Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year Michelin Countdown: 0 (food)

It's new year's eve today and already 2011 in Hong Kong. Happy new year!

I hope 2011 brings everyone their bliss. It doesn't have to be a Michelin starred meal. There are many happy meals to be had all over. One example is Keens Steakhouse, one of the oldest dining institutions in NYC. It's worth a trip just for the history alone, but they also happen to be one of the better steakhouses in the city.

The LOBSTER SALAD had much of the meat of half a small lobster, along with a whole bunch of greens and a nice light dressing. We were rather surprised by how well composed this salad was, with the lobster, dressing, and greens going well together taste-wise and texturally.

The MARYLAND CRAB CAKES had good crab flavor, although the texture had more stringy and less lump crab meat than I would have liked. Originally they brought me the lump crab meat cocktail instead, but they were very nice about it and whisked it away quickly, bringing me what I had actually ordered.

The MUTTON CHOP is the signature dish here and it is magnificent. Good lamb flavor, large portion, and they have real mint jelly, not the random green stuff.

The DOVER SOLE was also quite a sizeable portion. They brought it whole and offered to fillet it, but my friend was fine eating around the bone. He enjoyed it very much.

My entree was the KING'S CUT PRIME RIB, and that is indeed a cut fit for a king. It was humongous, juicy, and meaty. Because it isn't aged, however, some might feel that the meat comes underseasoned, as there is just so much of it.

Our sides included HASH BROWNS, CREAMED SPINACH, ROASTED CAULIFLOWER WITH GARLIC, and BRUSSEL SPROUTS WITH PARMESAN (we nixed the bacon). My favorite was the cauliflower which had a delightful garlic taste. I liked the creamed spinach also, but thought that the spinach was chopped too fine. The brussel sprouts, while not mushy, were too soft for my liking, and I think that we could have had a better potato option than the hash brown.

We all saved room for dessert, and we all got variations of the same thing. First up was the HOT FUDGE SUNDAE, with real hot fudge sauce. It was nice and thick, not some Hershey's syrup pretending to be fudge sauce.

Next was the BUTTERSCOTCH SUNDAE, again with real butterscotch sauce.

My dessert was the COFFEE CANTATA, which I think has the best of everything. It's essentially the same as the hot fudge sundae, complete with that lovely thick fudge sauce. The only difference is that it comes with delicious coffee ice cream instead of vanilla, and some raspberry sauce.

I'm looking forward to putting 2010 behind me and am quietly optimistic about 2011. Have a happy new year and continued good eating! I expect my next major meal post will come at the end of January, when I revisit Eleven Madison Park, still my favorite restaurant in NYC.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Happy New Year Michelin Countdown: 1 (food)

This WD-50 meal took place in early November, but I didn't get around to writing about it till now what with everything that's been going on and the Hong Kong trip. One of the other reasons I'd been slacking off on writing this review was that there were too many dishes to go over. We went a little overboard with our ordering. The usual tasting menu consists of 12 courses including amuse and desserts for $140, but for some reason we decided we wanted more and extended the tasting menu to 16 courses, at about $12 per extra course.

Dinner begins with sesame flatbread being brought to the table. Crispy, airy, light, and tasty, these flatbread were so addictive we asked for and finished off a second serving of them.

RAZOR CLAMS, PEAR, MUSTARD GREENS, PICKLED BEAN SPROUTS was my amuse. A good mix of textures and the refreshing pear and pickled sprouts worked well with the earthy mustard green soup.

I had previously discussed my friend's dietary restrictions with the front of house, and they were very accomodative about the whole thing. In fact, I was emailed our menus one day ahead of time to ensure that everything would go smoothly. My friend's vegetarian amuse was CARROT INFUSED TOFU WITH HIBISCUS SAUCE.

EVERYTHING BAGEL, SMOKED SALMON THREADS, CRISPY CREAM CHEESE. WD-50 and its head chef Wylie Dufresne are well known for using new and scientific techniques to prepare and present their dishes. Here is his whimsical side at work with an everything bagel that was in fact ice cream that looked and tasted like an everything bagel, along with dried threads of smoked salmon and a cream cheese tuile. The flavors were familiar, but the new textures and temperatures created another level of enjoyment.

CHEESE AND BROCCOLI SOUP WITH PICKLED ONIONS. My friend absolutely loved this soup, although he wished there was more of it.

FOIE GRAS, PASSIONFRUIT, CHINESE CELERY. This beautiful looking dish had strands of chinese celery and a play on a celery financier underneath. But where's the passionfruit?

There it is, hiding inside the puck of foie gras. The textures and presentation were great, but I found the passionfruit way too tart and overpowering.

SCRAMBLED EGG RAVIOLI, CHARRED AVOCADO, KINDAI KAMPACHI. The collection on the left were fried potato bits. The egg ravioli itself was terrific, fluffy and creamy. But the real breakthrough was combining everything in one bite. The taste of the fish, the slight smokiness of the charred avocado, the egg, the creamy avocado, and the crunchy potato bits came together in a great mix of flavors and textures.

EGGS FLORENTINE. For his egg dish, my friend had a playful take on eggs florentine with crispy fried spinach, egg yolk, and fried hollandaise sauce coated in a muffin mixture. It looked fabulous and he confirmed that it was.

COLD FRIED CHICKEN, BUTTERMILK-RICOTTA, TABASCO, CAVIAR. This was our favorite dish of the night. A delightful take on leftovers, the cold fried chicken consisted of a delicious cold dark meat terrine, while the ricotta was the texture of wonderful mashed potatoes. I liked how the tabasco gave everything a nice kick, but the caviar did not assert itself.

BLACK BASS, CHORIZO, PINEAPPLE, POPCORN. The fish was cooked beautifully while the pineapple and chorizo combination was amazing. I didn't understand the popcorn puree though.

ARCTIC CHAR, SNOW PEA, FRIED YUCCA, CHERRY-BLACK BEAN. Because WD-50 is very much about the combination of tastes and textures, every single component of a dish matters. So even though my friend couldn't have only one component of my fish dish, they served him a completely different one. My friend was at first very skeptical about the cherry and fermented black bean sauce. After tasting the dish, he still didn't buy it. He said that everything else was good, but couldn't get around that sauce.

BEEF AND BEARNAISE. The chef's take on beef and bearnaise included bearnaise gnocchi over a beef consomme, topped with pea shoots with tarragon and caramelized shallot puree. I personally would have preferred a very strong beef stock instead of the consomme. The revelatory thing about this dish was the julienned pea shoots, which were thin and very crispy yet managed to retain all the vegetable flavor.

SQUAB BREAST, CHEESE PUMPKIN, CORN BREAD, PICKLED CRANBERRIES. Another play on a familar culinary theme, this dish featured many Thanksgiving components. There were more autumn flavors in the spices as well, with strong hints of cinnamon. The squab was cooked sous vide and came out beautifully.

VEAL BRISKET, FRIED RICOTTA, HONEY DEW, BLACK OLIVE. The brisket was slow cooked for a long time and came out beautifully tender and delicious. The olive taste was quite strong, but balanced by the ricotta and the honey dew.

WALLEYED PIKE, YEAST MASHED, ZUCCHINI, CURRY, NASTURTIUM. This was good but did not have as much of a wow factor as the other dishes. In fact, we found the fish pretty tasteless though we enjoyed the other things on the plate.

VENISON CHOP, FREEZE DRIED POLENTA, FENNEL, ASIAN PEAR. Another beautifully cooked piece of meat. The fennel and pear slaw was great.

WHITE BEER ICE CREAM, QUINCE, CARAMEL, CARAWAY. The white beer ice cream was nice and light, and a good palate cleanser following the venison.

RAINBOW SHERBET, APPLE, TARRAGON, ORANGE, OLIVE OIL. The desserts were so new and exciting at this point of a long meal that I jumped right in without taking a picture. This was a shame because this dish was quite pretty. The sherbet texture went well with the olive oil sponge.

SOFT CHOCOLATE, BEETS, LONG PEPPER, RICOTTA ICE CREAM. My friend remarked that the soft chocolate ganache reminded him of My-T Fine pudding from his childhood.

COFFEE ICE CREAM, PECAN, COCOA, ARGAN OIL. Honestly at this point I was full and unable to do any more than say that this tasted good. Not only do I not have a photo, I don't have any notes on this. Then again, I'm really not big on sweets to begin with which might be why I slacked off on this.

COCOA PACKETS, CHOCOLATE SHORTBREAD, MILK ICE CREAM. I remember really enjoying the chocolate ice cream ball, but thought the cocoa packet was more of a novelty than anything else.

So we went more than a little overboard, which was pretty evident by the end there. We were given a quick tour of the kitchen and said hi to chef Dufresne. He also remarked that we ate more than anyone else in the restaurant that night. I was also surprised at how small a space dessert chef Stupak needed to finish off his beautiful creations.

There was definitely a lot of creativity on offer, and not just for the sake of being flashy. There were definitely combinations that wowed us, but there were also dishes that didn't work out. My suggestion is to figure out which dishes work best for you, then order a la carte to make your own tasting menu. For example, I would order as many egg dishes as he has to offer.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Happy New Year Michelin Countdown: 2 (food)

On the evening of Christmas Day, my friend SM and I went to Kajitsu, a 2 Michelin star Japanese restaurant in the East Village. Let me begin by saying that Kajitsu is probably the least expensive Michelin starred restaurant you will find. Every month they offer only two menus. One 4-course menu for $50, and another 8-course menu for $70. Even on Christmas Day, when everyone else jacks up their prices, our 9-course menu was $90. How is this possible? It's possible because Kajitsu serves Shojin cuisine, which is based off of Buddhist vegetarianism. There is no fish or meat throughout the meal.

It was very different having a vegetarian meal on Christmas while most other people were having ham, turkey, goose, duck, or Chinese food. It was also very different stepping into the serene and zen-like surroundings of the restaurant and being separated from the hustle and bustle of the festive holiday season.

Our Christmas Special Menu. I think their square-triangle-circle logo has something to do with the zen buddhist philosophy, but I really don't know as I originally thought it had to do with the buttons on a playstation controller.

GRILLED WALNUT SESAME TOFU with grilled walnut, wasabi, soy sauce. Our first course was very savory. The sesame soy sauce was rich, and the tofu had a strong sesame taste that went well with the grilled walnut. The tofu had a very firm texture. I kept worrying that I was going to break the tofu when I grabbed it with my chopsticks, but my chopsticks wouldn't break through the tofu. The wasabi provided kick but I didn't think it needed it.

VEGETABLE POT-AU-FEU WITH YUZU with rutabaga, cabbage, green pea, kintoki carrot, cherry tomato, yukon gold potato, rice paper, cipollini onion. A truly gorgeous dish. The rice paper on top was a play on the way it looks when the top of a pond turns to ice. The broth was extremely fragrant. All the vegetables had great flavor, but none of them overpowered any of the other vegetables. This dish reminded me of my meal at Blue Hill Stone Barns in how a simple combination of vegetables could provide so much flavor.

(left) GRILLED KABU TURNIP WITH SAKE-KASU SAUCE with tiny turnip and turnip leaf, (right) BUTTERNUT SQUASH AND COUSCOUS CAKE WITH BLACK MISO SAUCE with pine nuts, (top) DAIKON SUSHI with black daikon, watermelon radish, frise, pickled green daikon. There was a lot going on with this dish. The grilled kabu turnip caught me off guard because it was served cold. I had expected something different when the description read "grilled". It was okay, along with the tiny turnip, in that I could feel the freshness but there wasn't much to the taste. The butternut squash and couscous cake was very interesting in that it added a depth of texture to what would otherwise be butternut squash served anywhere else. The daikon sushi was also interesting. The sushi rice had much more vinegar than normal sushi rice, but I guess it made sense in this context with daikon instead of fish. It was crisp and refreshing and worked well with the frise, but I would have preferred to have a hot component on this dish to get some more contrast.

NAMA-FU TEMPURA WITH AZUKI BEAN SAUCE with pumpkin fu and yomogi fu. Namafu is a wheat gluten product like seitan. It's made with some glutinous rice flour, so it has an interesting sticky/gummy/chewy component to the texture. I would say that it's similar to some rice cake textures (the Cantonese sweet year cake comes to mind), and not for everybody. I must say that I was so busy pondering the texture that I really didn't notice the flavor infusions. There is no photo because they had originally brought us this course out of order (it was meant for the people next to us), and by the time it was our turn, I mistakenly thought that I'd already taken a picture of it.

UDON AND TOFU PORRIDGE WITH BLACK TRUFFLE and white mushroom paste. This was the extra course that was special to the Christmas menu.

Uncovering the paper layer revealed a wonderful truffle smell. I liked the tofu and udon textures in this, but I wouldn't call it a porridge. The noodles were thin and soft, but it wasn't really cooked down.

HOUSE-MADE SOBA with leek, grated radish, scallion, horseradish. This was served chilled and the horseradish hits you a little differently than when you normally have wasabi with your chilled soba. The noodles were good, but I still think Matsugen makes my favorite soba noodles in the city.

VEGETABLE HOT POT WITH KIRITANPO with maitake mushrooms, taro, nappa cabbage, nametake mushroom, burdock root, mizuna, mitsuba, rice dumplings. They showed us the whole pot before ladling our individual servings.

The menu read yam noodles, but ours came with rice dumplings which were absolutely amazing. Large rice balls with a slight hint of grilled flavor, they remained robust with great texture even while absorbing the flavors of the magnificent broth. The many ingredients just combined wonderfully to bring out the warmth and earthiness of those mushrooms.

This was the "main course" so to speak, so there was some left over to make sure we filled up.

SNOW BALL MOCHI with strawberry, white bean paste. This was by far the best mochi I've ever had. The texture was not gummy or chewy like what I normally associate with mochi. It was a good clean bite and there were some crispy bits like coconut or rice flakes studded on top. The filling of small strawberry slices and white bean paste had this terrific hint of sweetness that was just right. Not too sweet, no syrupy mouthfeel. It was sweet, but felt very clean and light.

SESAME MILK BRULEE WITH CHOCOLATE NAMA-FU with persimmon paste. I really liked the sesame milk brulee, but that namafu texture was still quite distracting.

CANDIES BY SUETOMI had a nice seasonal design and were once again just right in terms of sweetness.

The candies were to accompany matcha tea, which was being prepared on the spot by the chef using his tea brush in the traditional manner.

Our matcha tea was quite precious actually. There was very little of it, but I love how matcha goes with sweets so it was a nice way to round out the dinner and warm up.

This was quite a meal. The artistry of a kaiseki meal using vegetarian ingredients in a Shojin cuisine style of harmony amongst ingredients. All the vegetables had terrific flavor, and look at how many individual vegetable ingredients went into the entire meal with no repeats! I would very much recommend this place to anyone, especially with its reasonable prices, and I think it definitely deserves its two star accolades.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Happy New Year Michelin Countdown: 3 (food)

As 2011 approaches, many people are remembering the past year or counting down to the new year. This past year has not been one that I really want to remember, so I will not be doing an end of year food wrap up like I did last year. Instead I'm going to be counting down to the new year with Michelin starred restaurants that I've gone to in the last three months. Today, we start with the 3 Michelin stars of Masa.

Masa is without a doubt the most expensive restaurant in NYC, and perhaps all of the US. There is only one option of a set omakase, which was priced at $450 when we visited. The prices change according to season, and supplemental dishes are offered, but I believe $450 is the minimum. Pictures are not allowed, so I can only describe the dishes that I bothered to keep notes on.

Upon entering the restaurant, you are transported away from the big busy Time Warner Center mall to a serene and zen-like environment. The spotlight is on the big sushi counter where chef Masa himself stands with his two itamae at his side. Masa himself looks like a caricature or something out of a manga. An older, thin, bald Japanese man with simple features and a stern look on his face, wearing a white undershirt. He didn't exactly scowl, but I don't recall much of a smile throughout service, although he wasn't serving us directly.

The counter table was made of very high quality blonde wood, and it fit in well with the simple color scheme of the rest of the restaurant. Off to the side were about eight tables in a more dimly lit space. On that night there were only two other customers at one of the tables. The meal usually starts with 6 or 7 small courses followed by sushi and a light dessert.

Our first course was exactly what a starter/amuse should be. Sweet and tart, very refreshing, and definitely whets the appetite.

Not very original, but the California caviar was extremely tasty for American caviar. The tartare, however, I found bland. I'm sure the chopped up toro was of a high quality, but it was almost as if nothing was done to it. I wouldn't have called it tartare, although my guess is it merely served to provide fattiness and texture to carry the caviar.

Although I'm personally not a big fan of raw fugu flesh, this was a well composed dish with good textures. The liver had a good taste to it. The blowfish is of the non-poisonous variety, which is becoming increasingly popular, although it does take away from what makes fugu exotic.

I much prefer fried fugu flesh and enjoyed this very much.

One of his signature dishes, this smelled amazing as it was brought to the table. That being said, I wasn't a big fan of the risotto and I thought the uni flavor was muted. My friend who does not eat sea urchin got a mushroom risotto instead made with three types of mushrooms, and I think I would have enjoyed that much more.

This was a supplemented dish, at $120 per person. Of course this tasted and smelled wonderful, but it's not like the chef really did anything to the ingredients.

A wonderful fragrant broth in which we quickly dipped our three slices of wild yellowtail. The fish was delicious and tasted great warmed up in the broth. After we were done with the fish, they removed the heat and we drank the broth, which now had added sweetness from the fish.

The seafood was definitely of a very high quality, and most of it was flown in from Japan. The pieces were small, and while the rice tasted fine, I thought the grain size was too big for how small the sushi pieces were. While it all tasted good, I didn't find many of the pieces to be significantly superior to sushi at the other top places in NYC. The only one that was truly special was when they shaved white truffle onto the cutting board and rolled the sushi rice in it to create an amazing rice ball.

Overall it was a fantastic meal from start to finish. The flavors definitely fit the fall profile, brightened up on occasion by some lemon, lime, or yuzu. The thing that in my opinion truly separated the chef from other top sushi meals I've had was the progression. I thought the progression of tastes, textures, temperatures, and smells from one course or piece to the next was very well thought out.

There's no denying the quality of the meal, but I'm sure the big question on everyone's mind is whether it was worth the exorbitant cost. For the three of us, with two bottles of Riesling and all of us getting the wagyu supplement, came out to just over $2400 all said and done. I wasn't sure about the exact number because my very generous friend DC took care of the bill. If spending that kind of money on a meal doesn't faze you, then I would say to do it by all means. In fact, there was a couple next to us who seemed to be there on a date. That, however, I would not recommend. While they were trying to talk and get to know each other, chef Masa was practically yelling at them to eat their food while it was fresh on the plate.

For those of us who care about getting value for money, I wouldn't recommend going to Masa over two or more meals at other top sushi places in NYC such as 15 East or Yasuda. Sure, the cooked shrimp especially flown in from Japan was delicious, but was it significantly better than the cooked shrimp Yasuda gets from Mexico? I didn't think it was. Or if you're in the mood for wagyu, I'm sure places like Megu have comparable quality beef as well. There is a genius in his combination of flavor profiles and progression throughout the meal, but I don't think for most of us it's worth more than one visit.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Hong Kong Eats: My Favorite Restaurant (food, HKFall10)

This place has been my favorite Cantonese restaurant for the last 15 or so years even back when it was known as 新兜記, a smallish sized restaurant in Jordan mostly catering to the late night crowd and was cash only. In its current incarnation as 新斗記 (roughly phonetically: Sun Dau Gei), it moved to a much larger, brighter space still in Jordan, and is often packed and sold out of food items early in the night. This was the only place we went to during my short trip to Hong Kong where we said immediately that we had to revisit before I left. The pictures below include dishes from both visits.

I almost always get preserved eggs with ginger when they're available. These were good.

Their barbecued roast meats are supposed to be good, but every time I asked them about roast goose they said they were sold out, including the time we were one of the first tables for the night's service! My guess is they have to be specially pre-ordered for a large group. We did get one soy sauce braised squab to take home. It was meaty and flavorful, but came out a bit salty, probably because it had been soaking in the sauce on the ride home.

Pea shoot leaves cooked in broth (上湯豆苗) was very tender and the dish was filled with vegetables.

The chinese broccoli with ginger juice (薑汁芥蘭) was unique because of what they did with the vegetables. The harder outer layer of the stem was practically all peeled off, leaving essentially the heart of the chinese broccoli, like choy sum (菜心). I guess they really like tender vegetables there.

The soy sauce based stir fried goose intestines (豉油王鵝腸) were good, with that soft crunch (爽) texture that Chinese people really like. There was just a little too much corn starch in the sauce, making it a little too goopy for our tastes, but it wasn't a deal breaker.

The thing that separates this restaurant from others is not its Cantonese dishes, but that it's a place that offers good quality Cantonese dishes along with a fresh seafood collection that's comparable to seafood specialty places right off the water at Sai Kung (西貢) and Lei Yue Mun (鯉魚門). Everything was fresh, alive, and swimming, including a large fish tank of fish, as well as a whole mess of large prawns (花竹蝦), fresh abalone (鮑魚), mantis prawns (賴尿蝦), giant razor clams (大刀蜆/聖子王), and many more.

Giant razor clams sauteed in black bean and pepper sauce (豉椒炒聖子王) was tasty with that perfect clam texture that gives you a bite but tender enough to not be chewy.

A look at the marvellous array of fishes in the fish tank. It's important in Hong Kong for fresh fish to be swimming, whereas in NYC even whole head-on fish put on ice at Greek restaurants is already a big deal.

Look at this behemoth of a fish. That red-orange fish next to it is already a decent sized fish.

The prized catch of the day was this napolean wrasse (蘇眉) which retailed at HK$80/tael, or approximately USD$7.7/ounce. Ours came in at roughly 2.5lbs, and cost about USD$300. The need for fish to be swimming to be considered truly fresh in Hong Kong is a big factor as to these astronomical prices. It's much more perishable than any flash frozen fish, and you only get one chance to cook it right. If you mess up, you can't just go grab another. Another factor in the price for this specific fish species is its scarcity.

Napolean wrasse steamed Cantonese style. This is the preferred method to cook fresh fish in Hong Kong, and brings into focus not only the flavor of the fish but the texture, the preferred texture being a smooth, silky, firm flesh that gives way when you bite into it.

Our super expensive fish opened up. Like I said before, the chef really can't afford to mess this up, so they usually err on the side of undercooking it slightly, and let the customers spoon the hot soy sauce and oil onto it to finish it off. It was delicious and had the perfect texture. The fish's cheeks and lips were also tasty.

For those who do not want to spend a fortune on a fish, the other specialty of the house is the made to order roasted suckling pig. It's not exactly roasted to order, but there is a guy who continuously roasts them throughout the night, so they're probably fresher than roasted suckling pigs you'd get elsewhere. They come in different sized orders with the basic (例牌), quarter pig, half pig, and whole pig. I recommend getting at least half a pig because it's more likely that you'd get a fresh one made to order.

Here's our cute half piggy. There is a good amount of meat left underneath that skin, and it's pretty tasty too, though on one of the occasions we ordered it there were pieces of meat that seemed underseasoned. As the seasoning rub gets applied from the underside, meat closest to the bones had the most salt.

The key part of Chinese style roasted suckling pig is the skin. This skin was extraordinary both times we had it. When they sliced the skin off, notice that they took care to remove the fat as well, so that you can focus on that crisp piece of skin. The genius here is that it's not only a crisp piece of skin, but that it's also begun to puff up, so that it kind of melts in your mouth as well.

Here is the pig roasting master himself. He's important not only to ensure that the pig gets cooked through, but he also continually bastes the pig and pokes holes in the skin with a needle to allow it to aerate and develop that puffed up melty texture. They told me that he roasts up to 30 pigs a night!

Now that the restaurant is much more accessible than it was in its past life, I strongly urge everyone to go give it a try. Even if you only go to have the suckling pig, I think it's worth it. The place does get packed quickly, so if you're also interested in the many seafood options, I suggest you make some reservations and get there early.