Monday, November 30, 2009

Nothing Says "Thanksgiving" Like Japanese BBQ and Karaoke

I was prepared to cook something – but not a turkey – for Thanksgiving when I received an e-mail from Gyu Kaku, a Japanese BBQ chain. The e-mail offered 50% off selected beef products for Thanksgiving dinner. I didn't really care about the half-off part, but I thought it would be fun to go there and not worry about cooking and cleaning. (Plus, I knew I was going to work a long day on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and wouldn't have time to go grocery shopping.) It worked out for everyone! Thanksgiving was a great day of walking through NYC, eating, and karaoke!

No, we didn't eat here! This is a sign I saw in the window of a restaurant on 9th Avenue near our place. I like the smiley faces, though.

We walked to Times Square, where our first stop was O'Lunney's. This is our usual Christmas Eve haunt, and we were happy to spend a little time there on Thanksgiving.

It's great to have a seat right at the bar and enjoy a couple of drinks. O'Lunney's is huge, so it never feels crowded, even when there are a lot of patrons.

As a joke, I almost ordered an Old Speckled Hen, but I went with my usual, Harp.

I love the decor at O'Lunney's. I assume these are Tiffany lamps; even if they're not, I still think they're beautiful.

It was late afternoon when we left O'Lunney's, and we decided to walk to Gyu Kaku in the East Village for our 5pm Thanksgiving dinner reservation. Along the way, we snapped photos of Christmas lights – like the ones we saw on an office building on 6th Avenue – and cool buildings.

We walked alongside Bryant Park, which has holiday shops during the Christmas season.

Here's a shot of a cool building near Bryant Park.

After a parade is the best time to walk around New York. There were a few parade attendees milling about, but for the most part Marc and I had the city to ourselves. The streets were still blocked due to the parade route, so we were able to walk down the middle of the street and capture great shots of the city.

Look at how empty the street was! This is in Midtown; we're approaching Macy's.

And here's Macy's, the famed department store in Herald Square. Love the Christmas lights.

We walked up to 5th Avenue, where it was suddenly crowded. Needless to say, we didn't stay on this street too long.

Much better! We were on Madison Avenue when I spotted my new favorite building. I don't love it for its history or architecture . . .

. . . but for its name! This building is named after one of my favorite hobbies.

Midtown is filled with gritty old buildings such as the one pictured in the above photo.

I don't think John Atchison himself likes to walk three flights up this building to go to his own salon.

One thing I love about New York architecture is how cool new buildings are squeezed in between cool old buildings.

Great old buildings are still the best, though.

The ornate designs, red brick and bronze (?) window trimmings give this building personality.

Madison Square Park, which is not near Madison Square Garden. The fall colors look good in this setting.

Marc hates this building because it dwarfs the smaller buildings . . .

. . . like these on 23rd Street. Sadly, the one on the left is abandoned. You'd think that someone would be able to put it to good use.

Okay, the walking tour of NYC is over; now it's time to eat! The grill is ready for beef!

The concept of Gyu Kaku is simple. There is a grill that sits in the middle of the table. You order platters of beef, fish, chicken, and vegetables from the menu, and you cook them on the grill.

This is U.S. Kobe kalbe beef. It's not actual Kobe beef from Japan, but there are beef people here in the States that raise cattle in the same fashion as they do in Kobe.

Marc does a great job with the grilling. The beef is in the center, a medley of mushrooms is on the right, and shrimp is on the left. It takes only a couple of minutes before the beef is cooked; the shrimp and mushrooms need about four minutes. Very convenient.

I also enjoyed a lovely avocado salad that had chunks of tuna in it.

After getting our fill of food, it was off to sing!

Marc and I always do our karaoke-ing (is that a word?) at Karaoke Duet 48. It's a very Japanese spot.

It reminds me of Japan when I'm there because it functions under the same concept of Japanese karaoke: Private rooms.

The hallway is lined on either side by rooms of all sizes to accommodate small or large parties. We were there ahead of our reservation, so the Duet folks gave us a large room, which sounded great.
They use the same books and equipment as the karaoke places in Japan.

Marc sings a good Hootie and the Blowfish.

One of my favorite Okinawan songs"Shimanchu nu Takara," which means "Island people are a treasure." Or something like that. It's by the Okinawan band BEGIN.

I also sang "Monochro Letter" by Yaida Hitomi, who is one of my favorite J-Pop stars.

Even after our Thanksgiving Beef Fest '09, we still had room for a takoyaki snack!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Japanese Cats Make Me Laugh

My love of Japan and cats comes together in two hilarious YouTube videos. First, here's "Wig Cat," a white cat with a patch of black fur right between its ears.

Next, I present to you "Mop Cat," a lazy, fat cat whose owner uses him to – you guessed it – mop the floor.

Thanks to Japan Probe for finding these gems for me.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Vegetarian Maestro in Saveur's Kitchen

Several times in this blog I've mentioned Harris Salat, the food journalist and co-author of Japanese Hot Pots. He holds regular workshops at the test kitchen of Saveur magazine in midtown Manhattan, and a few weeks ago I had the great pleasure to attend Harris's workshop and sake tasting "From Soba to Artichokes: Japanese Vegetarian Cooking with Chef Masato Nishihara." The featured chef for that evening was Masato Nishihara of Kajitsu, an East Village restaurant that serves shojin cuisine. In keeping with the Buddhist rule of not harming a living creature, shojin cuisine is vegetarian cooking that was developed in Zen Buddhist monasteries during the 13th century.

Harris Salat introduces Kajitsu chef Masato Nishihara

Chef Masato Nishihara's homemade soba noodles

Chef Nishihara demonstrated five vegetarian dishes that were healthy, delicious, and surprisingly easy to prepare. The first item on the menu was soba, which Chef Nishihara makes by hand. Now, that part isn't easy – it takes time and skill to do that at home – so it's best to buy soba pre-packaged in a Japanese grocery store. Other than that, our first dish consisted of soba; soba tsuyu, a broth made of kombu dashi, soy sauce, mirin, and brown sugar; and horseradish and green onions to garnish. Simple as that, and delicious to boot.

The remnants of my soba in soba tsuyu

It's amazing how something created with basic ingredients can taste so yummy. My soba didn't last very long in its bowl, especially because it was paired with a great sake.

Joto Sake's Henry Sidel pours our first sake for us

Henry Sidel of Joto Sake was on hand for the sake tasting portion of the evening. Henry founded Joto Sake in 2005 and imports Japanese artisanal sake into the U.S. Henry chose the sake in the tasting to work well with the items on our menu, and he gave us a quick lesson in "Sake 101." The sake he selected for our soba dish was Shichi Hon Yari Junmai from Shiga Prefecture. This sake is made by Tomita Brewery, which is one of the oldest and smallest sake brewing companies in Japan. Remarkably, it was founded in the 1540s and is run by the 15th generation of the family. This is an unfiltered sake, which I recently discovered that I really like.

Next on the menu was a vegetable salad. You can tell by the photo above that this salad contained ingredients that are not exclusive to Japanese cuisine: Eggplant, crimini mushrooms, peppers, snap peas, and cauliflower. The Japanese items – renkon (lotus root), myoga (a relative of ginger), yuzu (a Japanese citrus), and sudachi (another Japanese citrus) – can be found in Asian food stores.

Chef Masato Nishihara discusses the salad in which "humble ingredients rise to a work of art"

It was important for Chef Nishihara to create dishes that contain foods with which we are familiar so we wouldn't feel intimidated. It's simple to prepare American ingredients in a Japanese way. It also shows us that shojin cuisine transcends Japan and can find acceptance with an American audience.

Our salads await us

The vegetables were sauteed in a rice bran oil and added to lettuce, arugula, mixed greens, and peeled grape tomatoes and topped with a dressing made from the aforementioned soba tsuyu with myoga. The simple accents brought out the full flavor of the vegetables to make an excellent salad. Our second sake was a classic ginjo from Ibaraki Prefecture, Watari Bune Junmai Ginjo 55. Taking its name from the type of rice from which it is produced, Watari Bune was founded in 1854. Ginjo sakes are light, fruity, and aromatic, making it the perfect choice to enjoy with a salad.

Our third tasting actually consisted of two dishes: Artichoke teriyaki and fennel with porcini teriyaki. This may sound complicated, but it actually wasn't. Chef Nishihara took a boiled artichoke heart, cut it up, and added it to a soba kaeshi dipping sauce he made with soy sauce, mirin, and sugar. He topped it off with fried fennel leaves.

An Iwatani burner is the perfect vehicle for sauteing vegetables

It was during this section of the tasting that Chef Nishihara described a theory to which my Okinawan mother also subscribes: Use every part of the vegetable (or whatever it is you're cooking) from top to bottom. Nothing is wasted. Chef Nishihara and my mom come from a mountainous country that lacks arable land and that has also known great poverty. To waste a part of a vegetable that is perfectly edible is unthinkable. Therefore, Chef Nishihara uses every portion of the artichokes and fennel in these two recipes.

Harris wields a knife while giving us an impromptu lesson on the proper way to hold a knife when chopping vegetables

Henry continues his "Sake 101" lesson while we wait for our artichokes

Henry chose a sake from Hyogo Prefecture to complement the artichoke and fennel dishes. It was Kasumi Tsuru Yamahai Extra Dry. It worked well with these vegetables because of its earthy notes. Yamahai is a traditional way of making the yeast starter that begins the sake-making process. Henry's description of the yeast starter sounded complicated, so I won't confuse myself by trying to explain it here.

Artichoke teriyaki (left) and fennel with porcini teriyaki

Fennel has never been an essential ingredient to me, but tasting it here with the subtle seasonings from the soba kaeshi made me wonder why I don't have more fennel in my diet.

Chef Nishihara's assistant prepares our final meal

Our final tasting for the evening was soba dumplings. Chef Nishihara mixed soba flour with water in a pot. This seemed arduous because of the thickness of the mixture. He and his assistant used Saran wrap and rapidly fashioned the mixture into balls, dropping them into a pot of canola oil heated to 350 degrees.

Soba dumpling with grated daikon and green onion

The "deep-fried" description of this recipe probably renders this dish unhealthy, but it was delicious nonetheless. Our sake for this dish was Yuki No Bosha Akita Komachi Daiginjo from Akita Prefecture. Akita Komachi, the rice with which this sake is made, is native to this area in the cold north country of Japan. Like all of the sake we tasted that evening, Yuki No Bosha is served chilled, but Henry also served this one to us heated, just for taste. The sake cup on the upper left of the picture above is the kind that is used during competitions. The bull's eye allows judges to see the color of the sake.

This was an amazing event, and I learned a great deal at the Saveur kitchen. Vegetables, when prepared the right way and with the right seasonings, can be quite delicious. If you're interested in Harris's Japanese cooking workshops, check out his website, The Japanese Food Report for details.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Matsuri is a Festival of a Restaurant

One of my favorite Japanese restaurants in New York City is Matsuri, which is located in the Maritime Hotel on 16th Street and 9th Avenue. Matsuri means "festival" in Japanese, and this restaurant is a festival of Japanese cuisine. I love sushi, but I always argue that sushi is not the be-all, end-all when it comes to dishes from Japan. But it is simply marvelous at Matsuri. The sushi here is always fresh and succulent. A host of excellent appetizers such as mushrooms cooked in paper and agedashi tofu (pictured below) round out a delicious meal.

The mushroom dish is in the background. I assume the paper is washi, but I can't say for sure. What I can say is that this is an excellent appetizer. Who knew mushrooms could be so flavorful? Agedashi tofu is fried tofu soaked in a broth of dashi (the basic staple of Japanese cooking), mirin (a rice wine also frequently used in cooking Japanese dishes), and soy sauce and topped with negi (Japanese green onions). The eggplant adorning the tofu was as tender and perfectly seasoned as it gets.

We also had an order of tsukune, which is chicken meatballs on skewers grilled in the style of yakitori chicken. The tsukune at Matsuri seemed to have a different sauce from other places, or perhaps it was the same sauce but thicker.

As always, the beverages were flowing. Above are beer (Asahi, of course), water and sake.

The decor is a feast for the eyes. It's a trendy but tasteful blend of traditional Japan in a contemporary setting. Spacious yet cozy, the dark lighting and furniture provide a relaxed atmosphere.

We could see the sushi bar from our table. I wonder if the guy on the left is executive chef Tadashi Ono. I've mentioned him in previous posts. He's the co-author, along with Harris Salat, of Japanese Hot Pots. I'm systematically trying all of the recipes in the book. A few weeks ago, the beef sukiyaki was a wild success, and last weekend's mushroom hot pot was also scrumptious. I'll have a blog post about that soon.

Here's a view of the massive lanterns hanging from Matsuri's ceiling. Aside from the dark wood, it might be my favorite part of the decor.

Even though the restaurant is dark, there is plenty of mood lighting. The best time to go is later in the evening when not many customers are there. We felt as if we had the entire place to ourselves.

This room is near the bar at the entrance upstairs. We've actually never sat there, but it looks nice and a little more private than the community bench that runs through the center of the main dining room.

I love the cushioned stools. All of the little details make Matsuri a festival of traditional yet modern space and traditional yet modern food.