Monday, August 31, 2009

Frank Signs Off

Frank Bruni's final post... Although more often than not, I find it hard to agree with the most powerful man in the NYC food biz... it's still a "moment" in our industry where we have the changing of guards.
If anything, for sentimental reasons, I've posted Frank's last post from the NY Times.

QUESTIONS upon questions upon questions: they’re a restaurant critic’s real diet, fed to him by friends and strangers, in phone calls and e-mail messages, at cocktail parties and the gym. Say the words, “I’m a restaurant critic,” and the floodgates open.

“Where should I take my 92-year-old grandmother for brunch in Midtown, keeping in mind that I’m a vegan and she’s not?”

“Is there a Sri Lankan restaurant on the North Shore that you particularly like?”

I don’t have answers to those two, which are of my own invention but not far afield from the norm.

I do, however, have answers to many actual questions that I never managed to address, lacking enough hours. To that end I’m using my last column as The Times’s restaurant critic to correct lapses, attend to unfinished business, rummage through a cupboard of leftover advice and opine on an array of matters that didn’t come up often, or at all, in other articles.

What follows are questions that I was often asked or that I wished I’d been asked, along with responses. More of each can be found on Diner’s Journal, a Dining section blog.


I have to give two answers, because the absolute best I encountered in New York over the last five years is Masa, but that’s a recommendation of limited usefulness. A meal there is upward of $400 a person. I haven’t been in a long time.

So I’d like to single out Sushi Yasuda as well. There you can have a wonderfully intimate, pampering omakase experience — a seat at the counter, a chef seemingly devoted to you and just a few other diners, sushi being prepared just moments before you eat it — for under $100 a person, not counting drinks. Still a major treat, but much, much more manageable.


There’s no one answer to this, because steakhouse selection is so particularly dependent on a diner’s mood and sensibility.

If a certain corny, musky ambience is what you like, and a steakhouse need only have one great steak, then a place like Sparks — and its strip — will please you mightily.

But if you want a steakhouse with an array of strengths, and you’re after a more contemporary ambience, you’d do better at, say, Porter House New York or BLT Prime. Porter House has improved since my one-star review years ago; the porterhouse on my most recent visit was superb. And there’s a decent, accessible wine list, something many steakhouses, including Peter Luger, don’t have.

Peter Luger on its best night has an outstanding porterhouse, but the lights are always too bright and the service usually too gruff. That’s the thing with this city’s steakhouses: there’s almost always a drawback, a limitation.

Harry’s Steak down near Wall Street has a particular tucked-away charm. Strip House has great sides and an inimitably cheeky atmosphere. Keens has the most Old World charm; its mutton chop — a misnomer, but a glorious one at that — is worth the trip alone.

Minetta Tavern, while not billing itself as a steakhouse, might be my favorite, but is near-impenetrable by anyone without inside connections between 6:30 and 10:30 p.m.


Scratch off the appetizers and entrees that are most like dishes you’ve seen in many other restaurants, because they represent this one at its most dutiful, conservative and profit-minded. The chef’s heart isn’t in them.

Scratch off the dishes that look the most aggressively fanciful. The chef’s vanity — possibly too much of it — spawned these.

Then scratch off anything that mentions truffle oil.

Choose among the remaining dishes.


The fusilli with tomato, octopus and bone marrow at Marea is a revelation: original and so very, very right. At a different restaurant a few years back, a dining companion noted that marrow had a “druggy” taste and effect all its own, and I thought that adjective was perfect. This fusilli dish is indeed druggy — and an example of what makes Michael White such an inventive, intuitive master of pasta.

A few dishes at Locanda Verde linger in my thoughts (and desires), especially the blue crab and jalapeño crostini, the toasted almond semifreddo and the rice custard gelato. The restaurant’s pastry chef, Karen DeMasco, impresses me more and more all the time.

The Italian fare at Perbacco in the East Village.

Vinegar Hill House in Brooklyn, where the pork chop reigns supreme.

In a crazily porky city, the Red Wattle chop that the chef Jean Adamson serves at Vinegar Hill House in Brooklyn got my attention, respect and love: it’s a big hunk of superior meat for $24, and comes with a generously portioned fingerling potato salad.


At some of the more expensive, extravagant restaurants in New York, that’s where. Value doesn’t mean a low price: it means you’re getting a lot for what you’re paying.

At Eleven Madison Park, for example, the $88 prix fixe includes five one-bite amuse-bouches per person, terrific gougères, unlimited bread with both goat’s milk and cow’s milk butter, an appetizer, an entree, a dessert amuse-bouche, dessert and petit fours. Plus you’re sitting in comfort in one of the city’s most beautiful dining rooms, with many polished servers attending to you.

At Momofuku Ssam Bar, where you’re encouraged to build a meal from a sequence of small, medium and large plates, you’d probably need five selections, including dessert, to match that amount of food, and you could easily spend $68 in the process. And what you’ve given up, for a $20 savings, is the ability to make a reservation, a real chair (the restaurant is all backless stools), comparably pampering service, etc.

I’m not denigrating Ssam Bar: I love both of these restaurants. But you could argue that Eleven Madison is the better value — and there’s a larger point here to keep in mind before dismissing expensive restaurants.


I’ve spent my own money at Peasant, in NoLIta, which has a mood that often suits me, great rustic bread that comes with creamy ricotta, fun make-your-own panini in the wine cave, a wonderful stuffed poussin and a laudable liver fixation manifest in separate dishes of suckling pig liver, squab liver and rabbit liver. The Bar Room at the Modern is a stylish, easygoing place in a section of town — Midtown — where way too much feels staid and boring. The menu structure lets you tailor your own experience, and there’s a serious wine list. It can be low- or high-impact, as you wish.


I’ve gone with some frequency to Cafe Luxembourg and to the Fairway Cafe above the supermarket on Broadway at 74th Street, both of which have terrific chicken salad sandwiches. Cafe Luxembourg is a Lynn Wagenknecht restaurant, an association I mention because I like most of her restaurants — the Odeon, Cafe Cluny — better at the start of the day than at the end. Each does breakfast foods and the breakfast atmosphere very well.


Underrated is a funny word; overlooked might better characterize some of the ones I’d like to draw fresh attention to.

Chatter about Perbacco, an Italian restaurant in the East Village, died down too quickly, and I still know too many food lovers who haven’t been. While much of its menu is ordinary, the dishes that blend the avant-garde and traditional Italian cooking make a trip here very, very worth it.

Many diners seem to have forgotten about Degustation, adjacent to Jewel Bako, in the East Village. It’s a particular experience: counter dining; limited menu. But the cooking is accomplished and adventurous.

Near Union Square, 15 East does first-rate sushi without top-tier prices, along with some other excellent Japanese dishes.

If you’re an uni lover and haven’t been to Soto, you must go. Just know that the sushi isn’t the restaurant’s strength, and is a waste of a visit here.

I think the chef Kevin Garcia’s restaurants, Accademia di Vino on the Upper East Side and ’Cesca, on the Upper West Side, have slipped off people’s radars more than they should. Accademia’s sprawl, though, means its menu must be navigated with special caution.

BLT Prime, 111 East 22nd Street (Park Avenue), (212) 995-8500

Cafe Cluny, 284 West 12th Street (West Fourth Street), (212) 255-6900

Cafe Luxembourg, 200 West 70th Street (Amsterdam Avenue), (212) 873-7411

‘Cesca, 164 West 75th Street (Amsterdam Avenue), (212) 787-6300

Degustation, 239 East Fifth Street (Second Avenue), (212) 979-1012

Eleven Madison Park, 11 Madison Avenue (24th Street), (212) 889-0905

15 East, 15 East 15th Street (Union Square West), (212) 647-0015

Harry’s Cafe & Steak, One Hanover Square (Stone Street), (212) 785-9200

Keens Steakhouse, 72 West 36th Street (Avenue of the Americas), (212) 947-3636

Locanda Verde, 377 Greenwich Street (North Moore Street), (212) 925-3797

Marea Restaurant, 240 Central Park South (Broadway), (212) 582-5100

Masa, 10 Columbus Circle, Time Warner Center, 4th floor (Broadway and 59th Street), (212) 823-9800

Minetta Tavern Restaurant, 113 MacDougal Street (Bleecker Street), (212) 475-3850

The Modern, 9 West 53rd Street (Fifth Avenue), (212) 333-1220

Momofuku Ssam Bar, 207 Second Avenue (13th Street), (212) 254-3500

The Odeon, 145 West Broadway (Thomas Street), (212) 233-0507

Peasant, 194 Elizabeth Street. (Spring Street), 212-965-9511

Perbacco, 234 East Fourth Street, (Avenue B), (212) 253-2038

Peter Luger Steakhouse, 178 Broadway (Driggs Avenue), Williamsburg, Brooklyn, (718) 387-7400

Porter House New York, 10 Columbus Circle, Time Warner Center (59th Street and Broadway), (212) 823-9500

Soto, 357 Avenue of the Americas (Washington Place), (212) 414-3088

Sushi Yasuda, 204 East 43rd Street (Third Avenue), (212) 972-1001

Vinegar Hill House, 72 Hudson Avenue (Water Street), Vinegar Hill, Brooklyn, (718) 522-1018

Sushi at Narita Airport

It's T-Minus 4 hours til my flight back to NY and I'm thinking what's the last thing I want to pop into my mouth in Tokyo.
I always give myself the chance to think this over, but my final decision has never changed since I can remember.
It's all about the SUSHI baby!

Narita International Airport has a great food court right above the security check point.
You can get just about any basic Japanese food there, but every one of my friends who I've asked, has always gone with the sushi.

Kaiten sushi to be exact. This conveyor belt sushi joint serves some pretty good stuff.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Home Cookin' Feast

It's finally coming to the end of my trip in Japan.
I have 1 last night in Tokyo and I spent it at my buddy's place in Machida.
It's a bit far from the center of Tokyo, but you get much more for your money and peace and quiet at nights.

My buddy just recently got married and his wife is an amazing cook.
I was told she did her college dissertation on Vietnamese Food. Seriously... If I had known that was even possible, I would have double majored in Steaks and Sausages.
Anywho, she totally out did herself and created a giant feast for us. Thanks Y and S!!!

Here's a slideshow of the awesome dishes we had that night and the next morning.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Shio Ramen

There are basically 4 main types of Ramen in Japan. Each commands a cult like following of patrons and chefs.
  • Shio
  • Shoyu
  • Tonkotsu
  • Miso
My favorite is "Shio", which means Salt.
Usually the broth is very clear but what gets everyone is the depth in flavor it has. This particular Ramen is not heavy nor overly filling, just rich in soup stock.

So it was about midnight in Tokyo... we've been drinking and laughing the night away... and my friends asked me what kind of ramen I'd like.
"Shio... Is there any other?"
So they took me to this place in Shinjuku.
Ranked #2 by ramen nerds in the district.
The picture below is their signature ramen bowl. And to the right, is the daily broth ingredients.

Friday, August 28, 2009


Jingiskan... or Ghengis Khan is a particular way to prepare lamb in Japan.
Believed to be the way of the Mongols, they would lay their heavy shields on the burning fire pit and cook what ever meat (and in this case, Lamb) was available.

This restaurant in Shinjuku is pretty famous for such dishes.
Called Darumaya... they specialize in 6 month old lamb meat cooked on a cast iron slotted domed grill.
The meat is tender and slightly gamy. Very tasty and fun to eat. In general, I don't mind the scent of mutton so I would not have had a problem if the meat were a bit more gamy. But this was a great restaurant and I would definitely go back if around the area.

All in all, this was a great stop on a night of eating and hanging with friends.

Yaki Ton

You usually hear of Yaki-Tori... but not Yaki-Ton.
It's just a play on words.

Yaki - grilled
Tori - chicken
Ton - pork

Grilled Pork, hence, "Yaki"-"Ton"

This place I went to in Shinjuku is phenomenal.
It may sound absolutely nasty for westerners, but raw liver is a delicacy in Japan and to find a shop that serves excellent raw Pork Liver is extremely rare.
I'm not sure how to describe the flavors but to say it's extremely fresh and not heavy on the iron taste. Actually, there's not much iron taste at all.
Everything else was great to excellent as well. Good charcoal grilling meats dipped in a slightly sweet sauce.

One extra note, when ever you are having grilled meats, and trying to pair with sake, go with a Kimoto or Yamahai style sake. The natural gamy flavor of the sake goes real well with the skewered meats.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Fugu in Yamaguchi

Wiki's got a good write up on "Fugu".

Yes, it's poisonous... but only when it's an adult.
It's not born with the toxins, but rather accumulates the poisons throughout it's lifetime and is deadly poisonous when fully matured.

But for some reason, the Japanese love it and crave a Fugu dinner once in a while to indulge.
Perhaps it's the thrill of flirting with death... but what ever it is, it's a national craving.
I never thought anything of it when I was a child. But perhaps I was just being a kid and naturally more infatuated with Pizza and Hamburgers after Little League Baseball.
Fugu is not considered a very tasty fish, nor fatty and juicy...
I had in my mind a bland, over hyped meal to say the least.

I couldn't be further from the truth.
Fugu is delicious. A noble treat. Yes, it's a very subtle tasting fish, but the texture and the accompanying condiments surely make up for it's leanness.
In a typical Fugu course, you will be first served Fugu sashimi, both the meat and the skin will be served.
Then comes the Fugu shabu shabu, the Karaage, and the Nabe.

This was no exception. My hosts truly treated me to a hugely memorable meal.
Aside from the Shirako, I'm game for another Fugu meal anytime.

** Shirako**

Dassai Breweries

I finally got myself to Asahi Breweries, the producer of Dassai Sake.
Man, what an awesome trip that was.
I got a hands on tour of how sake is made, and got to try fresh sake right out of the press.
It is truly the pinnacle experience for any sake lover to have it fresh from the press.
Fresh, Bright, and utterly Delicious.

Brewery : Asahi Shuzo
Sake Name : Dassai Niwari Sanbu
Prefecture : Yamaguchi
Quality : Junmai Daiginjo
Founded : Consolidation of 4 Breweries in 1948
Rating : A+
Because the individual rice kernels are refined down to an eye popping 23% (by law, they are regulated to only mill down to 50%), Dassai Niwari Sanbu is amazingly delicate and fruity in flavor. A great sake to enjoy as is.
I found this Sake exceptionally wonderful to drink. Perhaps as an aperitif before a flight of sushi or sashimi.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Mothah F'n K.F.C. ! Biatch!

Sometimes a sandwich is so big, so tasty and so thick that those carb-loaded bookends we call buns just aren’t necessary.


That’s the premise behind Kentucky Fried Chicken’s latest calorie-laden creation: the Double Down Chicken Sandwich, two chicken fillets hugging cheeses, bacon and sauce, sans the bun.

KFC hasn’t released actual caloric counts, but has told media outlets such as the Huffington Post that it estimates the sandwich to weigh in at roughly 600 calories. The Vancouver Sun, however, estimates the Double Down at nearly double that number, with 1,228 calories.

KFC has made more than one headline this year with new products. Untold numbers of consumers flocked to the chain earlier this year hoping to get a free taste of KFC’s new grilled chicken. But Georgians shouldn’t rush to a nearby KFC for this bird, however, as it’s only being tested in parts of Nebraska and Rhode Island.

No word on whether the Double Down will be offered with two grilled fillets, instead.

Vending Machines

Not only are there really cool drinks available at just about every street corner or train station, you can get awesome ice cream cones as well. God bless Japan.

I've also seen beer, scotch, freshly brewed hot coffee, hot cup ramen vending machines in Japan as well.
Besides food and drinks, they also have vending machines selling underwear, ties, toiletries, and other goods necessary for those who don't make it home the night before and need to head back into the office for another day of work.

Bento Box in Iwakuni

This is a pretty fancy Bento Box I had on a boat in Iwakuni.
The Kintaikyo Bridge below is a famous tourist attraction and at night, they have fishermen using Cormorant birds to fish Sweet Fish. I'm glad I went, but probably won't ever go again. The boat you sit in for 3 hours is really uncomfortable and it's just too hot and muggy in the summertime.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Sanzoku - Bandit style eats

Sanzoku means "Bandit" in Japanese

check out this site...
Phone: 0827-82-3115
Kugacho Ichi No Sako

So this restaurant replicates a Bandit/Mercenary Village in Feudal Japan.
Pretty cool actually. And the food is great.
If you've ever been to Medieval Times in the States, you'll get this place immediatly.

There's something about eating with your hands and getting grease all over your lips and chin.
This place has a smokey ambiance with warrior armor flanking all sides of the restaurant. Way Cool.

Chanko Nabe in Yamaguchi

I had my first chankonabe the other day and I loved it!
Although mine was a bit unorthodox, the premise with ingredients and atmosphere of the restaurant remained true.
As you can see in the pic, it's a bit red. Being that the chef was Korean, there was a hint of kimchi in this chankonabe. But the owner of the restaurant is a former Sumo wrestler and OK'ed the dish on his menu so if it's good enough for him, it sure was good enough for me.

Chankonabe (ちゃんこ(なべ)) is a Japanese stew (a type of nabemono or one-pot dish) commonly eaten in vast quantity by sumo wrestlers as part of a weight gain diet. It contains a dashi or chicken broth soup base with sake or mirin to add flavor. The bulk of chankonabe is made up of large quantities of protein sources (usually chicken (quartered, skin left on), fish (fried and made into balls), tofu (or sometimes beef) and vegetables (daikon, bok choy, etc). While considered a reasonably healthful dish in its own right, chankonabe is very protein-rich and usually served in massive quantities, with beer and rice to increase the caloric intake. Leftover chankonabe broth can also later be used as broth for somen or udon noodles.

It is not made according to a fixed recipe and often contains whatever is available to the cook, who is usually a junior wrestler. It is traditionally served according to seniority, with the senior rikishi and any guests of the heya receiving first choice, with the junior wrestlers getting whatever is left. It is also a popular restaurant food, often served in restaurants operated by retired sumo wrestlers who specialize in the dish. The first of which, Kawasaki Chanko, was started in 1937 in the Ryōgoku district of Tokyo, home to many prominent sumo stables.

Chankonabe served during sumo tournaments is made exclusively with chicken, the idea being that a rikishi should always be on two legs like a chicken, not all fours like a cow or off one's legs entirely like a fish

Monday, August 24, 2009

Brunch at Chez Porthos

Grilled Romaine Caesar Salad :
I was flipping through the channels the other night and saw this unique take on romaine lettuce.
Usually, when you talk about romaine lettuce, you think of a classic caesar salad.
Or perhaps a hearts of romaine caesar salad.
Well, this salad had an extra twist. Grilling!
It looked like fun and so at the behest of my wife, I made it Sunday for brunch.

5 - Hearts of Romaine Lettuce
10 - Cherry Tomatoes
1/4 C - Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper
Creamy Caesar Salad (or Ranch) Dressing

You cut the hearts of romaine lettuce in half, lengthwise and simply drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper and you are ready for the grill.
It takes roughly 10 seconds on each side and voila, it's done.
Plate and drizzle some creamy caesar salad dressing, and garnish with halved cherry tomatoes.

Extremely easy and really tasty.
You obviously can jazz it up with some nuts, gorgonzola cheese, fruits, onions, etc... but it was really good just as in the picture.
Great alternative to your usual salads.

Grilled Ribeye Steaks :
In addition to the new world salad... I bought some beautiful steaks at Costco a few days ago and decided to grill them with the lettuce.
I can't believe these steaks were from Costco. It had great beefy taste with superb tenderness.
I definitely need to investigate where Costco procures their beef. The quality was definitely eye opening.

2 - 18oz Ribeye Steaks
Salt and Pepper

Simply season with salt first, and let sit for 10 minutes. You will notice the steaks sweating...
That's a good thing. Not only is the steak becoming more flavorful, it's removing excess water from the meat and concentrating the flavor even more.
Get the grill as hot as possible and throw the steaks on. Don't move them at all until you turn them.
(Remember, you only flip it once)
I had these steaks on the grill 5 minutes each side.
Take off and let sit for an extra 5 to 10 minutes before you slice.

Japanese Ponzu sauce goes extremely well with a nice juicy steak. I highly recommend it if you are looking for a little acidity to balance off the fat from the steak.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

News Flash

After highly recommending Eleven Madison to just about everyone I know last week, my colleague immediately booked a rez and went with her friend last Friday night and came down with food poisoning. The both of them.

C'est la vie...

Snacks on a Train

The bullet train, or better known as "Shinkansen" in Japan is by far the nicest train I've ever ridden on.
Smooth, Fast, Comfortable and Clean. There isn't much more you can ask for.
They even serve good food.

-side note-
When I was much younger (err, 20 years younger) I was fortunate enough to have the famous Imperial Palace Hotel Curry Rice on the Shinkansen. The Japanese take their curry seriously, and the Imperial Palace Curry recipe is one of the most recognized in the country. They exclusively served that same curry on the Shinkansen and it sold very well. But it was laborious and cumbersome to get the batch of curry onto all the trains every day so it was terminated from the menu around 15 years ago.

So I bought a weekly pass for the Japan Railroad system and hopped on the Shinkansen a few times this trip.
I opted for a tiny snack to hold me off til dinner time.

Below is a cute sandwich set (very standard in presentation and quantity) and drink.