Friday, November 20, 2009

Minestrone and Baked Apples

From winter 2006 in New York

Renee is a college friend of mine, a rare one I have kept in touch with even through my more recent tumultuous and less proud moments. We are also the only two people I know in our age group and ambition proudly supporting 718 as the area code of choice for our cellular phones, representing our adopted home boroughs of Brooklyn (her; she is cooler) and Queens (me). We meet up maybe once a month in irregular intervals to catch up and for me to tell her things I don’t care to share with anyone else.

I don't have many female friends. Truth be told, I don't have many friends to start with. Since my job more than fulfills the casual socialization requirement part of a standard social life, I have a few people very close to me to whom I go, infrequently but consistently, for the most serious things in life. Then again, maybe this is just an excuse; maybe I just don't have many friends. Period. Whatever the reason for my loner status, Renee is one of such few friends I have who happens to be female, making her an even rarer breed.

One of my fondest memories of Renee is when she got hit by a truck. Let me rephrase this, since the sentence invites a horrible misunderstanding. Or rather, let me recount the story of a freezer in Brooklyn packed full of minestrone in winter of 2006 and very drunken apples that nearly killed my friend who survived a car accident.

Accidents involving pedestrians getting hurt by automobiles is a scary and every-day occurrence in New York City. Everyone here knows someone who has gotten into a serious car-related accident while walking in the City. Renee was able to avoid the worst. Diving into the sidewalk as a semi blindly trudged on was a smart move on her part; she escaped with a broken foot after this traumatizing experience. I nearly wrote "only with a broken foot" and decided not to, because having a broken foot, as I learned from her, is not an insignificant inconvenience, especially when it comes to one's love life.

Renee was house-bound in her Carroll Gardens first floor apartment for a good month. As her cast became smaller and lighter, we ventured out again. I remember fully using her handicap as a persuasive prop to snatch a table at the ever-so-full Spotted Pig in the Village. I also think that the mini skirt she had to wear to best accommodate her cast in the middle of winter helped with the gentleman at the host station. But months before this, she was literally house-bound. And I cannot imagine how lonely and miserable that might be in a gloomy New York winter, away from the Christmas lights and decorated show windows. And so I decided to ride the F train from Queens, through Manhattan and all the way to Brooklyn to cook for her.

Cooking with and for Renee has always been fun. She enjoys food without pretension and with style. For her it's not just about the food, but also the occasion and how it is presented. My goal that day was to bring some sign of comfort and safety in the form of a meal. I decided to cook minestrone.

And I cooked a lot of it.

Literally, it was a stock pot full of minestrone. This yields to about two gallons. I like my soups with a lot of things in them (in such way that canned soup companies might use the term "chunky"), a trait I have inherited from my mother.[1] Two gallons of soup filled with vegetables, beans, pasta and pancetta for flavor is a lot of food for a single woman. I packed the rest of the soup in Tupperware and into the freezer they went.

To picture how I stacked these containers in the freezer, one might imagine a game of Tetris. As I tucked away the Tupperware figuring out how to best fit the pieces together, I thought, if there was a nuclear disaster right now and became unsafe to get out for 50 days, we would survive on this soup alone.

The soup that did not get saved for such misfortune was served for dinner that evening. It was accompanied with bread from Alain Ducasse New York, carefully picked up the night before by yours truly and a lovely salad that Renee somehow composed, chopping seated at the dining room table with one leg propped up. For dessert we had baked apples.

You see, there was this wonderful apple dessert at ADNY that season, which had little balls of apples simmered in Calvados. One of my favorite late-night bites at work were those apple balls accompanied by crème Chantilly for the famous Baba au Rum as we snuck in the kitchen and waited for the last guests to finish their lavish dinners. My delinquent restaurant snack was the inspiration for the delinquent home-cooked dessert.

I cored tart apples, stuffed them with raisins and a mixture of brown sugar and cinnamon, topped them with a pat of butter each and drenched them in apple liqueur. It was really more like a bain-marie of apple liqueur; place the stuffed apples in a baking pan and pour a pool of alcohol until the pan is 3/4 full. Baking in the oven for 40 minutes does evaporate some of the alcohol.

But not all alcohol evaporates and these apples were very drunk. After I cleaned up and left the Carroll Gardens apartment, I prayed that the amount of alcohol in the dessert would not mix badly with the pain killers Renee was taking. Throughout the dinner as I drank champagne found in her refrigerator, my friend on drugs was disappointed that she could not join me. By disappointed, I mean, really unhappy. Renee enjoys her alcohol and buys wines by the case (mix-and-match) from wine stores.

I was too embarrassed to confess my fear that I may have killed my dear friend with the amount of liqueur in the dessert. When we spoke again a few weeks later and casually made plans to meet and eat together, I hid my relief behind a cool tone of voice, secretly letting out a big sigh in comfort that I did not accidentally kill the woman who survived a semi-truck running over her.

[1] My brother and I used to complain as kids that her udon noodle soups were 60% noodles, 35% vegetables and 5% soup. Somehow I've adapted her taste as I grew up.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


I wrote this about seven years ago when I still lived in Queens, New York. It makes me nostalgic. Nostalgia mixes with a bit of embarrassment as I note my academic tone in this particular writing. But more than making me feel nostalgic or embarrassed, for that matter, it makes me hungry for the favorite places I used to go to.



I have proudly lived in Kew Gardens, Queens for four years while working in Manhattan.[1] I initially chose to live in Kew Gardens for practical reasons. I was going to graduate school on Long Island[2] while my then-boyfriend went to music school in Manhattan. Queens, naturally, was the best option to accommodate both of our commutes: one hour to the Upper-West Side, one hour to Stony Brook. I ended up bartending in Midtown to pay my bills that the scholarship failed to cover and got sucked into the ever-so-exciting restaurant world of New York City of the glorious early-2000’s. And here I am. But that’s another story. Let’s talk Queens.

I need to put out a disclaimer first. I am happy that more people are finding out about ethnic eateries all over Queens and other outer boroughs that used to only cater to their immediate immigrant communities. More customers make good business no matter what they are. I am, however, not thrilled that “foodie” internet boards like and [ and Twitter/InstaGram feeds today] make such locales “destinations” for untamed and authentic flavors of far-away countries, viewing them to be exotic and “Oriental” in its academic sense per Edward Said: Oriental as “the Other,” the inferior but mystically attractive. I have served a number of people who post on these boards, all well-educated, sophisticated and indeed knowledgeable about food and service; they fit into and behave perfectly at the restaurants I have served them in. On the other hand, or, really, because of this, I am uncomfortable imagining them at Spicy and Tasty in Flushing, at Pho Bang in Elmhurst, at Mexican carts in Astoria and at the Red Hook Ball Fields. I cannot help imagining them as culinary ethnographers in a foreign land, observing the local food scene as “different” and “fascinating.” I hope they do not showcase their well-researched knowledge of menu items to the arepas lady as I have seen them do in my restaurants; I hope they do not grab hold of the amazingly fast order-takers, trained to meet the demand from clients who can afford less than half hour of lunch break and less than five dollars for a meal, to ask what “exactly” is in pho A.25. I’m sure that these connoisseurs of New York restaurants genuinely enjoy food and are truly excited about discovering new flavors they have not encountered yet, but looking at the sheer number of postings and the contents of the comments, it is difficult not to imagine that there may be a sense of distance and unconscious looking down as these gourmet observers venture out of Manhattan[/Brooklyn].

That being said, for those of us who simply live here, or consider its culinary offerings as an everyday part of life, Queens is an oasis. Well, most of the time, when the E and F lines aren’t flooded and we can get to our desired destinations without using the LIRR. I spend my days in a fancy restaurant in Manhattan conversing with clients on new openings of big-name chefs as well as word-of-the-mouth-only places. There are times I go into the City on Sundays to try out a restaurant or to get together with friends, but because such outings make me feel tired as though I’m working on my precious day off, I prefer to stay in Queens as much as possible.

My laziest day would start by waking up at 9, running in Forest Park, buying the Sunday Times and a plain croissant at Baker’s Dozen in Kew Gardens on my way back with the $5 bill I stuffed in my running shorts, making a pot of coffee and having a relaxing breakfast after a shower. I would then venture into Forest Hills, get my nails done by the chatty Korean ladies at Elite Nails, catch a movie at one of the town’s two theaters, stop by Cheese of the World purchasing three different cheeses and a few rolls, make my way to Austin Naturals to for a packaged salad mix and head back home. It would be about six o’clock by this time and I would wonder if I still had any wine at home. If I realize I didn’t, I would stop by a wine store, poke around for twenty minutes and end up buying a $24.99 bottle of wine that I have not tried before.[3] If it happens to be a hot summer day, I would sneak in an Italian ice or a Tastee Delite, always eaten outside as I lick the sweet syrup dripping on my fingers. Then I would be home to have my favorite Sunday supper of salad, cheese, bread and wine. I would finish with some chocolate, take a bath and go to bed early.[4]

On cold wintry days, especially when I would be under the weather, I would take the F or the E to Forest Hills, transfer to a local line and get off at Elmhurst. I would go to one of the Vietnamese places in the strip mall off of the subway stop, order pho with rare beef rounds and tripe, carefully choose my chopsticks from the cup on the table to make sure they are the same thickness and length, grab about twenty of the tiny napkins, throw in half the mint, all the bean sprouts and squeeze two limes, dunk a bit of chili sauce and slurp rice noodles with my nose running full throttle. After fifteen minutes of slurping, chewing and frequently blowing my nose with those tiny napkins (depending on the amount of chili paste I threw in, I would sometimes need to dab my eyes from the tears that have welled up, too) I would feel warm, satiated and de-congested.[5] I would take a peek at the knife sharpener doing fine business in front of the Asian supermarket in front of the subway station, always reminding myself to bring my knives next time to be sharpened by these guys (I never do; how do I sneak in a 16-inch Henckel in my purse?). Every couple months I would go to Flushing to get my hair cut at Top Style salon next to Joe’s Shanghai. Before I leave the house I would draw a picture of the desired haircut, since I don’t speak Cantonese, and my hairstylist doesn’t speak Japanese or English. I would be perfectly happy with my $25 cut and wonder what to eat. Sometimes I would just buy a skewer of grilled chicken from the street vendor on the corner, spicy please, and walk down the streets, peering into shops that don’t care if you have food. Sometimes I would go to bakeries and buy pastries in quantities I will never finish eating before it all goes bad. Some times I would meet up with friends and have a feast surrounding a round table filled with plates and bottles of Tsing Tao. Always I would go to Hong Kong Supermarket and buy things I want to cook but never get to. My next day off is in one week, and the water spinach I buy would be bad in two days. But I buy it anyway.

Such food ventures in “ethnic” quarters of Queens are neither romantic nor exotic in my opinion. It is a part of life for those of us who live here and not an anthropological quest for the wild and the untamed. I find it pretentious and quite rude for people to get so worked up over making the 7 train trek (or E, F, V, N, Q, R). Honestly, some, no, many of the foods found in immigrant neighborhoods are not terribly good. The reason I never finish the pastries bought in Flushing is because, although they are fun and exciting for first few bites, they are never so good that I would actually finish them off. Meat skewers taste good on the street because you get to eat meat on a stick on the street on your day off; it’s like having your own little street festival. Just the food itself is not that high of a quality. Although they are fun places to go with a group of friends, I have never been terribly impressed with the quality of the beef and kimchee at most Korean BBQ places on Northern Boulevard. The foods I mentioned in the previous paragraph feel and taste good to me because they are a part of my comfortable lifestyle, but are not “mind-blowing,” “amazing” and “unbelievable” as bloggers and gourmet board posters claim them to be.

I love Queens for all the reasons opposite to what online gourmands want Queens to be like; distant, exotic, unknown and strangely fascinating. My Queens is simple, laid-back, predictable and comforting.

[1] For many young professionals who work in Manhattan but cannot afford to pay the minimum $3K a month for rent, the obvious choice is to live in the outer boroughs or New Jersey. Brooklyn is the coolest pick, [way too cool now]followed by New Jersey, the Bronx and Queens.[2] Studying music theory and history. Yeah, I know. What happened? My parents would ask the same question.[3] $14.99 seems too cheap and $34.99 seems too expensive.  Somehow a $24.99 bottle would convince me of the value of the wine no matter how good or bad the wine might be.[4] On even lazier days, and I write this as a footnote because I am embarrassed to put it in 12-point font, I would buy a can of beer and kaki no tane (tiny rice crackers) with peanuts and consider the combination a perfect supper, especially when followed by a nice bowl of Haagen Daz strawberry ice cream. Bath and turning in early would follow the same way as in aforementioned situation.[5] This, my friends, is not a pretty scene. For this reason, this is always done alone. I don’t ask for company on my pho days.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Homecoming - New York Trip and New Bouley

I am tempted by New York - I always will be.

As with many New Yorkers and former inhabitants of the City, I am eternally drawn to the energy, the people, the pace of life and the strange sense of comfort only to be found in New York City. I have not been back in 8 months; I am dying to go home. I am also interested in seeing the City in the midst of its difficult time. I wonder about the restaurants I am familiar with. I want to know how businesses are doing - how "my guys" in the restaurant scene are holding up.

So I make arrangements - flight, hotel and restaurant reservations. Well, to be correct, plans with people who will arrange for restaurant reservations on my behalf.

I jump to my conclusion already in this fourth paragraph (although these are not real paragraphs.) I have a wonderful trip: the perfect homecoming. My former coworkers take me out for steak frites at Les Halles ( - perhaps not the best steak in town, but great for us to have a fun rowdy time. More cocktails at a pub a few steps up the street, where we run into another former colleague. Only in this small town of NYC do you run into people at the most perfect timing. I do lunch with a good friend at Park Avenue Winter (, where we lounge for three hours in the dining room that is decorated all white, but exudes warmth. I have cocktails at the lounge at W Hotel Times Square (, sipping my drink with a name too complicated to remember, enjoying the view of European tourists and servers in short black skirts and boots. I have dinner at Dovetail (, where I feel welcomed back to the U.S. by dishes like "Grouper Ceviche, cilantro, lime, pears" and "Lambs Tongue, muffalatta presse, olives, capers" that scream New American cuisine. My favorite combination of Champagne and popcorn downtown is the best nightcap I can ask for.

But it is the dinner at Bouley ( I want to write about; it was a truly splendid time on my final evening there.

David Bouley has been stirring up his downtown locations in the past year or so. Explaining the changes he made in his real estate (and is still working on) is too complicated in writing, especially to those who don't obsessively follow the New York restaurant scene. In short, he turned Danube into Secession and the original Bouley into Bouley Market, expanded Upstairs downstairs where the old Market was, and moved the original Bouley to a new locations a few blocks away.

The dinner I had on December 30th, 2008, at the newly relocated Bouley is something to be remembered in my personal dining notes. And I want to be sure to write about it here.

My dining companion and I arrive for our 9:30 reservation. We have already had two glasses of champagne each (one at Gramercy Park Hotel Bar and another at The Bubble Lounge) and are ready for dinner. We choose the shorter five-course tasting menu and then the wines: a glass of Viognier followed by a bottle of nice Bourgogne with balanced tannin, acidity and body.

For the first course we have a choice of two dishes. My dining companion and I decide to alternate, so that we can taste both. I receive a scallop dish strongly flavored with yuzu. I like my first course to have acid, as it opens up the palate for the rest of the meal. His is a warm flan of Dungeness crab and black truffles in a small cocotte. The flan is delicious. The dish reminds me of Japanese chawan-mushi and makes me think that it can very well work in a kaiseki menu. Maine lobster with pomegranate and red wine sauces, shimeji mushroom and heart of palm follows. I sense too many flavors and textures at play here. I'm not sure of the purpose of the heart of palm, since I think the mushroom plays out the textural contrast already. But the sauces are delicious and the lobster is perfectly cooked. A plate of organic farm egg, Serrano ham, Parmigiano Reggiano and black truffles is perfection itself. It's hard to not love the combination; I can easily eat it every day. The veal saddle is simple and delicious, allowing our Pinot Noir to hold through beautifully. A palate cleanser of Beaujolais sorbet tastes like something from childhood memories. I enjoy it, but my dining companion who doesn't prefer Beaujolais to begin with feels indifferent. The dessert is a rich custard, a solid rectangular creme caramel that seems to transform its - how do I put it - "state of matter" in the mouth as the sharp edged bite melts into a creamy sweet dream. We are also offered their signature chocolate souffle with chocolate sorbet and vanilla ice cream. An array of frandise and gourmandise arrive on the table. Although I'm only able eat half a raspberry macaroon, I like the presentation of the goodies at French restaurants like this. (I always love watching the servers cut the home-made marshmallow at Jean Georges, although I'm always too full to actually eat it.) I've dined at the old locations several times, and have sometimes experienced over-salting of foods. No such thing this time. I find the flavors just right and well-balanced.

What makes this such a special place is not only the food, but the service and the room. Yes, the room is gorgeous. I'd always liked the room at the old location with the arched ceiling and the fragrant rows of apples at the entrance. But this new room is better. As Ms. Florence Fabricant reports, "The vaulted ceiling in the main dining room ... has been brushed with golden leaf; the romantic room also features an ancient hearth brought from France... A small library with intricate parquet flooring assembled from century-old panels and a winter gardens abloom with painted geraniums ... complete the dining areas on the ground floor" (The New York Times 10/14/2008). It may be the most romantic dining room in New York City. Two-tops are arranged so that a couple sits next to each other with the view of the room in front of them. The service is elegant and gracious without being stuffy - the perfect New York style, in my opinion.

I've dined at the former location several times and have always enjoyed it. But this dinner at the new Bouley is something I'll keep in my memory for a long time. I love New York. I'll always miss it.

163 Duane Street (Hudson Street)

Monday, September 15, 2008

Sasaki: Outsider's Look

Of course, this is not going to be completely free of prejudice; I had been working at Sasaki for several months until I finally got to eat in the establishment. It took me five months and friends from Tokyo/New York/Hong Kong to work up the energy to make myself a reservation.

Yes, it's awfully difficult to get a seat at Sasaki. Currently (as of September 2008), all seats are booked for the year, and Oyassan isn't taking any reservation for next year until December 5th. Every night the restaurant is completely packed, a wonderful phenomenon for a restaurant to be full-capacity on a daily basis.

My friend, his wife and his parents came to visit the terrifyingly hot and humid ancient capital during their vacation in early-August. Though the heat of Kyoto struck them viciously, particularly compared to their prior stop of Hokkaido, they braved it not only with a smile, but with style. I stumbled into the dining room in my sundress and beads of perspiration on my back, where the lovely family was already seated dressed handsomely and acrisp in tailored shirts.

A feast in such hot weather is a tricky thing. Eating produces heat inside the body. So does drinking alcohol. Enjoying rich foods and alocoholic drinks may taste good initially, but doesn't feel good in the end in extreme heat. Spending the first full Kyoto summer had been a challenge for yours truly as well; I had been consuming only crisp lager-type beers and kakino-tane crackers as dinner and ice cream bars as breakfast and lunch.

As a way to battle this sort of culinarily disasterous and non-nutritious diet, Japanese food marketers work on the "stamina" approach, boasting nutrition-rich foods as suitable for summer. The most traditional summer stamina food is the barbecued eel. Although it started from a clever business strategy, it is an age-old tradition to eat the fatty fish in the summer. Along a similar line, you are encouraged to eat hot and spicy foods in the summer, since drinking and eating chilled foods often during this season weakens the digestive system.

But, really, do you honestly want to eat fatty and spicy foods in summer? I personally don't. I simply want to eat seasonal foods and feel good after the meal. At Sasaki I looked forward to a beautifully prepared kaiseki cuisine with seasonal ingredients to restore my body.

We were not in for a dissapointment.

The meal started with a visually stunning dish of sea urchin (Rausu, Hokkaido) and sweet white shrimp (Toyama) sandwitched between blanched zuiki, or sweet potato stem, all surrounded by gelee of tomato water. The next plate was three small glass cups surrounded by ice that held meat from Hokkaido hairy crab and diced mountain potato, pike eel roe with vinaigrette, and tofuyo, a cheese-like fermented tofu well-known in Okinawa. These three items are a dangerous invitation for sake.
After the first two chilled dishes, the soup course is a welcoming experience. Fluffy pieces of hamo, pike eel, with its bones cut to perfection curl up like chrysanthemum flowers. Hamo is the summer fish in Kyoto; its delicate flavor is treasured in this city and appears prominently during Gion Festival in July. The delicate broth with grated okra slips down the throat in the most pleasurable way imaginable. The warmth settles the stomach and prepares us for more to come.

The sashimi platter is plated magnificently for two. Raw octopus (Okayama) is tender and sweet; pike eel yakishimo style with its skin-side charred has a rippling mouthfeel and is completely different texture-wise from the one we found in the soup; kuruma prawn (Ohita) is sweet and flavorful, unlike the dry tasteless ones I've found in New York. Two pieces of toro sushi with fresh wasabi the size of small mountains complete the course with a great sense of satisfaction.

Ayu, or Japanese river trout, is grilled on charcoal. The small yet fully-grown wild ayu is a specialty of Lake Biwa in Shiga prefecture. You can eat the whole fish from head to tail, allowing you to explore its sweet and tender meat, bitter intestines and crisp fins and tail. The following dish is slow-poached abalone from Shimane. The large slices are served room temperature with natural fish gelee flavored with citrus vinegar. The accompanying Mizu eggplant and Fushimi peppercorns are Kyoto's special local vegetables. The eggplant is served raw, only rubbed with salt and unroasted sesame oil to rid its extra water, and tastes as sweet as a ripe fuit. Fushimi peppercorn is grilled and marinated in dashi; it bursts with flavor as you bite into it.

A hot pot - literally so hot that the broth is still bubbling - is filled with tilefish from Tsushima and matsutake mushrooms. After eating the epitomical Kyoto summer fish hamo in serveral previous courses, the tilefish is a wonderful change of texture and flavor. Matsutake mushrooms hint the much awaited approach of autumn.

The rice is cooked in a clay pot and topped with fillets of grilled sanma, or saury, from Hokkaido. It's a fishy fish, not to mention a home cook's ingredient rarely seen in a kaiseki restaurant. Grated daikon and pickled mibuna (a Kyoto vegetable somewhere between lettuce and spinach) cuts the fat of sanma and adds freshness to the dish.
The dessert is layered cantaloup and melon gelee with seasonal fresh fruits, white peach, Kyoho grape and watermelon.

Wonderful food in a lovely setting and good friends make a special experience. Filled with good food and sake, I slept like a baby.

Waking up was another surprise; I was hungry, ready for a good breakfast. The meal from the night before was satisfying and nutritious, yet not heavy. I felt energized and refreshed. Now, that's "stamina" food.

Gion Sasaki
Yasaka-dori, Ohwaoji Higashi Hairu, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
Hours: Lunch 12 pm, Dinner 6:30 pm (Arrive at least 10 minutes before)
Budget: Lunch 8,000+ yen, Dinner 20,000+ yen

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Sasaki: Insider's Look 1 - Pre-service

I zip through the streets of Gion district on my speed bicycle and arrive at the restaurant at 3:55pm. I park the bike in the garage, change my shoes into zori slippers, grab the reservation board from the shoe closet area and head upstairs. I climb the stairs quietly, as to not awake Oyassan's - Chef's - precious nap. I put my backpack in the private dining room and turn the cell phone on silent. It's 3:58pm; I head back downstairs to the kitchen.

Ayumi-chan, one of the training cooks, has turned the lights back on in the kitchen. We say good morning to each other and chat a little. I hear the cooks stir as they awake from their 20-minute nap; they have been working since 8 am with hours of prep and lunch service before my arrival.

We exchange good morning, the standard first-time-of-the-day greeting choice for Japanese workplace no matter what time of the day it is. Terashima-san, one of the nakai like me, comes in humming an unidentifiable tune. I grab the reservation books, check slips and tonight's menu and take a seat at the counter. Oyassan comes in and we all say good morning.

The meeting starts. "Tonight we have 17 at the counter, 6 at the table and 5 upstairs." He goes over the menu. This particular evening we are serving:

1. Sea urchin and sweet shrimp wrapped in pounded baby lotus root, served with gelee made from the stock taken from the heads of sweet shrimp and sudachi juice.

2. Firfly squid (hotaruika) "pizza" with mochi dough.

3. Tender braised abalone with abalone liver sauce, steamed white asparagus and broad beans.

4. Toro and bonito sushi. Sashimi of snapper with torched skin, kuruma shrimp , live scallop and its roe tossed in sesame oil.

5. Clear broth soup with fried golden-eye snapper and burdock, shiitake, trefoil and sesame.

6. Ohmi beef roasted with salt crust and wrapped in cherry blossom leaf (picture is before it gets wrapped and crusted).

7. Junsai, cucumbers and yamaimo in light vinaigrette with pickled plum.

8. "Hot pot"-style braised sea eel and new onion with mountain ferns and peppercorn florets.

9. Rice with fresh baby sardines (shirasu), grated radish and mibuna pickles cooked in clay pot.

10. Coconut blanc-mange with mango, blueberry and white peach.

Oyassan goes over the plates for each dish. It's May. Summery glass tableware is still too early, while springtime dishes seem a little behind-the-season. Oyassan makes a mental note to purchase more tableware. He goes over the front-of-house mise-en-place: small silver spoon for the first dish, large soup spoon for the clear broth, oshibori change after the beef, small soup spoon for the hot pot and dessert silver for the final dish. He then lists where the main ingredients are from.

Tonight the sea urchin is from Rausu in Hokkaido and the sweet shrimp from Ishikawa ; the firefly squid is from Toyama ; the abalone is from Shimane and the white asparagus from Kagawa; both the toro and the bonito are from Katsu'ura in Wakayama, the snapper from Okayama, the kuruma shrimp from Ohita and the scallop from Hokkaido; the golden-eye is from Chiba's Boso area; the beef is clearly from Ohmi; the sea eel from Okayama; the baby sardines are from Shizuoka; finally, the mango is from Miyazaki.

I take notes on mise-en-place and ingredient source right on the menu for other servers. Diners do not get a written menu. The beautifully written menu pages in Oyassan's calligraphy are just for cooks and nakais.

Then, Oyassan lists off the counter seating for the night, saving the center (in front of Oyassan himself) for the best regulars. All the customers are regulars; it's extremely difficult to get a reservation otherwise. I will go into detail about hard-to-get reservation restaurants. But here, for now, let me just mention that this particular restaurant's reservation system came to be simply out of Oyassan and Okamisan (his wife) working to grow their business by making sure the repeating customers are taken care of.

"Soredewa, konban mo yoroshiku onegai shimasu!" (Loosely translated; "OK then, let's have a good service!")

The cooks get right to work adding the final touch before dinner service, torching fish, portioning vegetables, organizing plates, etc. I get the mise-en-place ready with silverware, chopsticks, napkins and post the menu in the kitchen.

Terashima-san and I go upstairs to the staff room. Soon enough Ayumi-chan brings us tea and sweets. The sweets are provided usually by gourmand customers who want Oyassan to try particularly well-known snacks from all over Japan. We sip tea and eat. Ayumi-chan being the only female cook gets to relax a bit with the two of us.

At 4:45 we change into kimonos. At first, Terashima-san pretty much dressed me from zero for a full hour. Now I can dress myself (woohoo!) in 30 minutes. Really, though, I'd say that less than 10% of Japanese women can wear a kimono by themselves. I was reassured by our sweet Okamisan to not worry about my American upbringing that never required me to learn to wear a kimono.

We head back downstairs. Freshly clad in kimonos and with retouched make-up, we say good morning to the chefs again. We set up the counter seats and the tables for service, check the restrooms, turn on the lights and, as with all high-end Japanese restaurants, cleanse the leading steps and the street in front of the restaurant with water. The glistening stones of the small path that leads up to the front entrance also get ready to welcome the guests for the evening.

Okamisan and Terashima-san stand outside, while I sit in the entry way to welcome the guests.

It's 6 pm.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Sasaki: Insider's Look - Introduction

Up to this point, I have gone to and written about Kyoto restaurants as a visitor; when I went to Hyotei back in December 2007 I was still living in the New York. My life as a Kyotoite started in February of 2008 as I finally settled down to unpack the thirteen boxes I shipped from the States, impressed that they arrived exactly within the one-hour time frame given by the Japanese moving company.

It's a funny thing - and, I think, a common thing for many people - that I stopped being so vigorous to go to restaurants since I started to actually live in Kyoto. The idea that I will not need to count the number of meals, and thus the number of reservations, according to the length of my stay has made me feel less urgent in eating at various places.

I did, however, start something no visitor to Kyoto can do; I decided to work at a kaiseki restaurant in the Gion district as a nakai, a kimono-wearing server. And not just any kaiseki restaurant in Gion; I decided to work at Sasaki.

Sasaki is famous for its dynamic counter-style kaiseki cuisine and infamous for being the restaurant with the most difficult reservation to secure in Kyoto. I have also tried to make a reservation at Sasaki every time I traveled to Kyoto. And, of course, every time it was fully booked.

Whether the decision to work there is from brilliant professionalism or gluttony is up for debate. I will be honest, however, to unabashedly disclose the following thought-process; If I can't eat there as a customer, why not work there to see its food and service? And maybe, just maybe, I'll get to taste some of the dishes (with a half-smile and eyebrows slightly raised).

I did get a close look at the food and the service. I did get to eat not only some, but most of what has been served through the seasons. Not only that, I got to meet, work with and befriend a warm group of people who made me feel at home in Kyoto.

For the next several posts I will share the insider's experience at this little special restaurant run by a magnificently caring couple.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


Life makes us temporal beings, and temporality makes history a significant factor in the way we humans think about everything that surrounds us. In understanding any subject, whether it be literature, music or science, historical contexts play an essential role.

Food, of course, is no exception.

Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan from 794, is a city that thrives its present self on the past. Major headquartered industries (besides Nintendo) center around historic tourism and maintenance of art and culture passed on from centuries before.

The setting and cuisine of Hyotei are representative of such historicity. Without understanding its historical context, the experience at Hyotei cannot be fully appreciated. The restaurant with its current name started in 1837 after already serving its customers over six decades as an unnamed rest-stop/tea house for pilgrims to Nanzenji Temple, which, of course, still exists; it has since 1291.

Yes, 1291.

Coming from the New York City restaurant scene, where any establishment that lasts over six years is "long-standing," I necessarily shift my mental gear in this little old town. Important points in considering New York restaurants, such as ownership and management, celebrity or well-known chefs, opening reviews and innovativeness, do not weigh nearly as heavily as tradition, history and legend. Literary giants like Sannyo Rai (late-18th to early-19th C.) and Aritomo Yamagata (late-19th to early-20th C.) have thoroughly patronized Hyotei through their careers, adding to the legend, not unlike the way Hemingway left his mark at Lipp's in Saint-Germain. More recently the restaurant was bookmarked in the gourmet comic book series "Oishinbo" (1983 to present) in one of its episodes.

As with all history, the act of telling and retelling the history of Hyotei over the centuries adds layers to the place itself, creates it, and becomes it. The restaurant, therefore, is more than its food on a specific night, the single dinner from a personal experience.

(This point applies to all premises, old and new, even in New York City, so, ahem, hear me out, put that on your plate and eat it, Mr. Bruni.)

The dinner on this damp chilly December evening is my own participation in the history of Hyotei. The wonderful thing about food that cannot be done with paintings or sculptures is that I get to eat it, and by eating it I get to prevent it from escaping in the back of my conscious mind as just another passing object in a museum. Food allows me to join the making of history by tasting it, recounting it.

The dishes speak for themselves, not requiring any historical explanation to make them taste better than they already do. Knowing the historical context, however, makes more sense of them. (Imagine going to Notre Dame without knowing it is a religious monument. It is still the same magnificent building and would inspire awe from anyone without the critical information. However, being aware of the socio-religious background of the church and the history of the l'Ile de la Cite, la Seine, the bridges, etc., adds to the experience.)

Upon arrival we are met by the lady of the house who leads us to our room. Hyotei is composed of five guest buildings, each with a private room, and a main building, connected by narrow stone paths. Each room overlooks the quaintly beautiful garden from various angles, never offering the same view from two rooms. As the sun drops we are directed to a small tea house, where the cheerful banquet atmosphere can be detected only through the faintly audible voices, not in actual site. The architecture of the buildings allows us to feel as though we are the only ones there to be taken care of.

The dinner starts with yuba (tofu skin) covered in a delicate turnip sauce, a welcoming warm first course on a shivery winters night. The snapper sashimi that follows is sliced generously thick, letting us thoroughly enjoy its flavor and texture. I slide sips of chilled sake from an intricately cut glass between my bites. The soup with gentle white miso and lily bulb tofu with exactly three pieces of sweet red beans is a traditional composition; the combination of white miso and sweet red beans often make an appearance together in Western Japanese ozoni, New Year's soup. The hassun plate features soy-marinated monk fish liver, a mini-sushi of snapper, karasumi (part-dehydrated salted roe of striped mullet), miso-marinated stem lettuce and the famous Hyotei egg, a semi-hard-boiled egg with a tender bright orange center. We alternate back to a warm dish, takiawase of rice cracker-crusted ebi-imo yam in snow crab nage; shimeji mushrooms, gingko nuts and chrysanthemum leaves add textural and palate-awakening accents. Grilled soy-marinated sawara (Spanish mackerel) with white turnip carved in the shape of a chrysanthemum flower is followed by a braise of duck quenelle with kinntoki carrot, daikon and yuzu. The savories are wrapped up with oshokuji of white rice cooked in a traditional iron pot served with pickled vegetables.

Dessert arrives and I scoop out the juicy flesh of Daishiro persimmon cut in half and drizzled with kirsch. I think to myself, this must be the most complete dessert, and share my thought with my husband, who nods in agreement. The tender translucent fruit has a texture somewhere between sorbet, gelee and cantaloupe and an intense sweetness that I wish would linger for just a little longer on my palate. The second dessert is a confectionery of lily bulb paste shaped like a flower covered in snow. Matcha served traditionally in a bowl beautiful even to the touch concludes the evening.

The menu is textbook Kyoto kaiseki dinner, a thoroughly thought-out meal that fully considers the gifts of the land and season. The use of seasonal local ingredients, such as turnip, snapper, lily bulb, monk fish liver, karasumi, ebi-imo yam, snow crab, sawara, daikon and persimmon, is an epitome of the fundamental ideology of Japanese cuisine. Because Hyotei has long-trusted relationships with local farmers and purchase directly from them, the vegetables they use have a deeper flavor and, some even say, more nutrition than those available at markets. The same goes for fish and meat; for this reason rare and highly valued ingredients particular to the region are abundantly used in their dishes.

There is nothing flashy about the menu or the dining experience despite the generous use of the best ingredients, priceless tableware and one-of-a-kind setting. Unlike Mizai, where the glamorous presentation of dishes and Chef Ishihara's passionate character create an energy-filled atmosphere, Hyotei's allure is in its understated elegance and quietude through which one can actually feel the history.

Some criticize Hyotei for lacking readily tangeable splendor. Others question if the food at this too well-reknowned establishment is truly "the best" they have ever had. I believe these are honest reactions from experienced diners who could have had an enlightening dining experience had they considered the historical context of the cuisine at Hyotei.
So study up and make a reservation.

Kyoto City, Sakyo-ku, Nanzenji, Kusakawa-machi 35
Kaiseki: 11 am - 7:30 pm
Budget: Lunch 23,000+ yen, Dinner 27,000+ yen
(They are also famous for their asagayu, morning porridge, served in July and August only from 8 to 10 am.)
Closed 2nd and 4th Tuesdays of the month
Reservation required