The Secret Beef Place

February 15, 2014

Totoraku, Los Angeles

This is one of those places people whisper about.  “You mean you really got in?”  They look at you suspiciously.  “How?”

The restaurant is so wary of unknown customers that it disguises itself as an empty storefront. It doesn’t take reservations. If you somehow get the phone number, the woman who answers will tell you they are fully booked. Forever. 

But if you know someone, who knows someone….

First off, it doesn’t look like much.  The kitchen occupies half the restaurant, the tables are modest, and the odd screens shielding the tables look as if they were rescued from a hospital that went out of business in the fifties. Dusty (empty) bottles of (very fancy) wine (red), sit on top of the wall separating the kitchen from the dining room.  This then, is all about the food. 

All about the beef, in fact; this is a meat-eater’s paradise, the meal I wanted to have in Osaka, the meal I couldn’t get because I could not make myself understood in that city’s equivalent of this restaurant. Although we were able to procure a reservation for the Osaka restaurant, we got there to discover that nobody spoke English. We ordered by pointing at the food on other people’s tables. All I can say is – we ordered wrong.

At Totoraku, however, you don't order.  You bring your own wine, and they bring you food. Last night's meal went like this:

Sushi

This elegant platter of tiny tastes is the one non-meat offering.  It contains (amon other little tidbits) a tangle of shrimp topped with caviar, fragrant Japanese uni, crisp abalone, sesame tofu, wild yellowtail, delicate little avocado rolls and a dish of pickled cucumber topped with crisp bits of jellyfish.

Carpaccio

Tender slices of raw beef. 

Tartar
Beef tartar in the Korean style: cold squiggles of beef with Asian pear, sesame and a quail egg yolk.

Lemon

More beef, served with grated horseradish and a garlic paste. The joy here is the raw beef on the right, which comes from the throat; smooth and silky, with the texture of toro, it simply evaporates in your mouth.

Onions
Now the hibachi comes out, along with a parade of different cuts.  I'm sorry to say I liked the soft, rich slices of tongue so much that I forgot to photograph them. Then there was this platter of filet mignon – the least impressive meat of the night – with lovely vegetables to grill. (There was also, full disclosure, a basket of raw vegetables, some marinated tomatoes, and a miso-based sauce to dip them in.)

Meat

Outside ribeye (this is the long muscle on the outside of a ribeye, which many consider the single best piece of meat on the animal).

Outside
Inside ribeye – fascinating, the different texture of this cut.

Shortrib

Boneless shortrib – my favorite of the lot.  

Soup
And finally, the soup with a bit of egg, spinach, and just a tiny scoop of rice. A perfect ending to the meal.

There was completely unnecessary sorbet for dessert.  In the end, what you remember is the meat. Chef Kaz Oyama won't say where he sources it, but it was, truly, spectacular.  

 

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Recipe for a Snowy Day

February 12, 2014

I'm sitting in sunshine, but an eastcoast friend has just asked for my garlic bread recipe; it is, he says, the only thing that will cheer him up. 

What a good idea. It's hard to be gloomy when garlic bread is broadcasting its seductive smell throughout the house.  

These days it's  both easier and harder to make a great loaf of garlic bread than it once was. Easier because good bread is everywhere. Harder because the influx of cheap, imported garlic has made good garlic an increasingly rare commodity.  Try to find garlic that looks young and fresh, and squeeze it to make sure it isn’t shrinking inside its skin. You don’t want old garlic because when it starts to sprout it gets nasty and very bitter, ruining everything it comes in contact with. You know the terrible taste I’m talking about.  If you can’t get your hands on good garlic, the only remedy is to go through your garlic, clove by clove, removing the bitter green sprout in the center.  It’s painstaking work, but it’s worth it.  

There are four other tricks to making great garlic bread. 

1. Use a lot of garlic, but really cook it for a while so it’s not raw and biting. 

2. Melt the butter–don’t just soften it—and brush it liberally across the bread.  When you think you’ve used enough, use more. 

3. Bake it twice: Once to get the bread warm and completely infused with the garlic butter. And again, at a higher temperature, to toast it to crisp, golden, crunchiness.  

4. Garlic bread should taste most of garlic and butter, but I love the complex flavors and spring-like look you get by adding lemon zest, parsley, or chives. But my favorite addition is a quarter cup of freshly grated parmesan cheese, added just before it goes under the broiler, which makes this truly, decadently, delicious.  

 

GREAT Garlic Bread

1 loaf sturdy French or Italian bread

1 stick sweet butter

1 head garlic

Zest from 1 lemon (optional)

¼ cup freshly grated parmesan cheese (optional)

2 tablespoons chopped parsley or chives (optional)

 

Cut bread and preheat: Begin by cutting the bread in half, lengthwise (a serrated knife helps).  Preheat oven to 350⁰ F.

Prep garlic butter: Peel and finely chop the garlic. (For an easy way to peel garlic, drop the cloves into a pan of boiling water for 10 seconds, which will loosen the skins.) Melt a stick of sweet butter, and add the garlic. 

Slather bread: Slather the garlic butter onto the bread, cut side up, with a brush.  Let it soak in. Use it all, and evenly spread the bits of garlic all over. Now is the time to salt it if you want to, and to sprinkle on the zest.   

Bake: Bake the loaf, cut sides up, 15 minutes.Take the bread out now and do the final step just before serving. Turn the heat up to broil. Add cheese, if using. Broil for about 2 minutes, watching carefully to make sure it doesn’t burn. Sprinkle with herbs just as it comes out of the broiler and serve immediately. 

 

 

 

 

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Lemonade!

February 9, 2014

Lemon
I wish you could smell these lemons!  They're so intense that I've perfumed the entire house with their fresh yellow fragrance.

I'm making what I think is the world's best lemonade.But first, a few notes. 

 

  1. The most important thing to know about lemons is that the best flavor is in the peel, which contains all that wonderful lemon oil.  If you’re going to take advantage of this, buy organic lemons or scrub your lemons well before using them.
  2. But here’s the problem: just below the bright yellow zest is the evil pith, the spongey white part of the lemon which is bitter.  That’s the part you want to avoid; if you crush it into your lemonade within a few hours you will end up with an unpleasantly bitter drink. 
  3. Simple syrup is one of the secrets to great lemonade. It is nothing more than sugar dissolved in water so that the sugar will sweeten the lemon juice, rather than fluttering down to the bottom of the glass and sitting there glumly all by itself. If you infuse the lemon zest into the syrup, you get all the complexity of the zest with none of the bitterness of the white. 
  4. You’ll need a lot of lemon juice, so you want to get as much juice out of each lemon as you can. If you’re lucky, you’ll get about a quarter of a cup of juice out of each lemon; if you’re stuck with unfortunate lemons you might need as many as six for a cup of juice.  Increase your chances by rolling the lemon around on the counter beneath your palm to break down the cells inside the fruit; it will give you more juice. 
  5. If the lemons seem hard and unforgiving, microwave them for 20 seconds.  This will shock them into relaxing, just a little. 

 

World's Best Lemonade

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup water

4-6 lemons juice, enough to make a cup of lemon juice

2 cups water

With a sharp knife or a vegetable peeler, remove the zest from the lemons, being careful not to get any of the white pith.  

Mix the sugar and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat, throw in the lemon zest and allow to cool.  

Juice the lemons until you have a cup of fresh juice. 

Strain the sugar syrup; it should be a lovely yellow. Add half to the lemon juice, along with the water, and keep adding more until it is sweetened to your taste.  (I prefer mine quite tart. The strained syrup will keep almost indefinitely in the refrigerator.)  

Pour over ice cubes and serve. 

 

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A Vegetarian Egg?

February 8, 2014

When I was in San Francisco I stopped by Hampton Creek Foods to investigate their “vegetarian egg” project.  It’s a fascinating look into the future.   

The tech startup, funded partly by Bill Gates, is intent on making an egg out of vegetables.  Their one-room office south of Market is as unusual as the egg they’re trying to make.  Part Geek City, part Julia Child’s kitchen, part Mad Scientist’s lair, it’s a collision of  home ec, Silicon Valley and science. In one corner chefs are baking cookies and flipping pancakes; in another scientists are doing arcane experiments with test tubes and centrifuges. And in the middle nimble young people are tapping furiously on their computers.  A dog sleeps on a sofa. 

The idea, they tell me in a quick intro, is to do away with battery chicken facilities, which torture the animals (well, you’ve seen the pictures), create huge environmental problems (greenhouse gasses, monumental piles of manure), require antibiotics, and are prone to disease like avian flu.  Oh yes – and they’re expensive.  Their "eggs", they say proudly, will be environmentally sound, disease-free, farmer-friendly – and cheaper. 

The point is very much the one Frances Moore Lappe made more than forty years ago in Diet for a Small Planet: there is something insane about using huge amounts of usable protein (in the form of feed grain) to get a very small amount of usable protein (in the form of meat).  Why not just eat the grain instead?

The smart part is that they’re not trying to create an egg that you would boil or fry; they’re trying to create an egg that’s an ingredient.  And their first product, Just Mayo (already for sale at Whole Foods), is very convincing.  It’s delicious mayonnaise.  

Mayo

 

Now they’re working on eggs you can use in pastries.  The pancakes chef  Chris Jones (you might remember him from Top Chef), made with one of the products isn’t the best pancake I’ve ever tasted – but it isn’t the worst.  Put enough syrup on it, and few people would complain.

Pancakes
 

The egg that they “scrambled” needs a lot more work.  It was grainy, with a slightly sour taste. Still, put it in a breakfast sandwich with a slice of sausage, and you’d probably never notice that it wasn't really an egg. And I couldn’t help be impressed by the notion that it is 100% vegetable.

  Eggs

What vegetable?  The scientists won’t say, although the label on their mayonnaise mentions "pea protein." They’re working with a variety of legumes and beans from all over the world in an attempt to find various proteins that will mimic the emulsifying and leavening action of eggs. 

They’ll never replace a great boiled egg. But as a substitute ingredient in what has become America’s most popular condiment (mayo has apparently just beaten out both catsup and salsa) – well, it’s bound to save a lot of chickens from a miserable life. 

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Notes from San Francisco: Atelier Crenn

February 7, 2014

  Fish

I didn’t know what to expect.  

This is what I knew: Dominique Crenn was a San Francisco chef who is always mentioned when the subject of “women chefs” is raised. She had many stars from local critics in San Francisco, and two from the Michelin people. And she writes menus that are poems.  

This is what I found: a small, spare, elegant but rather modest room filled with the electricity of expectation.  It feels hopeful, the way a theater does, just before the curtain rises.  

And theater is what you get.  I love this kind of dining, where the chef is walking a tightrope, taking risks, pushing you to explore tastes and textures that you’ve never before experienced.  There were dishes I loved and some I hated, but in the four hours I spent at the table, I was never bored. It was like taking a wonderful journey, exploring new territory, and I walked out the door utterly exhilarated.

Here are a few of my favorite moments of this particular trip. (Apologies for the pictures; I was having too much fun…)

The meal begins with a tiny bonbon of a drink. An adorable edible Kir, a little flavor bomb that explodes into your mouth in a whoosh of liquid.  Apple, chocolate – and a total surprise. 

And then the parade of tiny dishes begins…..

 

Caviar

Under the midnight glow I can taste the sweetness of the sea: a tiny uni custard topped with caviar (in a ceramic sea urchin shell)

Grain

Nature rejoice, chasing childhood memories.

Snap, crackle and pop! Maybe my favorite dish of the evening, this reimagined cereal combines crunchy grains, cool herbal leaves, lovely trout roe.  Textures and temperatures do somersaults in your mouth. Fantastic!

Chowder

These creatures who move with a slow, vague wavering of claws

No wait, this was my favorite course: Hands down the best seafood chowder I've ever tasted. Hard to believe that so many flavors and textures are hiding in that little bowl of soup.

  CarrotSalad

Elegantly sitting on branches.

You can hardly see them, but at each end of this branch is a tiny carrot that has been much manipulated until it is reduced to the ghostly essence of itself.  A fascinating little tidbit.

and

Dotting the fragrant flora; Ms. Crenn's whimsical little salad.

Mushrooms

Walking deep in the woods, as the snow might have something to spare.

A delightful tangle of mushrooms, and utterly irresistible.

Beef

Feeling of black sand under my toes.

Wagyu beef as it should be served: one extremely satisfying bite. Okay, maybe two.

Bird

Where the wild beauty is sleeping under frozen winter leaves.

The wild beauty being the most delicious bit of bird.

And finally, an edible encyclopedia of honey, all comb and crunch. 

Honey

Afterward there were lollipops, chocolates and as a finale, a little fluff of mint cotton candy, that leaves you with a laugh. 

Fantastic pairings of wine, sake and beer as well. My particular favorite: that fantastic old white Rioja!

Menu

  Wine

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