Monday, November 30, 2009

Going off the beaten path for udon and tempura in Kyoto

A world’s great cuisine must have a noodle dish. Certainly, the French would realize sooner or later what the Italians, the Chinese and the Japanese have known for centuries. A simple noodle can be sooo satisfying. Of all the different kinds of Japanese noodle, when done right, udon is perhaps my favorite. The right place is usually not going to be in the middle of a touristy area, nor will it need to be expensive. The right place should be a secret, known by locals and guarded from foreigners, unless of course the foreigners have local friends who don’t mind driving them an hour away from the city center into the inner sanctum of the Kyoto suburbs, a place only for those in the know. Right? Wrong! Ok, not exactly.

Our friends know a good udon when they see one. Though hardly a proverbial hole-in-the-wall, they've been coming to Hanamaru for years. Since opening in 2001, Hanamaru has become Japan's largest udon franchise chain. The shop is located at the outskirts of Kyoto, as well as in over 260 other locations throughout Japan. Hanamaru specializes in Sanuki udon - Japan's most famous udon variety known for its chewy texture which originates from Kagawa - originally Sanuki - in the southern part of Japan. The thick, meaty, chewy ropes of dough are soaked in hot broth with a variety of delectable toppings thrown in – poached egg, fresh seaweed, fried bean curd, scallions. Offered with an assortment of tempura on a chilly November day, udon is heaven. The texture of the noodle and the subtle flavorings of the broth set apart the sublime from the ordinary. Bonito shavings, kelp, small dried sardines, and soy sauce are the basic broth bases. Crusty on the outside and soft on the inside, tempura is a perfect accompaniment for dipping into the broth. Deeply flavorful eggs, with rich and gooey orange-colored yolks and silky smooth whites, seem to be commonplace in Japan but not in the States. Floating in the broth or just sitting on top of the noodle, a poached egg provides a perfect textural counter-balance to the crunchiness of the tempura and the chewiness of the noodle. Octopus, mixed veggie, egg, fish cake, winter squash, chicken nugget as well as fried chicken, potato and beef croquette, and on and on – fried in a delicious tempura batter, warm the body and lift the spirit. No wine this time, just the steaming broth.

Mouse-over the slideshow to pause, rewind, or fast-forward.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Meditating Shojin-Ryori at Daitokuji Temple in Kyoto

An hour after arriving to Kyoto, as soon as we drop off our luggage at the Matsubaya Inn ryokan, we head for our first site – Daitokuji Temple. In the city famous for the breathtaking grander of its Zen Buddhist edifices, Daitokuji is quite a modest specimen. Then why?

But of course: Izusen!
This famous shojin-ryori establishment specializes in Zen vegetarian cuisine. Meandering our way through the twists and turns of the temple grounds, only peripherally taking note of the 700 year-old architecture, we finally locate Izusen, and are seated in a tranquil outdoor garden. Two kaiseki-style omakase tasting menus priced together at ~$90 boast a dramatic display of food, parceled into a progression of many small dishes.

Definition: Shojin Ryori
Type of vegetarian cooking introduced into Japan together with Buddhism in the 6th century. Shojin is a Buddhist term that refers to asceticism in pursuit of enlightenment, and ryori means "cooking." In the 13th century, with the advent of the Zen sect of Buddhism, the custom of eating shojin ryori spread. Foods derived from soybeans – especially tofu - and vegetable oils - including sesame and walnut - were popularized in Japan as a result of their use in shojin ryori.

Buddhist monks avoided alcohol, believing that it diminished clarity of consciousness. Right or wrong, to my delight, a glass of plum wine materializes, something of a shock to the Buddhist tradition, and music to my tastebuds. The plum wine is simple, clean, colorless, crisp, with just a touch of residual sugar, in some ways reminding me of halbtrocken Riesling, but with a delicate plum flavor. Just like Riesling, it is versatile, working well as aperitif, as well as with the meal, and as a digestif afterwards. This particular bottle is nothing like the syrupy and overly fruity examples I've tried in the past.

And with this, the parade of food art begins, all dishes delivered and documented in the order shown below to the best of my inspection.

Warm matcha (powdered green tea) and peanut mochi got the juices flowing.

Creamy yuba (tofu skin) and mushroom; seaweed, yuba, sesame

Chips: Japanese maple-leaf rice crackers, lotus root, Japanese yams, deep-fried yuba, and broad beans.

Roasted chestnut, green bean and sticky rice jelly, fried tofu with miso, fresh tofu, marinated mushroom.

Crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside, ume - Asian plum (also known as Japanese apricot and Chinese plum) was simply amazing. Commonly pickled or preserved, here is appears to have been deep-fried fresh in a tempura batter and served hot.

Sesame tofu with wasabe and cucumber. It takes 10 years to learn to make a perfect sesame tofu. Tofu-like in texture and presentation, sesame tofu is actually made of a mixture of pulverized white sesame, water and kuzu ko starch. Sticky, soft, and a little sweet, resting in some sort of salty soy-based sauce, the taste reminded me of savory mochi.

Ume jelly, creamy yuba, sesame tofu, radish noodles, cucumber with wasabe, on a shiso leaf.

Creamy yuba, burrata-like.

Tofu in light glutenous broth with flower blossoms.

Yuba, boiled snow peas, maple leaf rice cake, stuffed fried tofu dumpling, kabocha (Japanese winter squash) in clear broth.

The fried tofu dumpling was filled with mushrooms, carrots, white soy bean, and ground tofu

Steamed yuba roll.

Steamed white rice and tea.

Bonito broth steamed rice with tiny mushrooms.

Mixed tempura consisted of mildly spicy green pepper (that tasted like a padrone), shitake mushroom, kabocha, and crispy rice noodle, which looked like a prawn head.

Light bonito and yuzu broth with tofu.

And for dessert - pear jelly and berry sorbet.

As the divine meal glided to its inevitable end, I meditated upon the wisdom of the ancient Buddhist monks. My first ever complete vegetarian meal – shojin ryori - was an eye-opening gastronomic awakening for all senses – truly a religious experience. I felt one with the tofu! And by the way, the LV bag is not mine.

For your convenience, I've included the full slideshow of the Daitokuji Temple visit. Enjoy!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Experiencing authentic robata-yaki in Tokyo

Shinjuku is a metropolis inside a metropolis. One of the liveliest neighborhoods in Tokyo, Shinjuku grows out of the Shinjuku station - the world’s busiest railway and metro hub. In a neighborhood that pulsates energy 24x7 like no other on earth, Hiro - a friend of a friend, led us to a quiet oasis of a restaurant – Ushi-no Yotare - a traditional robata grill, translated as “around the fireplace”. Hidden away from the hustle and bustle of the street, located in a cozy little space on a third floor of what appeared to be a hole-in-wall entrance, he took us back to an ancient time when a family sat around a sand pit or an irori – a charcoal-fired hearth, glowing coals in the center, grilling humble but sublimely satisfying foods. Historically inexpensive fare of the commoner, in Today’s Tokyo, a meal like this will run you about $80/person to start with, and can easily go up from there. The main ingredient of each dish is harpooned onto a wooden stick with one end tipped toward the hot coals and the other conveniently plunged into the sand. The ingredients are simply finished by the sizzling heat, and then served with umami-rich sauces that accentuate their natural flavors in a ceremony that is best enjoyed in pictures rather than words!

We thought an unfiltered sake - nigori - was appropriate for the meal. To my surprise (and eventual delight) the milky drink that appeared before us was much thicker and stronger than what I'd tried in the States. The inspection of the bottle confirmed 20% alcohol, about 5% higher than a typical sake I am used to. I learned that 20% is actually the norm, while the common 15% sake is actually diluted with water before bottling. Slowly sipping on this potent drink, thick of mushy rice pulp, quite sweet, with strong aroma of fermented rice, we eyed the artful cooking show developing before our eyes.

Mouse-over the slideshow to pause, rewind, or fast-forward.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Japanese style

First I hated sushi. Then I loved it. That was all there was to Japanese food. Then came Iron Chef, and my mind expanded. Last night my palate followed, when it all changed at Mao's gracious hand.

Don't know how, but when I woke up the next morning, I was neither stuffed nor hung over. After multiple courses, and 3.5 bottles of wine shared among 4 friends, I don't know how that was possible. There is something mysterious in the Japanese culture that a rough americanized Russian Jew like myself might never get to see. How lucky am I to have friends who help me unpeel the layers; and slowly the foreign becomes more familiar through an inaugural masterpiece of a first-ever home-cooked Japanese meal.

While sushi does seem to go with sake or beer better than any wine I've tried, Japanese food is so much more than sushi. Elegant, subtle and refined like so many things Japanese, the fresh and savory ingredients with a splash of the right sauce turn into gastronomic delights for those who pause to appreciate the simple sophistication. Granted one meal is just that. But I can't help but draw conclusions. Japanese food reminds me of red Burgundy - light, elegant, and infinitely intense in it's quiet charm.

Not surprisingly, the wines Eric paired with the meal were a Franciacorta (Italian sparkler), a Sancerre, and a red Burgundy - wines that don't scream or punch, but rather whisper and caress.

1. The dinner started with 3 kinds of Onigiri - rather large rice balls: one with salmon filling, another filled with pickled daikon, and the third sprinkled with furikake - bonito and ume (pickled plum). The furikake flavor reminded me of dry-cured jerky-like pork shavings but lighter. Excellent with Ca'del Bosco Franciacorta Cuvee Prestige Brut that tasted of lemon and peach.

2. The onigiri were followed by maguro (tuna) marinated with pickled ginger and wasabi flavored sauce. Usually, in a tuna tartare type dish, I've seen soy sauce and sesame, but here Mao applied a more delicate touch with the tangy wasabi/ginger combo.

3. Then arrived kanpachi (amberjack) and kyuri (cucumber) salad. The sushi-grade fish was sprinkled with a dressing made of shiso/dijon mustard and soy/mirin - a kind of rice wine. Used to dipping sushi in wasabi and soy sauce, I found the mustard and wine flavor in the dressing unexpected, complex, and very flavorful. The dish came just in time for us to open the superb 2002 La Bourgeoise Sancerre from the town of Chavignol in Loire. The oak-aged wine had 7 years to evolve and integrate, now showing beautifully rich and fresh, reminiscent of great examples from Pessac-Leognan in Bordeaux, and as far away from the searing grassy notes of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc as possible.

4. I'd never had a Matsutake mushroom before. Considered an autumn delicacy in Japan, this mushroom is prized for its aroma, although it's nowhere near as pungent as truffles. Sliced about 1/4 inch thick, lightly grilled, served with ponzu (soy vinegar) and yuzu citrus (that tastes like a combo of Meyer lemon and mandarin) topped with daikon-oroshi (grated Japanese radish) and mitsuba (Japanese wild parsley), the mushroom had to be grilled just right in order to showcase its fun squid-like texture and subtle flavor.

5. The absolutely delicious kabocha (Japanese pumpkin - a kind of winter squash) & mushroom soup was lighter and not as sweet as a typical american butternut squash soup.

6. I just couldn't stop eating the Tonkatsu (breaded pork tenderloin), stealing my friends' allocations too. Pork tenderloin was seasoned with nothing but salt and pepper, then breaded and deep-fried, moist on the inside and crisp on the outside, topped with gooey sauce that reminded me of Chinese preserved plums - sweet, sour, and salty all at the same time, and karashi (Japanese mustard) served with shredded cabbage. I was in pig heaven.

The 2006 Marc Roy Gevrey-Chambertin with soft sensuous texture and slightly sweet fruit was disarming with the dish. The village wine was typical of the "softer" 2006 vintage - perhaps the type of red Burgundy one may find by the glass all over Cote D'Or, but therein was its effortless charm that makes me an adherent of the "church" of Burgundy.

And so the meal came to an end. It seems that Russian and Japanese cultures have another thing in common - people are somehow inspired to sing at the end of a good meal. As the cutely juvenile Japanese 80's pop music came to the fore, Mao and I couldn't help ourselves in a spontaneous pseudo-karaoke outburst.

I guess with layers unpeeled and spirits lifted, even the quiet Japanese come out of the woodwork to party. My palate expanded, next week I set foot in Tokyo and Kyoto for the first time ever. How appropriate is the timing of this, as never have I been more inspired to learn about a culture. Watch out, Japan, here comes IronC!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Camembert fondue with red Burgundy

Under the rubric of inspired pairings comes another awesome combo from last night's dinner at 1-star Michelin restaurant in Saratoga - Plumed Horse. Though they feature a cellar full of 20,000 precious bottles, I brought my own - a 1990 Chassagne-Montrachet by Leroy - a wine I had not had, and boy-o-boy this is the type of wine that makes one a believer!

The wine at nearly 20 years of age was absolutely young and fresh, with no signs of brown/orange tint, still with plenty of tannic grip, zingy acidity, and amazing concentration of fruit to stand up to that acidity, and with secondary flavors in full swing, gorgeous now, but easily, in my opinion, lasting another decade in the cellar. Sometimes people wonder what "secondary" flavors in aged wines mean. Think of it like this - normally one tastes cherry, cranberry type flavors in Pinot Noir. But yesterday - I kept asking myself what is that fruit or berry that I am tasting? - and I couldn't quite describe it - the fruit had developed into something greater and more amazing - a pretty butterfly into a magical fairy - that's not just complexity, it's the legend that is Burgundy. Paired with an incredibly decadent fingerling potatoes fried in duck fat, topped with shaved black truffles, with a side of Camembert fondue. How do they come up with this stuff!!!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Aging Barbera

Unclear why anyone would want to drink aged Barbera, a wine grape that is associated with easy quaffing and everyday meals. In the land where Nebbiolo is firmly the king, why mess with that? Let Barbera and Dolcetto play their lowly part in the food chain. Affordable, refreshing, satisfyingly easy drinking table wines. What would the world do without them, no?

But of course someone is always ready to challenge status quo, try to make an eagle out of a sparrow, a Boeing out of a paper plane. Treat Dolcetto like a more serious grape, and you get Dolcetto di Dogliani, deeper, richer, more ageable. Treat Barbera like that, and what do you get?

On Monday, a small group of enthusiasts got together at a Ross Bott tasting in Los Altos to assess 1999-2001 Barberas by La Spinetta. La Spinetta has a "standard" or lower-end Ca' Di Pian wine that costs in the teens, and a higher-end wine that costs $40-50. Having tasted Gaja's 1995 Barbera "Sitorey" earlier this year and having found it a powerful, fresh, and nuanced wine, my expectations were mixed. After all, that was Gaja! Could anyone else approach that effort?

From the mailer by Ross Bott, the organizer:
"Barbera is the third most planted red grape varietal planted in Italy, after Sangiovese and Montepulciano. Although planted in many of the northern Italian provinces, it is at its best in the Piedmonte region area around Asti, where it has DOCG status, Italy's highest classification.

The varietal is naturally high in acid and low in tannins, and, when vinified in a lighter style to be drunk young, is a fine everyday wine to complement pastas and other northern Italian dishes. However, when yields are kept low and the grapes are harvested at riper levels, the resultant wines can be deep, complex and long aging, and marry particularly well with new medium toasted (or charred) oak barrels. Ironically, this approach is a relatively recent phenomenon in Piedmonte. In fact, some of the earliest examples of this approach were in the Shennandoah Valley in California, where Montevina made some great old Special Selection Barberas in the late 1970s -- to my view the most exciting wines ever to come out of the Sierra Foothills.

In 1998, Giuseppe Rivetti began to make a Barbera Superiore under his La Spinetta label, a serious, high-end approach involving old vines, low yields, and aging for 12-18 months in new French oak. Rivetti was born in Argentina, but his family was Piedmontese, and he returned in 1977 to the Asti region, in an area then known for Moscato d'Asti, a fragrant, low alcohol wine made from a varietal in the Muscat family. After producing some landmark examples of this white wine, he ventured into reds in 1985, first with Barbera and later adding Barbarescos and Barolos. He produces three Barberas a year, a Ca' Di Pian which is richer and riper than most Barberas, but sees less oak, a Gallina from a single vineyard which also provides the grapes for his Barbaresco, and a Superiore, which is a reserve bottling from a selection of his best barrels. Both of the latter get extended barrel treatment and are among the three or four best Barberas produced anywhere.

Tonight, we'll try six La Spinetta Barberas, a pair from each of 1999, 2000 and 2001. One member of each pair will be the lightly oaked Ca' Di Pian and the other an example of his highest end Barberas which get extended treatment in new oak."

From what La Spinetta I have tasted, it seems to have a ripe fruity style, perhaps closer to new world than old. On the photos below, the wines are ranked right to left in the order of scores. Easily in our blind tasting, the group ruled that more expensive wines beat out the cheaper ones. Though drinkable, the lower-end ones obviously not built for aging were slightly pickled, dusty, and funky. The higher-end "Superiore" and "Gallina" were in perfectly good shape, maintaining fresh fruit.

While the top 3 wines still "showed" young, it is as if they had artificially been beefed up to last longer, and the age did not give them subtlety, complexity, and secondary flavors that I've seen develop in properly aged ageworthy wines. It seemed rather pointless to me to spend $45 a bottle, then cellar it for 10 years, when in that range one finds some wonderful Nebbiolo and Sangiovese options. While obviously we confirmed Barbera's ageability, I would not call that ageworthiness. It bothered me that the wines lacked finesse and complexity, and the question that firmly stuck in my mind was - "What's the point!???"

Ross Bott tastings present an excellent opportunity to study wines in their various stages of development. And while all of us appreciated the opportunity for intellectual enrichment, at least one of us did greatly enjoy the physical aspect as well - the 17lbs gorgeous Lynx-like Maine Coon cat presiding over the tasting sniffed the wine glasses with all the earnestness of Gary Vaynerchuk's sniffy-sniff!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Dim Sum with Chateauneuf-du-Pape

One of my wine friends had suggested that Chateaneuf-du-Pape goes well with dim sum. Well, obviously that's a generalization because there are so many different dim sum dishes. Practically any small plate of Cantonese food is dim sum, just like tapa in Spanish.
On Sunday, a group of Rona's Chinese friends joined us at Hong Kong Saigon Harbor Restaurant in Sunnyvale - where I was clearly the only Caucasian in the house - always a good sign! The restaurant is named after a seafood district in Hong Kong, called Saigon, and has no relation to the famous city in Vietnam. "Dim sum" means "drink tea" in Cantonese. However, this time - surprise, surprise! - I decided to drink wine. Two bottles - one white Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and one red, both full bodied, ripe, and fruity.

Authentic Chinese restaurants (i.e. those full of native speakers) rarely see wine. Beer and tea are drinks of choice for the vast majority of guests. Which is goodness to me, since most of the time they don't even have a corkage policy, meaning I don't pay corkage!

Waitresses zooming around with carts carrying loads of yummy looking treats, our table quickly was stacked with foods.

We started off the white wine, and it was an ok match, simple and refreshing, but it really didn't do justice to the 2008 Domaine Grand Veneur Chateauneuf-du-Pape blanc - a wine which had tasted quite rich and complex on its own the day before at the tasting at Vineyard Gate. The strong flavors in dim sum seemed to kill any nuance that existed in the wine. I concluded that almost any white wine would do with this food, no need to spend $40 on a Chateauneuf. The combo, however, seemed neither intriguing nor compelling.

I paired the red wine with the funkier, gamier dishes, but in this case it was the 2007 Clos des Brusquieres Chateauneuf-du-Pape that overpowered them with its robust, jammy flavor. Not an unpleasant combo, but hardly an apogee of food-and-wine bliss.

If the wine was not an exciting match to the food, it certainly did not discourage me from going for the more weird and adventurous looking plates, such as red-braised chicken feet, stewed beef tripe with pork blood cubes and stewed pork skin, and sticky rice with salted duck egg and mushroom wrapped in a bamboo leaf.

In the end, neither wine seemed to be a great match for any of the dishes. In the future, my money will be on Pinot Noir instead. Oh, and that's me on the left devouring my first ever pork blood cube... - and living to tell the tale!

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