It’s our first night in Israel, and we’ve driven for hours through traffic so heavy it seems like a scene from Godard’s Weekend, to visit family in a suburb north of Tel Aviv. We’re tired, jet-lagged and hot. And where do they take us for dinner? To a gas station!
And the food is fabulous, a dream-like sequence of hummus, salads, pickles, tabbouli, eggplant, peppers – all the classic Arab foods that once defined the cuisine here, followed by skewers of grilled meat. But, as I am about to discover, things here have really changed.
Yes, my favorite place is still Abu Hassan (or as the locals call it, Ali Karavan), a tiny place in Jaffa that’s been around since 1959 and still serves what I am convinced is the best hummus on the planet. What you want is a triple – hummus, ful and masbacha. It comes with raw onions, a lemony hot sauce and piles of pita, and you have to eat fast; people are lined up outside, eagle eyes scanning your table, willing you to move on.
But Israel has discovered food in a really major way, and blessed with fabulous ingredients the chefs are being endlessly creative. Just look at the still life at HaSalon, piled onto the bar, enticing you with its voluptuous rawness.
Then the food begins to arrive, as gorgeous as the display.
This is where Eyal Shani – Israel’s hottest chef – is at his most creative. He’s famous for his roasted eggplant (more about that later), but here he revels in the ingredients of the moment. I loved this- such delicious eggplant – served in a puddle of sweet tomato sauce with shredded egg on the side.
And this elegant pasta with zucchini and fish eggs
A big generous pot of crab and shrimp….
A grouper head (the body came later), swimming in a rich tomato sauce that we practically inhaled.
And a big, rare, charred ribeye, carved at the table into thick rosy slices.
There were desserts too, and wonderful wine. But we did our best to restrain ourselves. Tel Aviv rocks late into the night, and we were headed for Shani’s more modest Miznon,
and a taste of his famous cauliflower.
It’s so famous, in fact, that you can find the recipe, here.
The cauliflower’s wonderful, but if you take my advice you won’t miss the chicken liver in pita, which is mind-blowingly delicious.
We had breakfast the next morning on a kibbutz: shakshuka and salad. If there’s a better way to start the day I haven’t found it.
Tomorrow: lunch in a Bedouin cave, dinner in the market…and more.
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.
Atidbit, 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.
“I’m a curator not a chef,” says Jonah Reider of his supper club, Pith. “All the plates – even the music – were done by friends of mine.”
You may remember Jonah as the Columbia student who captured the imagination of the entire city by running a restaurant out of his Columbia dorm room.At one point he had a waiting list of thousands.
Jonah’s a few years out of school now, and running his supper club out of a very ritzy Brooklyn home. (The owners, he says, “are like the rich parents I never had.”) It’s an ideal set up – beautiful dining room, great kitchen, really lovely back yard near the Brooklyn Naval Yard. What he’s offering is more than dinner: it’s a great party (that you happen to pay for). In a lonely city, it’s also a perfect evening out.
There are seats for just ten people at the table. But first you gather in the garden to get to know each other over simple hors d’oeuvres.A couple of nights ago there was grilled lamb, sardines, pickled fiddleheads and ramps, an airy foie gras mousse with a hint of maple syrup, steak tartare…. And these beautiful radishes topped with shredded dried scallop.
The group was one you’re happy to sit down with. Here was the former Executive Chef of Nomad (he’s about to open his own restaurant), and his wife. Like Jonah, James Kent started early; he says he was working at Bouley at fifteen. A former Twitter executive.A woman working at a tech start-up.A couple of on-line editors. A writer…. Every one of them was someone I wanted to know better. The conversation, as at any lively party, roamed widely as each guest picked up a thread and embroidered the evening.
Jonah’s food tends to be light, very seasonal, relying more on the combination of interesting flavors than on tortured technique.This starter – lovely young peas in a puddles of tangy sheep’s yogurt, trout roe, crisp pistachios and a little curl of rhubarb – is a perfect example.The textures sizzle, the flavors are gentle.
Wahoo with a burnt-onion miso sauce. Sturdy fish, righteously powerful sauce.
Halibut with asparagus and almond milk. A few fennel fronds, a few blossoms. The essence of delicate.
Duck with dandelion and black currant. A little sweet, a bit bitter.
Maybe my favorite course of the evening – rhubarb, figs, and meringue dusted with fennel pollen. Such an unexpected and joyful mix of flavors.
A bit of chocolate with frozen milk. Ice and fire.
There’s an optional wine pairing. The wines were all new to me, but the evening was extremely well-lubricated, making all that wine a $45 bargain.
You have to admire Jonah. He’s certainly press savvy – you can read about him here, and here – and that’s just for starters. But he knows what he wants, and he’s figured out exactly how to do it. Good for him. As for the rest of us, it’s nice to be along for the ride.
I wrote about lunch at Mourad a few months ago, (you can read about it here), so all I’m going to do now is give you a brief description of my most recent dreamlike dinner at the San Francisco restaurant. It was a birthday celebration for someone I’ve known and loved for most of my life.
Dinner began with the table covered in delightful little tidbits- like the sparkling little tarts above and these adorable little flower-covered cheese boats
and then went on to this….
Caviar. Need I say more? It was followed by this astonishing concoction of squid shaved into ribbons and pared with translucent slices of vegetable, green charmoula, arugula blossoms…
and then this single shining scallop, gently seared, nestled against a heap of kohlrabi with the sneaky aroma of vaudovan perfuming the air.
Next up was this egg, with blue foot mushrooms, purslane and rumors of coffee floating through the sauce
and then Mourad’s take on foie gras, which involves strawberries, pink peppercorns and papaya encircled in a garland of greens.
It was followde by the most astonishing take on duck – just a few fine rich bites, almost electric in intensity
short rib with green garlic
and butter-braised couscous with flowers dancing across the top.
Finally, something sweet, all crunch and crackle.
Another gift? The restaurant is quiet, comfortable and a perfect place to talk. I can’t think of a more perfect place to celebrate someone you really care about.
One of the hallmarks of new California cooking might be called “The Mallmann Effect.” (Francis Mallmann, the Argentinian superchef, is famous for his open-fire cooking.) Walking into many new restaurants means approaching a wall of flames. These aren’t merely grills, they’re true hearths, massive displays of firepower that chefs use in all sorts of innovative ways. You see it at Hearth and Hound in Hollywood, and the nearby Gwen. It’s remarkably comforting, a reminder that we all began as cave people, huddled around our fires.
The new Charter Oak in St. Helena is yet another example. The former Tra Vigne has been handsomely refitted, and the first thing you notice, beyond the high walls and beautiful tables, are those dancing flames in front.
Avocados are tossed onto the fire – to astonishing effect. So are short ribs – or rather one massive short rib, which has been pre-cooked to tenderness then thrown over old wine barrels and seared in the flames.
It’s a smokey, tender, irresistible piece of meat. Lurking behind it are beets, which have also seen the heat. Their texture is remarkable – somewhere between fresh beets and beet leather.
I didn’t want to order this dish. The waiter insisted. “Really?” I said. You want me to try a slow-cooked turnip on pumpernickel rye porridge? It sounds terrible.” But that turnip – roasted in the embers and then quickly charred – was a revelation. As was the sweet porridge, a new take on congee and utterly satisfying.
Not everything is grilled. I loved the house-made mortadella.
Especially with the fine, warm bread.
And these littlenecks, in an intriguingly smoky poultry stock
This salad of broccoli, broccoli rabe, broccoli flowers with a few puffed grains, some sunflower seeds and ricotta – is a bit much for a single person. You get tired of chewing. But it would make a fine side dish for 3 or 4 people.
When the dessert cart rolled our way we said that no, we couldn’t possibly. And then we did. If you go, don’t miss this buffalo milk ice cream with its burnt apple caramel sauce. The ice cream has the most astonishing texture – the closest I can come is frozen velvet – and it was such a pleasure that I took one bite after another, absolutely unable to stop.