like lollipops...  

  Tournedos Rossini--foie gras, madeira, black truffle, asparagus

One of the most sensational bites I've had in my entire dining experience was when I got every ingredient on this plate into my mouth all at once in one perfect, divine combo--such burst of complex yet earthy flavors, matched by three distinct textures delivered by the tender steak, the soaked but still crunchy crouton, and the silky and buttery foie gras. Rossini was a lucky man to have such a creation made for and named after him!  

Maine Lobster Thermidor / tarragon, mustard seed, meyer lemon

Here's the ultimate meal: order this and the Rossini steak for a surf 'n turf! Sure, your arteries will take a hit (and so will your wallet), but they really did complement each other quite well!