The lightest meal ever

Esaki delivered a meal after which I felt like I could go for an intense workout if I wanted. And not because I was feeling guilty about all the calories I just consumed, but because the meal was so light, my body could handle a workout immediately after a multi-course meal.

Whenever I’ve had multi-course French meals, I feel like the chef is slowly bending me into submission with fat, salt and yummy meats. This meal was a study in the opposite direction — how to coax the most amount of flavor out of the ingredients while minimally touching them and keeping the whole thing light. Even though the preparations look simple, it takes true skill to accomplish this feat.

The menu for the day, next to a single flower that decorated the dining room. We had a private dining space, and the staff kept on slightly opening the door to monitor our progress. It was kind of funny how they tried to be inconspicuous.

IMG_0071First dish: Sauteed asparagus, wilted greens, sazae (a kind of sea snail) in abalone-liver sauce. I’m normally wary of the bitter taste of shellfish liver, but the sauce was balanced by sesame and tasted more savory than bitter.

IMG_0074Sashimi course: Catch of the day (a kind of sea bass). The truly innovative part of this dish was the assortment of string vegetables on the side. Usually sashimi is served with daikon radish cut into thin strips, but Esaki updated that with cucumbers, myoga (a flower that tastes like a red onion) and daikon. It gave the dish an extra punch that was most welcome. As with most of the meal, I became more interested in the vegetables rather than the meats.

IMG_0081Soup: This might be one of the most intriguing soups I’ve ever had. The waitress explained to us that it’s a concentrated version of Ayu (a freshwater fish eaten during summer) where the whole fish goes into the mix. Guts, flesh, head bones and all. This gets triturated into a creamy soup that tasted like concentrated fish. It was borderline salty, but delivered various notes of fish along the way (first salty, then bitter from the guts and finally a touch of sweet). The garnish were fried ayu scales in sesame oil with parsley puree.

IMG_0084Main dish: Steamed sea bass with seasonal vegetables in a fresh green sauce. Again, the fish was well cooked but forgettable for me. What was really interesting were the slow-roasted carrots, the melt-in-your-mouth roasted radishes and crunchy snap peas.

IMG_0085Traditional Japanese meals end with rice and miso soup. The rice was cooked in dashi, and the miso soup was the chef’s own blend of various miso pastes, which tasted borderline salty but quite delicious. 

IMG_0089The dessert was a bit unusual, and more like a “fusion” dish. The outside was a just-baked custard, with a center of sweetened red bean paste. When the dish arrived, I thought that the three lonely pine nuts on top looked out of place, but they totally made the dish, integrating the rest of the ingredients.

IMG_0090Tea service: This was my least favorite part of the meal. Esaki has their own blend of herbal tea, for which they dry and reconstitute 10 plus plants. It includes myoga (red-onion like flower), burdock root, shiso and many other things. It tasted like licorice to me, and not too good (but probably good for your body).

3-39-9 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo.

My dinner

This time the pressure was on.

I’ve cooked elaborate dinners for friends before. I’ve made a a ten-course meal for which I prepped for three days. I labored over a Weber Kettle barbecue for eight hours, slowly smoking a pork shoulder. I took two days to reproduce one of Pierre Herme’s most complicated cakes and I have wasted hundreds of egg whites trying to perfect macarons.

What I had never done before was to create my own recipes. This meal would be different, it would be my flavors.

I decided early on to structure every dish around a concept and use that as my guiding principle.

The menu:

Reinvention — vanilla/mint marshmallow, liquid sea urchin

Ocean — oysters, dashi jelly, dashi bubbles, wakame

Hawaii — Lobster, passion fruit, mango, avocado, jicama

Comfort — Lobster consomee

Forest — short ribs, various mushrooms, junipers, eucalyptus, fennel

PB & J — Banana, peanuts, grapes

Chile — Chocolate, lavender, cream

And now with a bit more details:

The first time I cooked an elaborate dinner for friends, I made a recipe from Alinea’s cookbook. It consisted of sea urchin encased in a sweet and savory mint/vanilla gelee topped with a mint leaf, jalapeno slice and grain of salt. To this day, everyone remembers that dish; the waves of flavor, the unexpected combination, the sensuality of the sea urchin.

I thought it would be fun to start the meal with the same dish, but rework it so nobody could figure out what it was. I turned the gelee into a fluffy marshmallow and filled it with sea urchin pushed through a strainer, jalapeno and mint. How did it turn out? Don’t bother with my adaptation and stick with Alinea’s version. Whipping air into the thing diluted the flavors and the combo just didn’t work.

How could i make an oyster taste even more like the ocean? With kelp broth and wakame, which adds a smoky version of the ocean to the mouthful. To complete the illusion, I whipped dashi bubbles and hid the oyster underneath to make it seem like the whitewash of a wave.

Underneath the oyster I put a layer of konbu dashi gel set with agar, run through a blender, and seasoned with soy sauce and lemon juice. The bubbles are made with the same dashi, whipped with egg white powder and xantham gum.

Not all ingredients here are from hawaii, but I had something similar when I visited. This is one of those combinations of flavors that I just love.

The oyster is dressed in passion fruit dressing, topped with avocado, mango, cilantro and jicama.

This was a last minute addition to the menu but I thought it would be a waste not to use all the lobster shells. I intensified the broth with ground shrimp and served it simply with a squeeze of lemon. I forgot to take a picture of this one but it was just a bowl of orange broth.

The original broth was made with lobster shells and aromatics. I then cleared it with a draft made of shrimp, egg whites and more veggies.

This was the most complex of the dishes, requiring numerous steps. My absolute favorites were the juniper-pickled enoki and the eucalyptus potatoes. In fact, I may start looking into other ways of infusing potatoes because they almost outshone the meat as the star on the plate. Picture credit goes to Tom.

The potatoes were cooked with eucalyptus leaves and then browned in eucalyptus-infused butter. The short ribs were cooked sous-vide for 5 hours at 180F with beef stock and juniper berries. I reduced the same stock with more junipers, added molasses, sherry vinegar and butter to make a sauce. The fennel puree is fennel cooked with chicken stock and pushed through a strainer after the blender. The mushrooms are sauteed chanterelles, quickly-pickled enoki and dried morels. Half the morels were hydrated and half turned into powder which was dusted over the whole plate.

PB & J
I’ve tried to rework this combination before and I finally hit a version that works. The liquid banana is encased inside grape jelly and the grounds are made of a peanut butter cookie. Sorry I don’t have a better picture.

These flavors may not scream Chile, but last time I was there I visited a lovely tea house in the southern part of the country surrounded by lavender bushes and a gorgeous view of Lake Llanquihue. I brought with me some culinary lavender and I knew I wanted to use it. I made the pot de cremes with dark chocolate and almond milk so it wouldn’t be too heavy and infused the cream with lavender before whipping it.

The verdict? I am happy with the meal. It was much more challenging than whatever else I’ve made before, and some of the recipes still need tweaking. A great start though.

Salmon of mirrors

The coat is full-length, made of real fur, and it comes with a matching hat, Russian-style. It’s in  the style of those small hats that fit snuggly, and that are worn by every hot Russian spy in a James Bond movie. The make-up is extremely heavy. She has removed all her eyebrows, and drawn them back in a perfect arch with make-up pens. Her lips are of an intense red color that match the generous amount of blush that sits on top of an even more generous coat of foundation, and the eye-shadow is in a light shade of blue.

She looks oddly fashionable, but she must be at least 75, if not well into her 80s. Her looks radiate an old sense of fashion — fur, short hair dressed at a salon that seems to defy gravity, heavy make up, and a sense of entitlement.

“Cut it real thin. That’s it, that’s how I like it. Only here they do it the right way!” She talks with a slightly accented English.

I look at her in amazement, wondering if I’ve stepped into a New York from the 1950s. I also wonder if this what my grandmother would be like if she had migrated to the United States instead of Chile.

The Honduran man behind the counter runs his knife against the steel forth and back until he’s satisfied with the edge. He then removes from the display window a giant slab of smoked salmon from Nova Scotia, and starts cutting razor-thin slices off the fish. He carefully arranges them against a sheet of waxed paper, and cuts exactly 100 grams of thinly-sliced, premium smoked salmon.

There is a faint smell of smoke in the store, and I start wondering up and down the refrigerated display, admiring the bounty on offer: several kinds of smoked salmon (Scottish, Canadian, American and Chilean), smoked herring, preserved sardines, gefullte fisch, chicken-liver paste, and a generous selection of caviar from Russia and the United States. On the other side of the store, chocolates, rugelach, jars of capers and pickles, as well as bagels.

I can see the old lady is starting to salivate for her smoked salmon. She’s pursing her lips, and her tongue makes an occasional appearance, liking her lips in anticipation.

“Nobody cuts it like him. He’s just the best.”

The guy from Honduras continues to slice the salmon for her, but I can detect a faint smile on his face. The rest of the staff are openly smiling, and I can tell this is not the first time this scene has taken place. The old lady is a regular I am told, after she leaves, and goes through the same routine every time she visits. They are used to her patronizing attitude (she speaks to them as if they were children), but find her ways amusing in some strange sort of way.

Technically, I am not Jewish. My grandmother on my father’s side is Jewish, but since Judaism is traced through the mother’s line, I ended up outside the lineage. At any rate, my grandmother has always been an extremely secular jew, and I was raised in a Christian environment.

My grandmother, however, would sometimes try to remind me of my Jewish heritage. Every year, without fail, she would bring me flyers explaining the meaning of Yom Kippur and the Sabbath, yet we would always celebrate Christmas and never the Jewish holidays. I would listen to her stories growing up in Austria of the 1930s, what it was like to be a young Jew when Nazism was on the rise, and the amazing tale of how she and her family made it out of Europe. And we would occasionally eat foods that only now I recognize as coming from her Jewish repertoire — smoked fish, various beetroot preparations, fruit soups, and rugelach. But there was also bacon, smoked sausages and pate in our life.

As I look at the old lady ordering from the counter, I start placing her accent somewhere in Central/Eastern Europe. Poland maybe? Hungary?

The smoked fish is expensive, but i get a smoked salmon sandwich thinking of my grandmother. In another life, they would have migrated to the United States instead of Chile,  the lady with the fur coat could have been my grandmother, haggling over smoked fish, and I’d be another another confused Jew in New York. But with bacon.


The store was Russ & Daughters, at 179 East Houston, New York. 212-475-4880.

The best food comes from a truck

If I had one complaint about eating from trucks during my visit to Austin, TX, it is that these places assume you have a car. I know that the only reason why I’m getting such a good deal is because they don’t pay a lot of rent, and you eat in a parking lot, but since I didn’t have a car, I had to walk under the sun along insipid highways in search of their trucks.

But it was worth it. Oh, so worth it.

Eating from a truck in Austin is awesome — you get super-high-quality stuff, for a fraction of what it would cost at a sit-down restaurant.

If there was one unifying theme to my truck meals, it was smoke. The Odd Duck Farm trailer grills everything on hardwood, and just by the fumes coming off the chimney, I knew I was in for a treat. The pork belly sandwich was exactly as advertised — a huge chunk of fatty pork belly that was char-grilled at the last moment over an open flame…mmm. The monster sandwich came with a pickle to cut through all the fat. I also ordered a cold dish of buttermilk-poached chicken breast, with grilled rappini, and pine nuts. I was impressed at how moist the chicken was, and the rappini definitely can take some smoke.

I thought it was all over…I mean, who would want to eat more fat after chowing down on a massive pork-belly sandwich. But, as luck would have it, the truck next door specialized in made-to-order doughnuts. The menu definitely had a thing for pork, because I saw several recipes with caramelized bacon on them. In an attempt at healthy eating (ha!), I ordered the one doughnut that came with fresh fruit — a strawberry doughnut with cream cheese frosting.

The doughnut itself was a wonder to eat; crisp on the outside, fluffy and warm inside, with gooey cream cheese frosting, and token pieces of fruit. There goes my attempt at health.

The following day, I walked along a different highway to find Franklin’s barbecue.

I immediately knew I was in for a treat when they started carving a massive piece of brisket, and the guy just handed me over a chunk of meat to tease me. I was in brisket heaven. Behind the serving trailer, they have a second trailer where they slowly smoke and bake brisket and ribs. The ribs were good, but go for the brisket. It is fork-tender, juicy to the point of ridiculous, and so flavorful, you wonder what the hell happened to all the other meat you’ve eaten before. They have sauces, which are pretty good, but I was happy to just eat the damn thing…I thought there’d be leftovers, but no, there weren’t any.

At least I walked.

Strictly for adults — tobacco ice cream

A couple of my friends smoke loose tobacco, and that is how I found my way for the first time to Leavitt & Peirce — a tobacco and toiletry specialist store right outside the university. My first thought is that this store is frozen in time; my grandfather would have recognized all the shaving tools they carry. The pipe section was exactly what I imagined colonial officers would have killed for one hundred years ago, and the whole store exudes an old-school feel.

My second thought was that the loose tobacco they carry smells wonderful. This is nothing like Marlboro or Camel. This stuff is really aromatic, and I got lost taking sniffs here and there from glass bell jars packed with different kinds. And that’s when it hit me — how could I cook with this? I tried googling recipes, without much luck. I mostly found posts of people who had tried, but failed. They complained about it being too bitter, or were worried about turning their food toxic.

My impulse was that tobacco would go well with cream. I imagined steeping tobacco leaves in cream, and carrying the flavor that way. I thought about making a tobacco-cream sauce to go with steak (I might go back to this in the future), tobacco ganache to act as a filling in chocolate truffles, or ice-cream.

“I am planning to make ice cream with tobacco, and wanted your help,” I said to the store attendant.

She was taken back, but jumped right back in. Apparently I was the first person ever to make that request, and she was genuinely excited to help me find something that would work.

“I am worried about the flavor being too strong, and I also want something that is not chemically treated — just tobacco.”

“We only carry natural tobacco, so you don’t need to worry about nasty chemicals,” she said. “How about you try this one?”

She guided me to a very mild, full-leaf pipe tobacco called “Natural Caucadis.” It was aromatic, but wasn’t as pungent as some of the other varieties. I bought an ounce, and walked out a happy-camper. As I was paying, the store attendant informed everyone within earshot what I was planning to do, and I got some excited looks as well as not-so-encouraging looks that wished I wouldn’t succeed.

My next step was to figure out the proportions. I remembered seeing something about tobacco in Heston Blumenthal’s “The Fat Duck,” but the recipe he offers calls for putting tobacco and coconut in a box next to each other, and let it infuse for a month. Not that helpful. I then turned to Grant Achatz’s “Alinea,” where I found a recipe for blackberries with tobacco cream. After adjusting for measurements, I figured that 4 grams would be enough to infuse the recipe below.

It was way too much. The ice cream picked up a spicy kick from the tobacco, and it was spicy in an over-powering way. The spicy also found its way to your throat, making it just not nice. I tried next with 2.5 grams, and this time it worked exactly like I hoped. The ice cream is initially sweet, and tastes like vanilla, but then it hits you. The tobacco takes about 5-8 seconds to come out, and leaves a slightly spicy and tingling feeling on the tongue, together with a bit of smokiness. The recipe yields a dense, creamy ice cream, which I think works better so that the tobacco flavor takes time to develop on the palate. I imagine that cutting back on the cream, and increasing the milk would lead to an ice cream where the flavor hits you faster.

The ice cream also picks up the nicotine, I think. I don’t smoke, but felt a bit of a rush after having a helping, and a smoker friend commented that he would normally feel like a smoke after a meal, but he didn’t. Don’t eat more than one serving at once!

Tobacco Ice cream
(recipe loosely based out of Sherry Yard’s ice cream recipe in “The Secrets of Baking”)
Makes 3 cups, or enough for 6-8 servings

357g heavy cream (1.5 cups)
120g milk (0.5 cups)
100g sugar (0.5 cups)
4 yolks
2.5g loose full-leaf tobacco (get a mild tobacco, and one that has no other chemicals applied to it. You could also break a cigar)
0.75 teaspoon vanilla paste (substitute equal amount of vanilla essence, or the seeds of half a vanilla bean).

Bring to a simmer the cream, milk, vanilla and tobacco over a medium flame. Turn off the heat, cover with a plastic film to prevent a top-layer from forming and steep for 10-15 minutes (depending on the strength of the tobacco you use, I would recommend that you start tasting it at the 8 minute mark to make sure it doesn’t get too strong). Strain with a fine-mesh strainer.

Whisk the yolks with the sugar and salt, making sure you do it quickly so the sugar doesn’t coagulate the yolks (i.e., don’t let the yolks sit on the sugar). Ladle half a cup of the cream mixture while whisking to the yolks to heat them up. Combine the whole thing. Pour it on a saucepan (non-stick works best, methinks), and heat it up over a small flame while constantly stirring, until the mixture reaches 170F (if you don’t have a thermometer, this is when it thickens up some, and if you run your finger down the spatula, it will leave a trail).

Pour the mixture through a strainer into a bowl set over an ice-bath. Stir it once in a while until the mixture cools down to 40F. Churn according to the instructions of your ice-cream machine.

You might have to play around with the tobacco you buy to get the exact proportions. I think 2 grams is a safe place to start, and you can move up or down from there.

(Pictures: The tobacco, cooking the custard, steeping the tobacco, and a serving of tobacco ice cream with buche de noel)

Almost ramen

“You couldn’t have done that?”

“Why not? It was all they had available.”

“But, but…it’s not ramen then!”

Backtrack a day, and I’m standing at my local Korean/Japanese grocery store.

“I’m looking for fresh ramen noodles.”

The shop assistant walks me over to the freezer, and pulls out a bag of frozen ramen, complete with frozen soup and all the fixings. The price? 6.99 for one portion.

“This is not what I’m looking for. I just want fresh noodles.”

“But why don’t you take these? I love shio-ramen…just add some hot water and dinner is ready!”

“I’m planning to make my own soup. I just want the noodles.”

She stares back at me with a puzzled face. I spot disbelief in her eyes. After all, how many people attempt to make ramen stock at home? I decide that showing off is the only way to go here.

“Yes, I’ll make the soup with konbu, shiitake mushrooms, pork and chicken bones and some vegetables.”

She continues to look at me in disbelief, but finally offers a kind word:

“I hear that some soups benefit from a handful of niboshi (dried sardines).”

Turns out they don’t have fresh ramen noodles, which sucks because I was preparing for a noodle cook-off. “A” challenged me a while back to outdo her mom’s recipe for Vietnamese pho. I have never made noodles before, but in an act of bravado I decided that making this soup couldn’t be so different than making chicken stock, and I took the challenge.

Making the soup wasn’t so difficult — it just takes a long time. All in all, the pot bubbled for some odd nine hours before a clear basic broth was ready. I seasoned it with tare to turn it into shoyu-ramen (soy sauce ramen), which is one of the most basic and classic preparations. Then came all the fixings. I’m a big fan of ramen eggs, and found Chubby-hubby’s recipe to make them (thanks!). For the rest of the fixings, I roasted pork belly and sliced it thin, cooked a pork shoulder sous-vide and tore it into strands, rehydrated some wakame, sliced a bunch of scallions and bought pre-cut nori.

But the noodle question still lingered.

“You used Korean somen? What the hell? It doesn’t taste like ramen,” said “C”.

I obviously didn’t pass the ultimate authenticity test. In my desperation to find ramen noodles, the next best thing I found were fresh Korean somen noodles, which are a completely different thing.

Not perfect ramen, but almost ramen.

My pork-shoyu ramen

A’s Vietnamese Pho (which was damn delicious)


I wanted to test myself.

I cook all the time foods that I more or less know how to do.

This time it would be different. I would cook out of hard-core cookbooks, with techniques I didn’t know.

I would also cook like a restaurant — prepare things ahead of time, and then finish them up at the last moment.

And I would make many courses. Ten to be precise.

The theme? End of summer, beginning of fall.

The cookbooks? The French Laundry and Alinea.

The time it takes one to prepare all of this? Two days.

The menu (the pictures are blurry because we lowered the lights way too much in the dinning room):

first four coursesAmuse bouche: Crispy tuiles with whipped creme fraiche and salmon tartare (French Laundry)
First course: Chicken with shallots and cider in a maple skewer (Alinea — the original recipe is with pheasant, but that was too expensive).
Second course: Duck breast, pumpkin soup, banana and lots of garnishes (Alinea)
Third course: Mullet with macadamia nut gazpacho (this is the only course that did not come from one of the books)

second setFourth course: Cherry tomatoes, tomato coulis, tomato ice cream and galic tuile (French laundry)
Fifth course: Oysters and Pearls (French Laundry, and with a cheaper caviar than osetra)
Sixth course (palate cleanser): Pear, eucalyptus, mint (Alinea)
Seventh course: Pork two ways, corn bread pudding, sage, honey (Alinea)

Desktop2Dessert 1: Liquid caramel popcorn (Alinea)
Dessert 2: Rhubarb, fennel, strawberry, orange, mascarpone ice cream (French Laundry)

My thoughts?

The work was worth it. If I could go back, I’d remove the fish course. The liquid popcorn tasted awesome. I loved the crispy fried chicken and cider dish. The pear thing was a flavor combination that hits you out of left field.

Some of the comments by the diners:

“Liquid popcorn is such a homer dish…can’t be bothered to chew”
“agh, agh, agh (upon trying the pear and eucalyptus dish”
“pork is a delicious beast”

I’ll write more detailed posts later about some of the recipes, and my thoughts.