Recipes for restaurants

Jeong Kwan Cooks at Le Bernardin

June 23, 2017

The Buddhist monk and celebrated chef, Jeong Kwan was in New York yesterday, cooking a meal to celebrate the winter Olympics in PeyongChang next year.

Eric Ripert has spoken with great reverence about the chef, so I’ve always been curious.  The Chef’s Table episode about her is very beautiful, and I was eager to experience one of her meals.

I was certainly not the only one; a great group of press people turned out to taste the chef’s vegan meal; Martha Stewart was sitting next to me, snapping away. She immediately fired off a few shots on Instagram, announcing the numbers as they came in.

We started with tiny porcelain cups of lotus flower tea: delicate, floral and fragrant, it’s one of those drinks that you taste once and never forget.

Then we were introduced to 15-year old soy sauce the monk brews herself; she urged us to have a spoonful before we began eating, and to use it liberally throughout the meal.  The sauce was dark, complex and mellow with a lingering flavor that echoed in your mouth long after the sauce itself was gone. I used it as dipping sauce for ganjang and bugak, the centerpiece of crisped seaweed (which had the robust and appealing flavor of fried fish tails),  balloon flower leaf, ailanthus (which is also known as “tree of heaven”), potato and shiso.

This was followed by a bowl of pretty little local leaves in a dressing that hinted at orange and spice., and then this grilled deodeok and deoduck with pine nut.

Deoduck is bonnet bellflower; the chewy root, splashed with gochujang, is a standard in Korea.  But that little ball of pinenut and shredded deoduck on the side was remarkable: simultaneously oft and slightly crisp, it was tinged with the taste of  sesame oil  The chef eschews all alliums – no garlic, no onion, no scallion – but she has no fear of either sweet or heat.  There was a touch of chile in almost every dish we ate, and she uses rice syrup and fruit to contrast the saline taste of soy.

A surprise package at each plate. As each little sphere of gangwon was opened up the fragrance of chestnut and shiitake leapt into the air, enveloping the table in the most sensual aroma.  Great fat juicy mushrooms had soaked up a luxurious broth of  soy, sesame, rice syrup and fermented berry juice; they were tangled into gingko nuts and jujubes. Hauntingly delicious.

Now waiters appeared bearing a black tray covered with little black bowls for each diner: Barugongyang.  The empty bowls were for soup and rice, which we passed around the table and served to one another. (I’m embarrassed to admit that our table neglected to wait for instruction and simply helped ourselves, putting the rice and soup into the wrong bowls.)

Starting at the bottom left:

BongPyeong which was translated as “mook with buckwheat.”

Mook, or muk, is a soft substance, with the texture of taro that can be made from almost any starchy substance.  This one was buckwheat topped with two year old kimchi, ailanthus, shiitake and cabbage.

DunNae: a little pancake constructed from  baby squash and wild sesame seeds and topped with a bit of squash. In contrast to the contemplative quietness of other dishes, this chewy, slightly spicy offering exploded on the palate like carnival food. A bit of excitement on the plate.

InJae: grilled burdock

Topped with sprouted daikon, plum and rice syrup, gochujang, chili power, sesame seed and sesame oil. Burdock is a bitter root to swallow; you either like it or don’t. If you don’t, all that seasoning won’t help.

ChoDang: pan-seared tofu with fermented sansho.

Tofu mans up and gets serious character.  Eaten slowly, you suddenly discovered a world of flavor in the dense, chewy white substance.

Daegwallyeong

Our old friend, cabbage kimchi.

SokChu: Lotus root water kimchi

Water kimchi is a Korean standard.  Not hot, this was crunchy slices of lotus root cooked in orange and plum syrup and persimmon vinegar.  The chef asked us to leave a bit of lotus root to clean our bowls at the end of the meal.  It felt like a sacrifice.

BangTae Mountain.

Named for a famous Korean mountain said to hold “the secret of ancient times,”  this sticky rice was mingled with Korean thistle, kidney beans, puffed corn and wild sesame oil.

Odae Mountain

Sip slowly. Think about it.  Tease out the flavor of mushroom, daikon, ginger, lotus leaf, jujube.  Note the hint of chile.  This is the entire meal in a single bowl: flavors that whisper instead of shout, ask that you listen carefully with all your senses.  A reminder of how much there is to see, hear and taste if only we will pay attention.

 

Postscript

Should you want to experience this Korean temple cuisine, one New York restaurant provides that opportunity.  I have to admit that I haven’t been in many years, but here’s my very old review of Hangawi.

 

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California Road Trip: Going for Bear

May 23, 2017

Let me begin by saying that I went to Saison kicking and screaming.  Nothing I’d read about the restaurant sounded appealing.  It was now officially California’s most expensive restaurant. It had three Michelin stars.  It sounded beyond pretentious.

Everyone in our little group was equally suspicious. But none of us had been, and we were curious.

So we were utterly unprepared to walk into an old brick warehouse and find the most casual, quirky and comfortable three-star experience of my lifetime. Sitting in that high-ceilinged room, right in front of the walk-in refrigerators watching a gaggle of chefs cook in the open kitchen gives you the sense that you’re eating dinner in a friend’s loft. The room is so open, so airy, that although other diners are all around you, they never become obtrusive.

The food?  Josh Skenes’s food is simple, subtle, delicate and very much about this place at this moment. There was not a single dish I didn’t love.

The meal began with caviar: cured in kelp, drenched in clarified butter and eaten with wooden spoons.  Pure heaven.

Turbot. Eating the  turbot at Elkano in Spain (read about it here),  I had a fish epiphany. Saison was different – but every bit as good. First we had sashimi – the fish slightly crisp and very clean, with Japanese lime, salt and an astonishing elixir made from the bones. Like clear soy sauce; I wanted to pick the little dish up and drink it down.

So were the ribs, grilled and so sweet I ate every little morsel, leaving the bones stacked like tiny toothpicks on the plate.

The heart of the fish, raw.

The fish innards, turned into ambrosia.

Santa Barbara spot prawns with their delicious roe.

Sea urchin on fat, crisp chunks of sourdough grilled and drenched in a rich umami combination of butter, bread and soy until it had a  texture both crisp and wet at the same time. It’s hard to upstage uni, but the croutons almost did.

Last year’s tomatoes, confit.

Tiny red abalone.

A box crab- funny little fellow, with the sweetest flesh.

Turnip and – you guessed it – butter.

Peas and sorrel, as limpid as a springtime brook, each tender pea cut in half.

The biggest, sweetest, juiciest quail I’ve ever encountered.  Barbecued.

Antelope: remarkably clean meat.

Here comes Mr. Bear.  At the beginning of the meal the chef came out to discuss how we felt eating bear.  I’d never had it before, and I was expecting something strong and gamy.  This was not that: had you told me I  was eating bison, I would have believed you.  These were big meaty, delicious ribs.

Desserts were blessedly simple.  Some pickled blueberries…

Ice cream and caramel.

And a Cara Cara orange, frozen into ambrosial creaminess.

This was a parting gift, snuggled into a beautiful box of extremely soft wood:

Salt distilled from the bay and lightly smoked. Herbs gathered on the farm for tea. And a clear soy-like sauce brewed from seaweed, smoked fish and dried mushrooms and cold-brewed over for six months.  I’m going to treasure this – and think about that fantastic meal every time I open the box.

A note about the wine list: it’s everything you expect in a three-star establishment. Huge, well-sourced, often rare and always expensive. If you want to spend thousands, that’s no problem. But when I asked the sommelier to rustle up some bargains, he was up to the task.

 

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California Road Trip, Day Four

May 22, 2017

The drive down Mount Tamalpais, through the tall, dark redwoods, the roads almost deserted, is almost unbearably beautiful. Then we’re driving across the Golden Gate Bridge, and someone is saying that almost all the people who jump off, jump facing the city, not the sea. Little wonder: San Francisco sparkles in the distance like some promise of a better future.

We have many wonderful treats in store. For one, that wild nettle sformato up above, at Cotogna, where the food is never less than wonderful.

Even a simple green salad, which arrives on a bright red plate, looks better here.

A single, gorgeous raviolo bursts open to spill egg across the plate. Irresistible.

And have you ever seen a more appealing sundae? The ice cream arrived on its own cart – a great soft mountain of cream so appealing that all the pastry people got out their phones and started snapping away.

We ended with this lovely confection, all berries, ice and lemon verbena.

Dinner was at Izakaya Rintaro, which may be the purest expression of the Japanese esthetic I’ve encountered in this country. The journey begins with the spare, elegant beauty of the woodwork and continues in the modesty of the food.  This is old fashioned Japan, where the wasabi is fresh but gentle, the soy sauce has no burn, the flavors are restrained.  Everything here is thoughtful and precise, from the sashimi – local big eye tuna and kombu-cured halibut

to fresh anchovies marinated in spicy vinegar and topped with carrots.  

The various kinds of yakitori are all perfectly cooked

a lovely dish of Dungeness crab comes with pickled cucumbers and crab miso

and then these is this most surprising salad.  The bite of baby chrysanthemum leaves is tamed with the tang of kumquat, and then enriched with rosy slices of duck.

It says something about the restaurant that even gyoza are not clunky dumplings, but something delicate, light and lacy.

If you like the food of Japan, you owe it to yourself to visit Rintaro. Whether you choose noodles, natto, a fig-wrapped trout or a few plates of yakitori,  you will not be disappointed.

Tomorrow: a truly memorable meal. Here’s a tiny taste:

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California Road Trip, Day Three

May 21, 2017

My favorite dishes on this road odyssey weren’t actually in a restaurant.  They were in the quirkiest, most super-Northern California abode I’ve ever encountered, the home of Evan Shively and Madeleine Fitzpatrick.

I didn’t take many pictures; it was a private home and it seemed impolite.  Now I’m sorry, because you can’t see us walking through the wooden gate, wandering through the wildly wonderful garden munching on crisp fresh asparagus and exotic flowers. You can’t see the genuine throne in the bathroom, Madeleine’s mad hat collection, or what may be the world’s largest catfish, swimming happily in a spring-fed pool out in the garden. But you can take a look here:

Evan, who now crafts furniture and creates wood works for artists and architects, once made his living as a chef (he worked at Postrio, Manka’s and Oliveto). He stood casually in the kitchen, slicing a slab of tuna, marinating shrimp and squid and complaining that we weren’t eating enough.  The food was fresh, clean, completely irresistible. Then Madeleine made salad – 100 different greens, herbs, flowers and tiny vegetables- dressed in nothing but olive oil and vinegar. We ate it with our fingers. Salad doesn’t get better than this.

But first things first.  The day began in Healdsburg, at a long table in the lovely garden at Shed, surrounded  by the prettiest flowers….

and eating…

and….and this

Shed is a restaurant and a shop selling fabulous bread, cheese, fruit, charcuterie and prepared foods, along with all manner of cooking gear. It’s become one of Healdsburg’s major destinations. Having finished lunch we browsed the store, bought bread and cheese,  then drove through the hills and across the valley to Coal and Feed on Tomales Bay,  right next to Hog Island Oysters. The fabulously funky house hugs the water. It has room for 8, a giant extremely well-equipped kitchen, a couple of bathrooms – and some of the best views on the planet. I took this picture lying in bed:  I can’t think of a more sympathetic place to stay; I wanted to move right in. Did I mention that Evan and Madeleine own it?

Dinner that night was in exactly the same mood.  We went to Sir and Star in Point Reyes, one of the most relaxed, most unpretentious and most lovable restaurants you will ever find. (The chefs continue their tradition from the long-lamented Manka’s.)  I regret to say I was so relaxed I neglected to take pictures, but the meal began with carrot soup, buttery buns, duck liver faux gras –  and ended with hot fudge sundaes.  In between was the single best grass fed steak I’ve ever eaten.

Here’s the thing about grass fed beef: unlike conventional beef, which consumes a standard diet of corn, this is all about terroir. And right now, after a rainy winter, the grass in Sonoma is lush and green, which makes the meat gorgeously marbled.  Sir and Star uses local beef that’s aged; it is an extraordinary treat.  So is everything about this restaurant: this is the taste of here, the taste of now.  Simple but perfect, it is why you come to Northern California.

Tomorrow: I wake up with gulls cawing outside, the sun rising, watching an egret fish on Tomales Bay.  Oysters for breakfast – and the world’s best panettone. Then a meandering drive through giant redwoods to  San Francisco – and a stunning taste of Japan.

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California Road Trip: Day Two

May 20, 2017

Heading north from Los Gatos toward the Napa Valley, if you stay on the east side of the bay you drive through tawny hills and cross lovely little waterways.  You also, surprisingly, hit a lot of traffic. What should take a couple of hours stretches to three, then more.  

No matter, we’re among friends and we talk the entire way.

Actually, we do more than that. We argue over where to eat.  So many choices!  In the end we opt for the two day old Acacia House at Las Alcobas Hotel, mostly out of curiosity. Chris Cosentino is a chef I admire; he won Top Chef Masters one of the years I was judging, absolutely crushing the competition. But his virile offal-centric cooking strikes me as a strange choice for a boutique hotel.

It seems even odder once we arrive: Las Alcobas is so graciously old fashioned you expect to step onto that deep wrap-around porch and find people fanning themselves as they drink sweet tea and speak in southern accents. How can Chris fit in here? 

But the man, it turns out, is a cat of many spots. The appropriate adjective for the food he’s serving here is… lovely.  Like that little salad above, with its uni, its uni butter, its infant vegetables, this is very pretty food.

And very delicious.

I loved his version of chips and dips: thick labeneh is swirled with olive oil and lemon juice, crowned with caviar and a tiara of potato chips.

And look what a dainty dish he makes of lamb tartare with flatbread!

This icy little salad comes with a white bean pesto dip.

But my favorite – the dish that stays with me – is this spring bouquet of pasta.  Deep green pea rigatoni is tossed with sweet fresh peas and topped with pea greens then spun into parmesan-enriched creme fraiche. Hiding underneath it all, like little gifts, are small morels. (I should, perhaps mention, that those in need of more manly food are well served here as well: there’s a great burger, a steak, a monster mole sandwich…. And coming soon is home-brewed beer.)

This lovely, refreshing little rose popsicle makes the perfect ending.

And then, over the hill and through the Russian River Valley to Healdsburg and the fantastic Healdsburg Hotel.  I love this modern inn with its comfortable beds and delicious bathrooms. But we’ve come to experience the most written-about new restaurant in the country. Can Singlethread  be as good as the hype?

How to talk about Singlethread?  It’s the dream – the crazy dream – of Kyle and Katinka Connaughton who have spent their entire lives working toward this fantastic creation. They’ve built what looks like a Japanese farmhouse in the middle of Healdsburg.  They also have a small farm a few miles away where they raise fruits, herbs, vegetables and rare chickens. 

Kyle and Katina obsess about the details – down to the double-walled  titanium water glasses, that keep water icy cold and coffee very hot.  (You’re going to covet them, but it turns out each little cup costs $175 .)  The wine glasses are so thin you’re afraid they’ll snap off in your hand.  And the kitchen has cameras trained on your table, in order to perfectly time your meal. 

The meal is a California kaiseki. (Kyle grew up partly in Japan, and then worked at Miyamasou and Michel Bras’ restaurant, Toyo Japon in Hokkeido. Meanwhile Katinka was working on Japanese farms and the couple forged a relationship with the great donabe makers, the  Nagatani family, who make the clay cooking pots and much of the pottery.)

We sat down to find that huge still-life above already arranged across the table.  It was the most delightful little treasure hunt offering dozens of hidden treats.  Eating slowly, it could easily take an hour to make your way through all the delights on the table. My favorites were the gently pickled oyster, the geoduck in gelee, crab claws, uni, sashimi. And I loved this tiny little egg with caviar.

Next up: kanpachi with frozen cara cara orange,

This little jewel was sugar snap pea blossoms, Dungeness crab, salsify, preserved lemon.  

A walk in the woods….

King salmon with char roe and myoga.

Poached foie gras with a tea of last year’s tomatoes and turnips

Black cod, maitake mushrooms, leeks, broth of young lettuces


This was the most remarkable slice of duck: a Duclair which tasted so wild I imagined I was tasting everything the bird had consumed during its journey through the world:   morels, white mushrooms, asparagus, green garlic.  

The heart of the duck is buried in here, along with grains, herbs and a little farro beignet.

A shiso sorbet created a little interlude, followed by  hojicha ice cream with a cherry compote.

Singlethread is an extraordinary experience – but it’s not for everyone.  This is a contemplative temple of dining that demands your attention. If you’re planning a meal here, I’d suggest going with a couple rather than a group. You want to look across the table to someone who enjoys eating as much as you do, someone whose main desire is to focus on the food. And then, if you’re really lucky, you can retire to one of the rooms in the inn upstairs.

Up tomorrow: pure fun. Great salad, oysters… and the most extraordinary place to stay.

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