Dinner on the Dark Side

February 8, 2018

I arrived at the glowing spaceship that houses Vespertine with a large chip on my shoulder. Everything I’d read about the place put me off.  I was even irritated by the  message that arrived with my reservation. “Checking in with the valet before dinner is required, as this member of our team is integral to your experience.’’  I’m not even there yet, and already there are  “requirements.”

Indeed, when said valet insisted my first stop be the outdoor garden, I balked.  It was dark. It was cold. I wanted to go inside that strange perforated orange building. But he led me, inexorably, to a concrete seat and very reluctantly, I sat down.  The seat was heated! A soft fuzzy blanket was draped around my shoulders. The air was fragrant. Against my will I found myself snuggling in for a glass of champagne.  By the time my guide gently suggested it was time to enter the edifice I was loath to leave.

Dinner at Vespertine involves a fair amount of traveling. Your guide directs you to the elevator and you exit through the kitchen where otherworldly music plays as a team of eerily silent cooks ply tweezers. The substances they are working with do not resemble food, and the vessels they are so carefully placing it on do not resemble any plates or bowls you’ve previously encountered. Then you are outside again, climbing steep stairs to a dark lounge whose low tables are covered with twigs, candles and branches draped with strange black objects. It is like a campground on Mars.

The first offering is some sort of Douglas fir and white wine beverage topped with oxalis (a wood sorrel). That green concoction in the bowl starts off strange and becomes increasingly appealing; laced with tiny roe, it is like taramosalata conceived on Pluto. By the time I’d finished using it as a dip for the various sea vegetables (those black objects hanging from the twigs) I was sorry to see it go.

But here comes the waitress, gliding silently to the table with the next course.  Pull this little volcano apart and you find the most delicious cracker you’ve ever eaten, a kind of savory sable made of burnt onions and black current.

“I love this!” My companion says it with a kind of shock.


We both love the next course too, layers of green gage plums and apples, a sticky, gooey little treat that we pry from its ceramic tower.

We love this too, this dark cracker topped with abalone mushroom.

We’ve grown comfortable here, but now it seems it’s time to journey on to another galaxy on another level. I’m actually disappointed to discover that the dining room resembles… a dining room.  It is disappointingly conventional, filled with ordinary people conversing as they eat their dinner. And then the food arrives. 

Inside this spruce-sprinkled bowl are raw peas, kiwis cut to the same dimensions and a third little unidentifiable orb that is both sweet and sticky.  On top is a little round of frozen salad dressing that slowly melts.  It is delicious.

“The bowl is meant to activate your senses other than sight,” the waitress says as she sets down this peek-a-boo bowl.  I could have done without the lecture, but hidden inside that giant maw is the most wonderful rice pudding laced with little texture bombs – popped rice, tiny roe – and topped with onions and sunflower petals. I find it irresistible.

virginal wedding feast?   An essay on whiteness – smooth scallops, crisp white asparagus, fuzzy blossoms, crunchy shrimp crackers. When the pale yuzu -pine broth is poured into the bowl, all the textures meld, melt, change.

This dish looks like as strange and alien as a large red slug, but in the mouth it’s utterly familiar.  A gorgeously cooked spot prawn paired with the sweet crunch of water chestnut, the edgy acidity of quince, the electricity of sorrel and spinach.  More please.

Jordan Kahn is an interesting chef.  Unlike most of those who work in this particular idiom, he’s more artist than scientist.  Unlike Ferran Adria, who revels in taking food apart and putting it back together in ways that twist your perceptions, Kahn works in a gentler mold.  He’s trying to make you experience food in new ways, playing with color, texture and shape to coax out shy flavors. His is an art of combination, not reduction. Against my will I slowly allow myself to be seduced. 

Mussels and pork fat.

Dungeness crab and leeks.

Naragansett turkey,  with a complex sauce made of  bones and currants. Hyssop.  It arrives on long branches of yarrow, looking like  Thanksgiving in the middle of winter. (It took an effort of will not to pocket that knife.)

Smoked lamb’s heart, Marionberries, puffed rice, fresh cheese

Sea urchin with Pedro Jimenez sherry.  A dessert for people who don’t like dessert.  Pure heaven.

Black raspberry, sorrel and frozen buckwheat. Even the edges of the bowl are meant to be eaten.

The meal is long, slow, measured.  It is delicious.  It is entertaining. Some people will hate this restaurant, and I understand that. But I’m fascinated by chefs who are pushing the envelope as they reconsider the very nature of what a restaurant might be. Vespertine offers up the restaurant as performance art, and they’ve enlisted the help of artists, architects and musicians to enhance the experience. Kahn’s certainly not the first to do it, but he’s moved the concept farther down the road. This kind of cooking often ends up with extremely stupid food. And that’s the surprise of Vespertine: there is nothing remotely ridiculous about the food.

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Do You Kuku?

February 6, 2018

“Hey,” said my friend Margy, “wanna learn how to make kuku subzi?”

Of course I wanted to.  I’ve always been intrigued by the Persian herb frittata, which is not only a savory egg dream, but also, with its deep green hue, one of the prettiest dishes you’ll ever see.

So there we were with Debbie Michail, a talented chef famous for her Persian pop-ups, watching her make her grandmother’s kuku.  It soon became clear that this is one of those personal dishes, one that changes  with each cook, one that rarely needs a written recipe  It’s a forgiving dish: all you need is lots of herbs, onions and eggs.

Debbie didn’t want to be photographed, so all you’ve got here are the steps in the recipe.

Saute the onions in a LOT of oil.  Add salt and turmeric at the end.

Chop the tareh, which is the one essential herb.  Translated as leeks, garlic chives or chives it’s a lovely, gentle herb.  I can think of dozens of other ways to use it.  (The radishes are just garnish.)

Saute great handfuls of spinach.

Add chopped parsley, dill, cilantro – any herbs you happen to appreciate. Lots of them.

Add the onions to the greens.  Break in a lot of eggs.  (This is more herbs with eggs than eggs with herbs; you don’t want it to be too eggy.)

Cook in more oil until the bottom is brown.  Flip it and cook the other side. You want it to be gently cooked, but not runny.

Serve with sliced cucumbers (Debbie sprinkles hers with maras pepper), tomatoes, olives, fennel, radishes and feta.  Top with yogurt that has been infused with lots of spicy lime pickle. (For my next lesson, I want to learn to make Debbie’s wonderful lime pickle.)

Eat with enormous pleasure.

There are dozens of recipes for kuku sabzi on the internet.  This link is to the recipe of the great Persian cookbook author Najmieh Batmanglij.

Willing to wait? Debbie’s planning to open a restaurant sometime next year, where you’ll be able to indulge in her superb version.

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Hello Old Friend

January 31, 2018

For the longest time Momofuku Ssam Bar was my favorite restaurant in New York.  The first bite felt as if David Chang had reached inside my head, seen my secret fantasies and conjured up the perfect dish for me.  Weird and wonderful, whipped tofu with huge orange lobes of Santa Barbara sea urchin and giant black tapioca pearls was not for everyone, but the textures and flavors swirling through my mouth made me deliriously happy. I went on to pork buns, rice sticks with spicy sausage, crisp Brussels sprouts drenched in fish sauce and chiles, knowing I’d come home.

I loved the atmosphere too – the raucous noise of the place, the way strangers exchanged food, the offbeat wine list.  For years my son and I went there as often as we could, and the restaurant never disappointed us.  I’ll never forget the night the chef sent out a new dish he was experimenting with – curved little bowls containing litchis topped with an icy riesling gelee and pine nut brittle. He came to the table holding  a chunk of frozen foie gras and began shaving it, pretty pink curls falling into the dish.  I took a bite and the cold shards of foie gras came together into something warm, rich and round, swirling around like magic in the mouth.

Nick went off to college, one by one all the people we knew at the restaurant left for other adventures, and slowly – I’m not quite sure why – I stopped going.  Maybe because the restaurant, with its backless chairs and throbbing sound was never a place where Michael could be comfortable. But last night, celebrating Nick’s birthday, we decided to go back.

It was like the first time.  A little less raucous (how did they mute the sound?) and considerably more comfortable (there are backs on the chairs now, more space between tables). But the food was pure edible excitement.

White on white. Fluke tartare. Kimchi ice. Daikon. Icy fireworks exploding in the mouth. Gentle flavors. Texture. Texture. Texture. I found myself hoarding the dish, reluctant to relinquish a single bite.

The perfect solution for people (me) who can never get enough caviar. Who could have imagined these Cantonese buns, with their soft pillowy texture and aching blandness, would be the perfect foil for sturgeon roe? Or that said roe could stand up to a bacon-infused ranch dressing?  Love the smoked egg yolk, and the crunch of the cucumber.

The most delicious ribs, falling from the bone with a complex smudge of sauce tasting of bonito flakes, kombu, nori and maybe mirin? It reminded me of the sauce on the great takoyaki I ate on the street in Osaka – and it’s the way I want my ribs from now on.

Cauliflower disguised as Stonehenge, a great manly monolith of vegetable drenched in lardo and ham vinaigrette.

And then, another dish that seemed conjured from my mind. Those spicy shrimp up top, crunching happily inside their shells, with floppy slices of rice cake, lots of pungent sauce, and a few soft, tiny potatoes. When the waiter arrived with tiny condensed towels and poured water over them, we watched as they grew larger, laughing as we mopped our sticky fingers.

The room feels happy.  The wine list is intriguing. I can’t stop thinking about that 1982 Riesling, which lost much of its sweetness and gained  character with age. “A wine that’s older than me,” said Nick, taking a grateful sip.

There are still so many dishes to try. I can’t wait to go back –  for the skate roasted in banana leaf, the foie gras taiyaki, the uni over rice. Or, frankly, for anything else chef Max Ng cares to dream up.  There’s nothing like finding an old friend and discovering it’s gotten even better since the last time that you met.



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Three Recipes from Zarela

January 19, 2018

If that seafood frittata that Zarela Martinez made the other day sounded delicious to you (and it is!), she just sent me the recipe. Definitely worth making.

Torta de Mariscos from Zarela

Seafood Frittata

This would have to be close to the top of any list of classic, peerless, sensational Veracruzan dishes.  You find different versions everywhere, but it belongs mostly to the central southern coasts and waterways  of Sotavento.

I call it a “frittata” but that’s a rough fit at best.  Tortas and tortillas are essential “round cakes,” dishes that have certain recognizable shapes no matter what’s in them.  The Veracruzan torta de mariscos consists of seafood and egg combined and cooked in a round frying pan.  There are three-inch versions, and others the size of large pies.  There are ones with a little seafood suspended in a lot of egg, and ones that are nearly all seafood just barely bound together with an egg or two.  The kind I like best is somewhere between a thick, tender pancake and a fluffy, moist flat omelet cooked golden on all sides. It is best if the egg whites are beaten separately and then combined with the yolks, but I’ve had good versions where they weren’t..

Possibly the best torta de mariscos I ever tasted was at La Viuda restaurant in the fishing town of Alvarado.  The quality of the fresh seafood was exquisite, and it was used so generously that the omelet was practically falling apart with shrimp, crabmeat, and tiny baby squid.  The recipe is not an exact rendition of that lovely torta, but I’ve adopted a few of its special touches, like the combination of fresh herbs and the delicate binding of fine crumbs.

I have to point out that at La Viuda the crumbs were pan rallado –- “grated bread,” or fine bread crumbs rasped from a stale loaf using a grater.  But I’m reluctant to suggest bread crumbs in the recipe. Because the flabby kind packaged in supermarket containers are guaranteed to ruin anything they come in contact with.  Use finely crushed soda cracker crumbs –- unless you take good breadcrumbs seriously.

Like many Veracruzan seafood dishes, this one depends on a versatile mishmash of very fine seafood cut up quite fine.  People automatically make up a relleno or salpicón from the best ingredients on hand or the ones they feel like sampling at the moment.  They might add tiny sweet oysters, hashed fish, or cooked diced conch or octopus.  Play with the mixture as you like, but remember that it shouldn’t be watery and that you want a total of 2 –  2 1/2 pounds.  You can start with cooked seafood instead of cooking it specifically for the torta as I do, but it must be very fresh and not overcooked.

Plan ahead for flipping the torta to brown on the second side.  I use a 10-inch Calphalon omelet pan.  It’s easy to slide out the omelet onto a plate when the first side is done, then slide it back into the pan on the other side.  You can use any brand of non-stick or well-seasoned skillet of this size but it should have rounded sides like an omelet pan.

Makes 8 servings

1 small white onion unpeeled

2 garlic cloves, unpeeled

5 bay leaves

1 1/2 – 2 teaspoons salt, or to taste

1 pound shrimp (any preferred size), in the shell

1/2 pound cleaned squid (bodies only; reserve tentacles for another use), cut into 1/4-inch dice to make about 1 cup

1 pound lump crabmeat, picked over to remove bits of shell and cartilage

1 medium-sized white onion, peeled

2 large or 4 – 5 medium-sized ripe tomatoes (about 1 pound), peeled and seeded

2 jalapeño chiles, seeded

1/2 small bunch Italian parsley

1/2 bunch cilantro

1/2 small bunch of mint (leaves only)

1/2 small bunch Mediterranean oregano (leaves only)

1/4 cup finely crushed soda cracker crumbs or best-quality fine-dry bread crumbs from good French of Italian bread (no substitutes)

4 eggs, separated

1 tablespoon olive oil

Place the unpeeled onion and garlic, bay leaves, and about 1 teaspoon of the salt in a large saucepan or medium-sized stockpot with 2 quarts of water, Bring to a boil over high heat; reduce the heat to maintain a low rolling boil and cook for 5 minutes.  Add the shrimp and cook another 2 – 3 minutes (depending on their size), skimming off any froth that rises to the top.  Quickly lift out the shrimp with a mesh skimmer or slotted spoon, letting them drain well.  Place in a bowl and set aside to cool.  Remove the onion and garlic from the simmering stock; discard.  Add the squid and cook for 3 minutes.  Lift out with a skimmer, letting them drain well, and set aside.  Reserve the stock for another purpose (it will make a delicious fish soup).

Peel and de-vein the cooked shrimp; chop fine and place in a large mixing bowl with the squid and crab meat.  Chop the peeled onion, tomatoes, jalapeños, and fresh herbs very fine and add to the bowl of seafood.  Toss to distribute the ingredients evenly.  Sprinkle the cracker crumbs and another 1/2 – 1 teaspoon salt over the mixture and toss very thoroughly.

In a medium-sized mixing bowl, beat the egg whites until they form glossy, not-quite-stiff peaks.  Add the egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition to incorporate thoroughly. With a rubber spatula, gently fold the beaten eggs into the seafood mixture.

In a heavy-bottomed, medium-sized (about 10-inch) omelet pan or skillet (see above), heat the oil over medium-high heat until fragrant but not quite rippling.  Reduce the heat to low.  Pour or spoon the seafood mixture into the pan, smoothing it firmly with a spatula to spread it evenly without air pockets on the bottom.  Cook, uncovered, for 8 minutes.  Flip the cake by sliding it back into the pan. (If necessary, loosen it with a spatula, but I’ve never had a problem.)  Cook for another 3 minutes, until golden, on the underside.  Transfer to a platter or large plate and serve hot, cut into wedges.

Zarela’s Salsa a la Veracruzana

Veracruzan-Style Sauce

Food-lovers who know nothing else about Veracruzan cuisine probably have heard of this sauce through a dish served in restaurants from Mexico to Manhattan:  huachinango a la veracruzana, or red snapper topped with a medley of onion, tomatoes, garlic, capers, pickled chiles, pimiento-stuffed green olives, and some combination of herbs, all gloriously redolent of olive oil.  Actually a wide range of things can be called a la veracruzana when blanketed with the sauce during or after cooking.  People in Veracruz don’t stop at red snapper; they use any suitable firm-fleshed fish steaks or whole fish and call the dish pescado a la veracruzana.  The sauce (sometimes also enriched with potatoes) is equally popular served with chicken, and I’ve encountered it with poached beef tongue.  At my restaurant in New York I’ve experimented still further, using it as a sauce with fried squid.  We also use it as a pasta sauce for staff meals

There are versions of salsa a la veracruzana ranging from thin to thick, fussy to minimalist.  Some people puree the tomatoes and let everything else simmer in them; others chop all the ingredients rather coarse or very fine and let them cook down to a juicy mixture or a dense paste.  For me, the only essential thing is very good tomatoes.  If the fresh ones in your market look dismal, use good canned plum tomatoes (preferably San Marzanos from Italy).  The following salsa a la veracruzana comes from La Sopa Restaurant in Xalapa, known not just for good food but for cultural activities (it’s also an art gallery) and good works (at the time of the pre-Christmas procession-pageants called posadas, La Sopa feeds homeless children).  Lunchtime always finds people lined up around the block waiting to eat the inexpensive comida corrida (set menu).  Owner/chef Pepe Ochoa has been known to serve his salsa a la veracruzana with canned tuna in empanadas.

Makes about 3 to 3 1/2 cups

1/4 cup olive oil

5 garlic cloves (3 whole, 2 minced)

1 medium-sized white onion, chopped fine

4 – 5 large ripe tomatoes (about 2 pounds), chopped fine, or one 28-ounce can of Italian plum tomatoes with juice, coarsely chopped

1 teaspoon capers (about 12 – 15 large or 24 – 30 small ones)

12 small pimiento-stuffed green olives

2 – 3 pickled jalapeño chiles, stemmed, seeded, and cut lengthwise into thin strips

2 bay leaves

1/4 cup parsley leaves

2 sprigs of fresh thyme or 1/4 teaspoon crumbled dried thyme

2 sprigs of fresh marjoram or 1/4 teaspoon crumbled dried marjoram

2 sprigs of fresh Mexican oregano or 1/4 teaspoon crumbled dried Mexican oregano

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1/4 teaspoon ground canela (see page 000)

1/2 cup dry white wine

In a heavy-bottomed medium-sized saucepan with a well-fitting lid, heat the olive oil to rippling over medium-high heat.  Add the 3 whole garlic cloves and cook, stirring, until deep golden (but not browned) on all sides; remove and discard.  Add the 2 minced garlic cloves and the chopped onion.  Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is translucent, about 3 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes.  Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally for 15 minutes or until slightly concentrated.  Add all the remaining ingredients and cook, covered, for another 15 – 20 minutes, until the flavors are richly melded and it is as thick as you like.  Taste for salt and add another pinch or two if desired (the capers and olives will contribute some).  If using whole fresh herbs, fish them out of the sauce and discard before serving.

And I’m still thinking about this wonderful pineapple salad.  One of the most refreshing things you’ll ever eat.

Zarela’s Ensalada de Pina

Spicy Pineapple Salad

Mexicans do beautiful things with pineapple. Years ago I encountered a colorful and flavorful salad of ripe pineapple with green and red bell peppers that I still love. But I’m an incurable experimenter. A few years ago I decided to vary the idea by substituting jalapenos for the bell peppers and adding a little red onion. I think the flavors are much more vivid than the original.

If you can’t find red jalapenos, use all green ones.

1 large ripe pineapple, peeled and cored

1 small red onion, or half of a larger onion

1 or 2 green jalapenos

1 or 2 red jalapenos

Juice of 1 large lime ( about 2 1/2 tablespoons)

1/4 cup olive oil

1/2 – 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

A handful of cilantro leaves

Cut the peeled and cored pineapple lengthwise into quarters; cut each quarter crosswise into 1/4-inch slices. Cut the onion crosswise into paper-thin slices. Deseed and devein the jalapenos and cut into thin slivers.  Toss the pineapple, onion, and chiles together in a salad bowl.

Whisk together the lime juice, olive oil, and salt (starting with 1/2 teaspoon and adding more to taste). Pour the dressing over the pineapple mixture and toss to combine well. Serve at once, garnished with cilantro.

Serves 4 – 6 people.

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Ticket to Japan

January 18, 2018

A real Japanese sushi bar has a particular scent that’s more spa than restaurant; it’s a clean, green aroma with a touch of cedar.  This is partly because sushi bars don’t cook: unlike most of their American counterparts,  a sushi bar in Japan limits it repertoire to raw fish.

Of all the sushi bars I’ve been to in America, Ginza Sushi Onodera most resembles the ones I found in Japan.  You sense there is something different here the moment you walk in the door: it smells right. Then you watch the chef slice the pickled ginger, take a taste and smile; it’s the best you’ve ever eaten.  The wasabi, of course, is the real thing, grated from a great fat root.  And at the end of the meal, when it’s time for miso soup, you get an elixir of startling intensity. The devil’s in the details.

This is a stunningly expensive sushi bar; an omakase dinner here runs  $300 or $400 a person.  But at lunchtime the $100, $130 or $150 experiences offer an equally pure pleasure.

Our meal began with one of the most stunning textural experiences you can have with food: shirako. The Japanese euphemism for these exquisite tidbits is “children of the clouds” which is about as poetic a description of sperm (cod sperm sacs, to be exact), as you’re likely to find. Think savory custard of the sea: very soft, slightly sweet, with a note of brine.

Then there is a parade of sushi (all the fish is imported from Japan), each piece prepared with enormous care, brushed with a measured amount of soy and placed on your plate.  Eat quickly, while the fishh is still quivering from the knife and the rice is still warm. (I’ve included links to some of the fish, mostly because I was astonished to learn how many different references the internet offers for sushi fish. This is a small sample.)

This is kinmedai – golden eye snapper

This is shima aji

Wild yellowtail

red snapper

Japanese baracuda –  kamasu


Kohada – gizzard shad, which is vaguely related to herring.  One of my favorites.  In the early days of American sushi this was translated, to everyone’s bewilderment, as  “young punctatus.”  Cured in vinegar, here it is topped with cured egg yolk.

tiny white shrimp, piled onto rice

And finally toro, which I neglected to photograph.  (I also left out the scallop, which came much earlier in the rotation.)

Beautiful salmon roe on a little pillow of rice.

My idea of dessert – uni and tamago.

Miso soup came next, spectacular miso soup, followed by this adorable little dish;

which opened to reveal the most delicious little smidgen of green tea custard.

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