A Truly Great Meal

May 23, 2014

It might have been the company. We were happy together.

But when I found myself  closing my eyes on the very first bite so I could concentrate on the intricate tangle of tastes and textures in my mouth, I knew I was in for a wonderful journey. I sat, eyes shut, following the flavors as they slowly faded. When I opened them again I saw that he had also closed his eyes. 

I hadn’t expected this.  The last meal I had at Benu, perhaps three years ago, was very nice, but it did not begin to prepare me for tonight. Walking in, through a calm garden into the spare elegance of the dining room, I was impressed by the voluptuous quiet. It is like entering a Japanese temple.  I sat down and ran my hands across the dark wood of the table, appreciating its size, its distance from the other diners.  Benu offers, among other things, the luxury of privacy. You are aware that others are also dining here, but they do not intrude.

I sit in the hush of the room, enjoying the tactile pleasure of the flat black oval of wood that anchors my napkin. I pick up a glass, amazed at its fragility. Then  that first bite…

If it is possible to pack more intensity into a single spoonful, I have yet to experience it. 

Egg

I dip my spoon into this tiny bowl, scoop up the thousand year old quail egg with its funky, mysterious flavor, and encounter a jolt of ginger, the smoothness of the warm potage. 

Oyster

Astonishing! One minuscule mouthful that goes crackling into the mouth.  A tiny oyster, slick and soft, is wrapped in a casing of dried pork belly and zapped with kimchi. The ingredients do a little tango in the mouth, dipping and swaying as the flavors leap across each other.  

  Anchovy

Who know celery could be so sexy?  Add anchovy and peanuts, and you get crisp, crunch and salt in one tiny bite. 

Tofu
A new texture. A change of flavor.  This trembling little spoonful, sunflower tofu, is all suave subtle smoothness. 

  Sausage
Another tiny but intense bite. The sliver of dried xo sausage is so thin you barely feel it in your mouth. But the flavor lasts, lingering like the final note of a flute whose sound you feel long after the music itself is gone.

Crips

 

On the menu this is called “salt and pepper squid.” On the plate it looks like a brooch you might pin to your dress.  In your mouth it is… astonishing.

 

  Shrimp

Who would imagine wrapping a long prawn in jellyfish, and then embellishing it with caviar and horseradish?  It tastes even better than it sounds.

 

  White

How to describe this? It looks innocuous, but it somersaults into your mouth, a medley of crisp textures. Is it mimicking shark fin soup?  Perhaps.  But this wild bamboo fungus has a texture I’ve never known before, and I find myself dipping my spoon in again and again, eager for one more taste. 

Porridge

They call this “porridge,” so how could I have possibly imagined this little bit of poetry on the plate? Hidden inside is vivid orange sea urchin, the flavor as bright as the color.

 

Pig head
 Pig head in its most elegant incarnation.

Shao lin bao
 There is a kind of magic to ordinary Shanghai soup dumplings, their liquid filling wrapped inside pasta as thin as butterfly wings. But these, which hold lobster roe are especially joyful.

 

  Sea bream

This small, shining golden sea bream, with its crown of lily bulbs and spring onions, is infused with the flavor of dried tangerine peels. It couldn’t possibly taste as lovely as it looks. But it does. 

 

Abalone1
 

Abalone2

Dried, aged abalone from 2008. It tastes like nothing else on earth. The flavor has a kind of sherry richness, the texture is both soft and resilient. Everything that’s come before has been building to this moment, preparing the palate for this stunning jolt of flavor.  It is the high point of the meal. 

Quail
 Finally the meat portion of the menu: quail with olive, dandelion, mustard. Followed by beef braised in pear juice.  

Yuba

And finally dessert. First, sorbet in sake lees. Then this rather amazing yuba – tofu skin – with almond milk and white chocolate. Think burrata – and then think again. 

Bread
I haven’t even mentioned the bread, which was another astonishment: the crust crisp, the inside soft, served with this beautiful butter drenched in the lightest honey.

Corey Lee and his kitchen are doing something remarkable at Benu, and they get wonderful support from the dining room staff.  Sommelier Yoon Ha’s pairings are quirky and brilliant; the wines and beers he selected acted like a chorus, humming softly behind each dish.

I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a meal this much.

 

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From the Archives: Another WWII Recipe

May 22, 2014

From the time of rationing: How to make one egg, a handful of cheese and a half cup of cereal into an "exotic" dinner for six. Is it the tomato sauce that's supposed to make this dish Mexican? Or perhaps it's those optional olives.

 

MEXICAN SUPPER

1 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup Grape-Nuts Wheat-Meal
3/4 cup grated American cheese
1 egg, well beaten
Spanish Sauce
Paprika

Heat milk in saucepan. Add salt; then pour in cereal very gradually, stirring constantly. Bring to a boil and cook and stir 3 minutes. Remove from heat. Add 1/4 cup cheese and egg and blend. Pour into shallow pan. Chill. Place spoonfuls or 2-inch squares in shallow baking dish and cover with Spanish Sauce. Sprinkle with remaining cheese and paprika. Bake in hot oven (400° F.) 15 minutes, or until cheese is melted. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Spanish Sauce. Melt 1 1/2 tablespoons fat in skillet. Add 3 tablespoons each chopped onion, green pepper, and celery. Cook slowly until onion is golden brown. Add 1 1/2 cups stewed tomatoes, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and dash of pepper. Cook slowly until sauce is thickened. If desired, add a few sliced stuffed olives to sauce.

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A Small Find

May 20, 2014

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On book tour there are always small pockets of time when you find yourself wandering around your host city, popping in and out of little shops.  When I'm in Seattle I always try to make my way to Melrose Market, for some of the wonderful oysters (and geoducks, and spot prawns) at Taylor's Shellfish. But before I sit down to feast on seafood, I go upstairs to the quirky little shop called Butter Home. They always have interesting objects.

This time it was this cocktail game.

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It's a small jar containing a set of tiny cubes. Five are the colorful ingredient dice on top.  Then there are these black and white dice: they tell you what mixers to add, how to prepare the drink, and which glass to use.

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It's all very silly. But I can imagine that it would really shake up a slow party.

 

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Notes from the Road: Dallas, Seattle, L.A.

May 17, 2014

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The sun was shining in Seattle. The flowers were in bloom. In clear weather, this city is almost heartbreakingly beautiful. Wandering through the Pike Place Market I came upon these flowers.

And these….

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and these

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and these…

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which made me think of the lovely dinner I'd eaten at Lark the night before.  I've always loved Lark for its simplicity, seasonality and bold flavors, but after a particularly vegetable-deprived week on the road, the menu was a special treat.  I started with some oysters, then a raw artichoke salad, the tender vegetables lightly dressed in lemon, topped with shards of Parmigiano cheese and tossed with anchovies and wonderfully crisp croutons.   Then we had the most wonderful farro – each plump, nutty grain popping in my mouth until I started thinking of it as caviar of the forest. The farro mingled with fava beans and spinach, while a warm river of mascarpone flooded the middle. 

We had oysters, with just a hint of yuzu. Charred octopus was just a little chewy, with crisp edges; it was enlivened with bacon and zapped with peppers.  It was a perfect little meal.

The night before I'd been in Dallas, sharing a snack with my friend Dean Fearing.  He liked it when I said that all I wanted was some buffalo tacos, and joined me in eating these fantastically flavorful,  - delightfully messy tacos.  Fearing has a big personality, and there's nothing modest about the way he mixes flavors; these tiny tacos, with their pickled onions, cheese and Sriracha really pack a punch.

 

Taco

But I digress. Back to Seattle.  I ate nothing that wasn't wonderful while I was there. In fact, I liked my lunch at Dahlia Lounge so much that it was gone before I remembered to take pictures. When the salad came out I looked down at the plate thinking – oh the usual dull mesclun. Then I took a bite. Each one of the greens, grown at Prosser Farm, had stunning integrity.  Each added its own subtle flavor. There must have been a dozen different leaves in there, from nepitella to baby lettuces and herbs, but it was an absolutely perfect expression of a Northwest spring. It was followed by salmon – gorgously fresh and beautifully cooked – that made most of the salmon I've been eating lately seem pathetic.

But despite all the great food I ate in Seattle, the biggest thrill was this:

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Live spot prawns, fished from the tank and eaten raw at Taylor Shellfish in Melrose Market.  There is nothing quite so subtle as these little creatures when they're eaten with nothing more than a squirt of lime.  You pick up a shrimp, give the head a quick twist, then suck down the sweet, transparent meat.  Spot prawns must be alive when you get them – they deteroriate with stunning speed once dead – which means them a strictly local treat. And a short-lived one: the season lasts a mere few weeks. The flavor is like nothing else I've tasted; much more subtle than any other creature that emerges from the sea.

Now I'm in Los Angeles.  The trip here started with this delicious little tidbit from the Hungry Cat:

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Johnnycake topped with smoked whitefish, salmon roe and creme fraiche.  I could have eaten a dozen. I'll admit that I missed most of lunch, since I was giving a talk, but it made me yearn to go back.

Last night we had a party and the Guerilla Taco Truck showed up.  I've gone on about how much I like these tacos in the past, so I won't repeat myself.  Just let me say that they did not disappoint. And if there's a sweet potato taco anywhere on the planet that can match the one Will Avila cooks up, I'll be absolutely astonished.  

We ended last night at the new Night + Market Song (Song means two in Thai) in Silverlake.  It's a unique restaurant with guaranteed status as a cult favorite.  Painfully bright with orange and magenta walls that vibrate until you're almost blind, it's a true adventure in eating. Chris Yenbamroong understands that he need make no concessions to the American palate. And he doesn't. The larb has liver and bile mixed in, as it would in Northern Thailand or Laos, until is musky, dark, richly funky.  There's a pork blood soup served with cracklings, herbs and fried garlic that leaves your lips a ghoulish red.  It's all steamy and exciting – like a trip to a street stall somewhere in deepest Thailand. But what I like best are the nam priks and the jaeows – pounded condiments of stunning complexity that you use as a dip for vegetables, for fried slices of eggplant, and best of all, for the warm balls of sticky rice that are the staple food in that part of the world.  

Restaurants like this are what make food in Los Angeles so exciting.  It's a chance to take a trip without needing a passport. 

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How to Pack a Carry-On Bag for a Three Week Trip

May 15, 2014

When you're on book tour, you're in a different city every day.  Most days you have to get up early – really early – to make a 6 or 7 a.m. flight.  (Two days ago I had a 5 a.m. flight, which meant getting up at 3.)  And you're always in a hurry; that 5 a.m. flight was late, which meant I started the first interview of the day in a cab, then walked into the radio station, still talking, to take my seat.

It requires a little strategy.  You don't have time to wait for luggage, so you have to carry on.  And you need a seat in the front of the plane, so you can get your suitcase into the overhead bin before they run out of space.

When I found out that the tour for my novel, Delicious! was more than three weeks long, I panicked. I was going to be in wildly different temperatures (so far the range has been from the thirties to a high of 96). How was I possibly going to manage to get what I needed into a carry-on bag?

I'm ten days in, and so far it's working.  Here's what I've got with me (in addition to two pairs of shoe, a pair of sandals, underwear, a curling iron and the usual toiletries).

Pants

Three pairs of black pants (one J-Jeans, two Uniqlo) and two jackets (one Zelda, one very ancient Yamamoto).

Tops2

Five tops (1 Indian silk, 1 Dosa, 1 washable silk, 1 Tory Burch tunic, 1 Moroccan striper).

Tees

Three tee shirts (all J. Crew).

Tops

One skirt, one dress (Theory), one dress (vintage).

Jewel

Assorted jewelry, mostly antique.

And finally, the ubiquitous and very useful puffer (Uniqlo).  Airplanes are always freezing – and it doubles as a pillow.

Puff

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