Monday, March 3, 2014

Japan - Impressions, Travel Tips, and a List

It is both humbling and exhilarating to be a foreigner in a foreign land. Before our two-week trip to Japan, from which we returned this weekend, I had never been to the Far East. For those who are veteran globetrotters it may sound silly, but I'll confess I was a bit intimidated by the prospect of being literally halfway across the world in a place where we not only didn't know, but couldn't even decipher the characters of, the native language. But that fear was more than outbalanced by our love of Japanese culture and food, and the desire to experience them first-hand.

We needn't have been so concerned. Literally from the moment we arrived, we were buoyed by the graciousness, thoughtfulness, and generosity of spirit of the Japanese people. As we wandered our way through the Shinbashi subway station dragging luggage behind us, a kind lady - who spoke no English whatsoever - helped us figure out where our hotel was, and then walked with us for nearly ten minutes to guide us there. It was a scene that repeated itself throughout our stay. Whenever we were lost, whenever we needed help, someone was always glad to assist.

We saw so many beautiful things. We ate so many fantastic meals. But more than anything, I was won over by the people of Japan. That lady in the subway station. The sushi chef at the restaurant with three Michelin stars who bounded down three flights of stairs so he could see us off in the taxi after our meal. The dark-suited businessmen who bought us a round of sake at dinner in Kanazawa. These were the things that made Mrs. F and I feel welcome as strangers in a strange land, and which made our celebration of our twentieth anniversary even more special.

Over the coming weeks I will try to recap some of our best meals in Japan, several of which were among the best I've experienced anywhere. In the meantime, here are many random impressions, a few words of advice for fellow first-time travelers to Japan, a list of all the places we ate at that I can recall, and several expressions of thanks for many people whose guidance made our experience so much better.

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Thursday, February 13, 2014

Cobaya Divino with Chef Julian Baker of Toscana Divino

Chefs, like actors, can get typecast. Do a certain thing well, and often enough, and people will start to think that it's all you can do. Chef Julian Baker is the chef at Toscana Divino, a restaurant in Brickell that, as the name suggests, operates in a mostly traditional Tuscan vein. Before Toscana Divino, he'd helped open Bice restaurants around the world. Though Baker's an Englishman, his resume would lead you to expect classical Italian through and through.

We like when our Cobaya events defy expectations - when chefs recognize it as an opportunity to venture outside of their, and their regular customers', comfort zones. Chef Baker did that with his Cobaya dinner, which we've been working on coordinating nearly since the restaurant first opened. Baker's culinary background happens to be much broader than the Italian cooking he's done lately, and other than a pasta course, I don't think anything he served at his dinner last week would immediately register as Italian. That's just fine by us.

From start to finish, every dish reflected a lot of thinking behind it, from concept to presentation to flavor. It was a thoughtful dinner that was also a lot of fun.

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya Divino flickr set).

A barrel-aged Gentleman Jack "Negroni"[1] started the festivities, along with a few passed "bar snacks," all with clever, fun presentations. Smoked sweet potato croquette "cigars" were served in a cigar box billowing with smoke; foie gras "roll ups" wrapped in strawberry fruit leather and sprinkled with pistachios stuck up out of a field of greens planted in a box; and best of all, crispy chicharron-like beef tendon "frazzles" which emerged, still audibly crackling, from inside a false book.

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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

CSA Weeks 1 through 11 (a/k/a "What Happened to the CSA Posts?")

This is now my third year doing a CSA with Little River Market Garden, and while the quality of the products keeps getting better and better, the frequency of my posting on them has precipitously declined. I managed only two posts all of last season, and here we are halfway through this season, and not a single report yet.

Part of the reason, honestly, is that in our home cooking we mostly sacrifice creativity for simplicity, if not expediency. And while a simple salad or some braised greens may make for good eating, I'm not convinced it makes for exciting reading. Still, it's one of the small highlights of every weekend to pick up my bag of vegetables from Farmer Muriel every Saturday. So here is a glimpse of what I've been doing with it.

Shaved kohlrabi and turnip salad. I think kohlrabi is a vastly underappreciated vegetable. It's got a satisfying snap to its texture and a flavor that reminds of broccoli, but sweeter and less farty. So I was excited to see kohlrabi at Muriel's stand this Saturday,[1] and then even more excited to see a recipe using it from Ignacio Mattos of New York's Estela in the latest edition of Bon Appétit. In fact, it's a dish I had at the restaurant just last month.

This winter salad combines thin-sliced root vegetables (the magazine recipe uses kohlrabi; when I had it at the restaurant, it was with turnip - I used both) and apples, dressed simply with lemon juice, zest, and vinegar, together with fresh mint, nuts (the recipe called for hazelnuts but I had none and used marcona almonds instead) and cheese (I subbed parmesan for the funkier fossa cheese Mattos uses). It's deceptively simple, pretty, and incredibly satisfying: the crunch of the root vegetables, the refreshing tartness of the apples and lemon, the umami from the cheese and nuts, a bright grace note of fresh mint.

Spicy beans and wilted greens. This recipe, with some adaptations, was from last month's Bon Appétit,[2] and brings a motherload of umami via anchovies and parmesan rinds cooked with the beans. We used every green we had in the fridge, which included kale, Swiss chard, turnip greens and kohlrabi greens. Some variation on this theme - greens, beans or a grain, and top it with an egg - is a regular dinner staple in our house.[3]

Backyard tomatoes with burrata, spring onions and arugula. OK, the only thing here that actually came from my weekly CSA share was the onion (and maybe the arugula) - but the tomatoes were from seedlings I bought from Little River at the start of the season. That still counts. I've got about a half-dozen tomato plants going, and the first to bear fruit were the Sungold (a small orange-hued cherry tomato packed with flavor) and the Indigo Rose (almost black-skinned with a bright red interior and a round, sweet flavor). I added one larger grocery store heirloom tomato to bulk this up some. The mint green goddess dressing was inspired by the one served at Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonette's "Toro Pizzeria" dinner at Harry's Pizzeria last month.

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