Atomix

June 19, 2018

You leave Atomix with a deck of cards, a gorgeous kind of Tarot set, each one devoted to a dish you have eaten.  In another restaurant this might seem like a gimmick, but at this serene almost contemplative restaurant it is something much rarer: it is pride.

JungHyun and Ellia Park are too ambitious to simply offer you food: they want you to ingest their culture. You sit at their spare but luxurious ten seat counter and each course tells a tale of Korea; by the time this deliriously delicious evening comes to a close you have a new respect for this complex cuisine.  And – if you’re me – an enormous desire to learn more.

Although the two restaurants do not resemble each other in any way, this is, I think, closer to Blue Hill at Stone Barns than any other place I can think of.  When I want friends to experience sustainability, I send them to Blue Hill. In that spirit, I’ll be sending people with an interest in Korea to spend a few hours at Atomix.

You could, of course, just go and eat the food.  Everything we had was artful, beautifully presented, and exciting.

The meal builds.  This first course – a roasted burdock soup – was filled with intriguing and unfamiliar flavors.  What you are looking at is a preserved Korean plant, mugwort oil, and a little nugget of fishcake. That fishcake, made in house, was unlike any I’ve tasted before. I wanted more. A lot more.

The next course was hoe – raw fish – and it was stunning.  The card tells you that the inspiration came from a poem talking of “fish tossed in golden gleam.”  That poem becomes sea bream  marinated in tangerine vinegar, then topped with a gelatin made of soy sauce, Japanese uni and a bit of chrysanthemum.  The flavors were subtle and slightly teasing, the gentleness of the fish underscored by the bitter leaves, the spicy citrus, and the opulence of uni.

A fried course.  One elegant langoustine topped with an uni-nasturtium cream.  But there was another flavor, prickling my tongue, hovering at the very edges of consciousness, dancing in and out.  It was, apparently, a seed pod called chopi, used in Korea before peppers arrived on their shores. Fascinating!

Now we come to the one course that didn’t work for me.  I love caviar – and this was everything osetra should be – slightly fruity, rounded, a gentle pop in the mouth.  But it was overwhelmed by the lovely freshness of the cheese curd, so soft and sexy, so richly milky. That curd was so seductive – a textural magician – I barely noticed the caviar.

This is the chef’s idea of pancakes.  If you’ve spent any time around Korean food you’ve undoubtedly encountered the pajeons – savory pancakes.  Here the cake becomes a shadow of itself, a thin crepe embracing golden eye snapper.

But there’s another elusive flavor here, and I worry at it, trying to identify the taste.  It is, it turns out, a rare Korean soy sauce, the balsamic vinegar of the country if you will, which has been slowly fermented for at least five years.  The resulting elixir is not just salty; it is round, proud – the taste of time.

It was served with the most extraordinary little bowl of rice. The rice, each grain distinct, was mixed with seaweeds, sesame oil and topped with a tender little cloud of tofu.

A  tidbit, really, one tiny bite of eggplant with eel mousse. On the side, a poached oyster with kimchi.  (And should you be interested in these lovely ceramics, the cards identify each artist.)

Chef Park displays a whole turbot, first grilled then poached.  When it next appears it is in a chrysanthemum sauce. I’ve always thought of chrysanthemum as a rather grumpy flavor, but here it actually smiles.

“If I were to provide the one word that best describe the true Korean flavor, I would undoubtedly say fermentation,”  the chef writes on this card. That is the point of this plate. The little cubes of wagyu have been marinated in fermented fruit juice.  On the side, fermented wasabi leaves, preserved garlic, ramps, dried seafood.  And more in the panchan: preserved radish, cucumber, cabbage. No more than a few tiny bites, but each one eloquent.

Easing into dessert shaved ice tops strawberries and creme fraiche, with coriander and black pepper rocketing through the sweetness.  This is what I thought when I took the first spoonful: If you could bite into those first few days of spring, this is what it would taste like. 

It looks simple, but there’s so much work in this little dish of rice ice cream with pickled sprout honey.  That unfamiliar flavor?  It turned out to be a pudding made of the scorched rice left at the bottom of the rice pot. 

This was the most provocative and exciting meal I’ve had in a very long time. I’m ready for my next lesson in Korean cuisine; I can hardly wait for the next menu.

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Terrible Weekend

June 12, 2018

Like almost everyone in the food community, I’ve spent the past few days mourning Tony Bourdain. He wasn’t a close friend, but I’ve known him for at least twenty years and watched, gratefully, as he changed the food landscape.  More than anyone, he was the person who persuaded a wide swath of Americans that food is much more important than merely something to eat.  He went beyond the delicious to demonstrate that it’s one of the fundamental ways we connect with one another.  He made it his mission to prove that food is really about community and politics, about economics, the environment, culture and history.

He mattered, and it’s almost impossible to believe that he’s gone.

I was on Cape Cod when the news arrived, speaking at a charity function for a wonderful institution called We Can dedicated to helping women in transition at difficult points in their lives.  We were, of course, talking about food and community.  And as I went out, alone, to walk along the beach in the early morning, thinking about Tony, I was glad to be there. I wished there had been someplace Tony could have reached out  to when he was in so much pain.

Then I drove to Truro, to a workshop at another wonderful institution, The Castle Hill Center for the Arts. There for a writing workshop, we were all so sad that we dedicated our  time to Tony’s work.  We began by reading his first seminal piece for the New Yorker, and then some pieces from Gourmet.  I especially like this one.

And then, of course, we ate.  It seemed appropriate to celebrate Tony’s life with food. Here are a few highlights.

Fried belly clams.  There are dozens of places to get them on the Cape.  My favorite in Wellfleet is PJ’s. (These are not theirs – I forgot to take that picture. These are from another place down the road, whose name I neglected to write down.  But it’s hard to find bad fried clams on the Cape.)

Baked Wellfleet oysters from Terra Luna restaurant – one of the coziest, friendliest restaurants you’ll ever find.  They describe their food as “rustic neo-pagan” which seemed just about perfect for that moment.

A plate of homemade salumi from Ceraldi’s – the most ambitious and impressive restaurant in the area.  They’re making their own coppa, pancetta, bresaola – and that bagna cauda beneath the radish was really delicious.  (As was everything we ate in a long meal, from crisp local oysters with samphire, to locally raised chicken and a rhubarb panna cotta.)

Had more fried clams on the way home.  And then, back in Hudson, stopped in at Oak Pizzeria Napoletana for a wood-fired clam pizza.  Seemed like a fitting end to this particular journey.

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Gooey and Chewy

June 2, 2018

Reading Jonathan Gold’s description of a Sichuan dish in today’s LA Times made me really hungry.  Partly because it’s such a lovely description; partly because yama imo – Japanese mountain potato – is one of my favorite foods.

Yama imo looks like daikon, and it begins with a crunch.  But it quickly transforms itself into a creamy paste and as you chew it keeps changing – a little circus of the mouth – until its become liquid.  It’s a transformation that always delights me.  I often eat it for breakfast, rolled up in sheets of nori with a bit of umeboshi, the pickled plum-like apricots of Japan.

But I don’t have any yama imo on hand at the moment, and I’m now desperate for some Asian flavors.  A quick search through the refrigerator reveals the squid I bought yesterday, some chiles, a bottle of Shaoxing wine and a package of Chinese noodles; that, I decide will be lunch.

 

This recipe is based on the one in Bruce Cost’s Big Bowl Cookbook.

Slightly Spicy Chinese Noodles with Squid

1/2 pound cleaned squid

8 ounces Chinese noodles

1/2 teaspoon sesame oil

1 tablespoon neutral oil

Knob of ginger, shredded

5 scallions, sliced

1 jalapeno, thinly sliced

1 clove garlic

2 teaspoons Chinese black beans, rinsed

1/2 cup chicken stock

1 teaspoon sugar

2 tablespoons oyster sauce

1 tablespoon soy sauce

2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine

Bring a pot of water to a boil.

Cut the squid into 1/2 inch wide strips, and if the tentacles are very large, cut them in half.  Throw the squid into the  boiling water, let it come back to a boil and cook for about half a minute.  Drain and immediately run under cold water to stop the cooking.  Set aside.

Cook the noodles according to package directions; Chinese noodles take about 3 minutes.  Drain, rinse under cold water and toss with the sesame oil to keep them from sticking. Set aside.

Prep the other ingredients: shred the ginger, slice the scallions, slice the jalapeño, mince the garlic and rinse the black beans.

Mix the chicken stock with the sugar, oyster sauce and soy sauce.

Heat a wok or heavy skillet over high heat.  When it’s hot, add the neutral oil, allow it to get hot and add the ginger, scallions, jalapeno, garlic and black beans; toss and stir until the aroma floats over the pan.  Add the chicken stock and cook for a minute or so, until it boils.  Add the cooked noodles and toss for another minute.  Add the squid and the wine and cook for another minute or two, until it’s all heated through.

Serves 2-3 people.

The Chinese black beans are really necessary for this; they cost very little, you can get them at any Chinese grocery store and they last virtually forever.  They’re a classic umami ingredient (they’re what soy sauce is made out of), and a great pantry item.

Shaoxing is harder to find, but it’s flavor adds a lot to Chinese dishes.  In a pinch, substitute dry sherry.

If you don’t have fresh chiles, you can substitute dried chile flakes. Or simply forego the bite of heat and leave them out.

If you don’t have scallions, a small diced onion will do.

And if you don’t have Chinese noodles, you can substitute any other kind of noodle.

 

 

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Things I Love: Terrific Tahini

June 1, 2018

I call it the “Ottolenghi effect,” this newfound passion for the flavors of the Middle East.  And if you’re one of the people who’s been affected by this cooking craze, you need to know about Seed+Mill tahini.  It tastes nothing like the nasty stuff you find in most supermarkets: this is the essence of sesame.  Before long you’ll find yourself using it in all sorts of other ways – added to brownies, for sesame noodles, or as an ingredient in salad dressing.  Sometimes you might just eat it by the spoonful.

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Notes from the Archive

May 29, 2018

I’m a packrat, a saver, a person who finds it difficult to throw anything away.  I’m always convinced that the minute something goes into the trash is the exact minute when I’ll desperately need it.

This inability to toss things used to make me crazy, but lately I’ve been happy to have all this food history at my fingertips.  I’ve got files going back to the early seventies.  Today I pulled out a file labeled “Symposium on American Cuisine,” and found these interesting artifacts.

The first Symposium was held in New Orleans in 1983.  Jim Villas gave the keynote speech, which was very curmudgeonly.  The following year I think the Symposium was held in Louisville, and John Mariani was the keynote speaker.  In 1985 it was held in San Francisco, and I apparently delivered the keynote.  I have no memory of this, but I’m reading the speech now.  Highlights from that tomorrow….

These menus are obviously from Louisville and San Francisco.  I’m going to try and find the New Orleans folder…. I have delicious memories of the food served there; Paul Prudhomme was still at Commander’s Palace, and he made the most amazing meal.

 

 

 

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