Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Sweet Summer Umami at 15 East (food)

Usually when I think of the best sushi, I think of the winter season and unctuous, fatty, well-marbled fish. A recent visit to 15 East, however, presented a gorgeous selection of sweet umami, beautifully representing the summer season. Umami is usually defined as a savory taste, but as someone who grew up in Hong Kong with MSG being a normal home cooking additive, I think of umami as purely "enhanced flavor", which includes sweetness as well (鮮甜 in Chinese). To me, it's kind of like how adding salt brings out an extra level of sweetness and flavor in chocolate.

15 East is still a special occasion restaurant for me, and I was actually there for a celebratory birthday dinner. My birthday was in early July, but head chef Masato Shimizu was on vacation for 3 weeks, so we waited until he came back and had the dinner in early August. It was well worth the wait!

One of the things that 15 East is known for is its excellent selection of uni, and that night did not disappoint with uni from Santa Barbara, Hokkaido, and Kyushu.

The night started off with an amuse of simmered tofu with mushroom and okra on top. Simple, light, and refreshing.

Chef was his usual playful self and played along, adding a candle to his signature octopus. Birthday cakes are for amateurs. Real foodies have a birthday octopus. Excellent as always, the octopus was soft yet bouncy in texture, with some smoked sea salt to highlight its flavor.

This is a relatively new dish in his repertoire, matching the sweet and creamy Santa Barbara uni with the slightly more textured yuba, which had a stronger soybean flavor than that of tofu. The wasabi brought it all together and every spoonful was a delight.

I found the raw pieces of abalone a bit too crunchy and hard to my liking. Being Chinese, I strongly prefer my abalone cooked, and especially braised for a long period of time. It didn't really matter because the scene stealer here was the broth, made from the "juice" of the mirugai (geoduck). Incomparably sweet yet with a clean taste of the ocean, this was just pure heavenly essence of sweet summer umami, highlighting the freshness of the abalone.

While often very similar from visit to visit, the sashimi plate does incorporate certain items that are seasonal. This plate featured Spanish bluefin otoro, botan ebi, seared isaki, shima aji, mirugai, marbled sole, and Okinawan sea grapes. This was accompanied by a small bowl of ponzu sauce with the liver of the marbled sole, and freshly grated wasabi. Everything was delicious, although I'm generally not a huge fan of raw flatfish. I found the sea grapes very interesting because of their unique texture. If you leave the shrimp head intact, they will fry it for you after you are done with the sashimi plate.

The summer umami overload continued with a concentrated dashi broth that took the sweet and tender conch meat to new heights. Ayu, or sweetfish, is a must-have staple of the Japanese during the summer months. The sweetness of the fish goes beyond the flesh. You know how when you eat whole grilled mackerel, whether at a Japanese or Korean restaurant, you try very hard to avoid biting into that area with the guts because it's so bitter? Well the liver of the ayu also gives you that punch of bitterness, but it leaves no bitter aftertaste! It reminded me of bitter melon in that way.

We started with beer then sake, as I told chef that "beer before liquor, your knife skills get quicker." The Echigo Koshihikari “Rice Lager” was surprisingly clean in taste, with a nice sweetness that fit the dinner's theme.

Chef said that we needed to have some more conch to go with that sake. The conch was tender and meaty, but once again it was the sweet umami in that simmering liquid that was unforgettable.

The progression of sushi included hiramasa (yellowtail amberjack); tai (snapper) with pickled plum; seared kinmedai (alfonsino, my favorite piece of sushi at 15 East); chutoro (medium fatty bluefin tuna); zuke (some marinated/pickled fish); baby sardines; kisu (whiting) with sudachi; ika (very tender squid) with yuzu; uni (sea urchin) from Santa Barbara (creamy and sweet), Hokkaido (tastes of the ocean), and Kyushu (kind of in between the two); anago (sea eel); and finished off with tamago (egg custard made with shrimp and yam, light like a sponge cake). I don't think I took photos of everything.

I love the soba at 15 East and think its some of the best in the city. The ikura which he cures himself is also excellent and not too salty, with each egg sac popping with flavor.

It was my birthday after all, and I wanted more! So we added a nice chutoro-scallion hand roll.

But this was what I really wanted after I saw someone else getting it. We added an uni-seared scallop hand roll. Sweet, briny, and smoky from the sear. The textures were also amazing, with the creamy uni on top of the seared yet still raw scallop on top of his excellent rice, all brought together by super crispy nori. Just heavenly bites.

Another great thing about 15 East is that their desserts are tasty, thoughtful, and well composed. While many top sushi restaurants will just end the meal with some fresh melon, I much prefer the desserts here. The rice pudding tempura was fun, but what stole the show for me was the mineoka tofu. Call it what you will, but it's essentially milk pudding that's gloriously fresh in taste and hearty in texture. It's a pudding/custard, but had a little grittiness that was wonderful and reminded me of the yuba from earlier. The brown sugar reduction was perfectly sticky sweet and the sesame flavor gave it some pop.

Labor day is upon us, and while summer may be ending, it's probably not too late to get one last taste of the sweet summer umami at 15 East.

15 E 15th St
(between S Union Sq & 5th Ave)
Manhattan, NY 10003

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Anime Recommendation: Baccano! (entertainment, tv, manga/anime)

While we're all waiting for September to bring us the fall tv season, real MLB late season drama, and the start of the NFL season, let's kill some time by watching a truly fun anime. At 16 episodes, Baccano! is something that can be easily finished in one weekend.

Here's a reminder of the basic criteria that I have used for choosing this recommendation. It's the same as from my last recommendation of the anime Death Note.
1. Something that is easy for newcomers to get into. Minimal self-referencing and tropes.
2. Something that is easily accessible, available in its entirety on Youtube, Amazon Prime, or Hulu.
3. Something that can be finished over the course of a binge weekend or three. Not something with 150 episodes.
4. Something recent, within the last decade or so.
5. Entertaining. You may or may not feel like you want to recommend it to everyone you know, but you won't feel like you wasted your time watching it.

As written on its wikipedia page, "The anime adaptation of Baccano! has received universal critical acclaim." In my mind, this is deservedly so, and Baccano! is not only fun, but also perfectly utilizes the medium of animation in its art direction and the expansiveness of the cast to go beyond TV and movies.

Quick description: The story focuses on a bunch of characters and how their paths cross and lives intersect. The story is told non-linearly, jumping back and forth in time and featuring the different viewpoints of the many characters. The majority of the anime is primarily set in the US during the early 1930s, with the major backdrops being a cross country train and a town with many competing mafia gangs and thugs.

One word review: Fun
Although it doesn't have as much of the witty dialogue, it's essentially Pulp Fiction on steroids. There is more (although animated) gore and there are many more characters, from your standard heroes and villains to comic relief, antiheroes, and just plain psychopaths. It's a chaotic ride, but it's gripping, and while the story jumps around for a while, the pieces do fit together at the end.

Other notes:
1. Because of the non-linear nature of the storytelling, I recommend reading an episode summary after watching each episode to make sure you get all the main bits and pieces.
2. I find the opening theme introducing the characters to be pretty catchy and worth watching.
3. Semi-Spoiler, highlight to read: Although there are 16 episodes in all, the core story pretty much ends at episode 13, with the 3 remaining ones more like an epilogue.
4. I tend to watch anime in the original language with subtitles if possible. You can watch the entire series for free on Hulu, in both the subtitled version with original Japanese voice acting as well as a version dubbed in English. But because of its mature rating, you need to have a Hulu account. If you can't be bothered to create a Hulu account, you can also watch the entire subtitled version for free on Youtube.

Enjoy! Please watch and let me know what you think!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Hakkasan NY: Excellent Chinese Food Worth the Price of Admission (food)

The food at Hakkasan was excellent. But I'll get back to that. When discussing Hakkasan, most of the attention tends to go toward the cost. Some early critics were bewildered by the $888 Japanese abalone with black truffle and the $345 Peking duck with kaluga caviar. But in reality, it is not uncommon for certain single dishes at high end Cantonese restaurants in Asia to cost more than entire 3 Michelin star meals. Depending on the size and quality of the abalone, that price may even be a relative bargain! That's not to say that Hakkasan isn't expensive. As someone born and raised in Hong Kong and well versed in high end Chinese food, I was more appalled by the $3 price tag on the jasmine rice. But then again, that's the price of admission.

The usual retort is "I can eat better for much less in Chinatown/Flushing." But to really put the difference in perspective, let's look at Peking Duck House. They have a midtown location and a downtown location. The prices for both are explicitly listed on their website, and in general the exact same dishes cost about $5-10 more at the midtown location. But you know what? I'd rather pay the premium and eat comfortably in midtown. I'd rather have the elbow room than be packed like sardines in Chinatown. I'd rather be in a space where they can actually carve the duck in front of you and professionally wrap it tableside than barely get a glimpse of the action while having the table overflow with food because it's so small. That's the price of admission.

At its core, the cooking at Hakkasan is Southern Chinese/Cantonese in origin. There are also some fusion-y touches to some of the items, and they have a nice dessert selection one is very unlikely to encounter in Chinatown/Flushing. The thing about Cantonese cuisine, though, is that it's probably more about enhancing the umami of the core ingredients than any other Chinese cuisine. Even though the difference can be subtle even to an experienced palate, the importance of ingredients is magnified in Cantonese cooking. You get what you pay for, and I just can't imagine that the places in Chinatown/Flushing are using better ingredients than the ones at Hakkasan.

We started with two of the dim sum platters. While Hakkasan has excellent Chinese food for NYC, there are still flaws and it's not really comparable to the better places in Hong Kong. The dim sum were a bit too large and not as delicate as I would have liked. The skins were also a bit too thick for my preference, and a lot of the textures were too repetitive to be put together in one platter. That being said, the quality of the fillings was excellent and there were some interesting combinations in the vegetarian platter.

I tend to find lettuce wraps serviceable but never amazing. This one was no different, although it was interesting how the mushrooms and nuts managed to anchor the savory flavors without meat. Although many would frown on serving just the very tiny delicate hearts of the lettuce (instead of something that can really be wrapped), I found it a nice touch of detail and a good reminder of the quality of the ingredient you're paying for.

Our first main of sea prawns was excellent, with sizeable crustaceans and great texture complements in lotus root, mushrooms, and scallions. The presentation could have been better, as it needed more bright colors and there were actually a good number of prawns hidden within the stir fry.

For our meat entrees, we had two duck dishes that came highly recommended by friends. The pipa duck, named after the Chinese musical instrument that the duck resembles as it hangs, is a traditional preparation where the duck is boned and butterflied before roasting to maximize crispiness. The skin was indeed some of the crispiest I've had, and reminded me of really good Cantonese style crispy skinned chicken. Similar to the way Chinese roast suckling pig is served, the meat was more of an afterthought, and the dish came with a sweet sauce for dipping. The black truffle duck seemed at first to just be roast duck that you would get at a Chinese BBQ/roasted meats place served with a clear truffle sauce and shavings of truffle. The truffle flavor, however, managed to attach itself to the meat, which was well seasoned and pretty tender for duck cooked well-done. The aroma was wonderful and the sauce carried the flavor well. If they used truffle oil, I would like to know which brand as it did not have that overly pungent artificial smell to it that I usually associate with truffle oils.

We also ordered two vegetable entrees to round out the meal for the 3 of us. The stir fry was cooked well, with each vegetable retaining its freshness amid a medley of crispy and crunchy textures. I thought the claypot was stellar. The aubergine still retained some crispness and was not oily at all, which is something that happens easily to eggplant, and pointed to deft cookery and good attention to detail. The sauce was deliciously savory and just coated all of the tofu, which was firm yet silky, with a full texture similar to egg tofu.

Individual components of the black sesame dessert were fine, but it just didn't come together for me as the black sesame and yuzu flavors were both very assertive in their own ways. The exotic fruit platter, however, was a showstopper. It was gorgeous and filled with large helpings of fruit, including exotic items such as dragonfruit, rambutan, and white currants.

The kitchen is huge, which makes sense since the space is about 11,000 square feet.

We enjoyed the meal, which was made better by the excellent service. We were seated at a large comfortable round table with a banquette to one side and our own dangling light. A couple of us were running almost half an hour late, and the server kept our lone waiting diner company. The decor is chic and while the clubby music wasn't my thing, it wasn't loud and didn't interfere with dinner.

Overall, I thought there was skillful cooking and excellent ingredients at Hakkasan. It's expensive, but the prices have come down a bit from when they opened and I feel the food compares favorably to familiar "upper east side" Asian restaurants such as Tao, Shun Lee, Mr. K, Mr. Chow, etc. that are at a similar price point. I just don't see why some people think it's ok to spend $17 for fried rice at Mission Chinese but consider Hakkasan overpriced. I'm just glad there's a high quality Chinese restaurant in NYC featuring great ingredients that focuses on the subtleties of Cantonese cooking as opposed to the in-your-face flavors of Mission Chinese or the numbing qualities of Sichuan food that people seem to rave about these days.

Hakkasan NY
311 W 43rd St
(between 9th Ave & 8th Ave)
New York, NY 10036