My five-star reviews:
I visited Japan at the end of last month, and on our last night, my friends and I wanted to try a restaurant with 3 Michelin stars in Tokyo. Obviously the French restaurants like Joel Robuchon and Quintessence held particular appeal for me so I could compare them to the French-inspired restaurants I’ve been to here in NYC, but we really wanted some serious Japanese cooking. In the end, we chose Kanda in Minato, and I’ll admit that I was a little afraid of our decision. All of the reviews I read said that this was true Japanese cuisine with all of its subtleties and nuances and that American palates wouldn’t be able to appreciate its beautiful simplicity. I didn’t want us to spend ¥15,000 to ¥25,000 (~$150-$250 US) and walk away feeling like we’d had a couple of flavorless vegetables and three slices of fish, but we wanted to challenge ourselves. Plus, I’ve loved the very delicate dishes I’ve had at Japanese restaurants in NYC like Kajitsu, Brushstroke, Sushi Yasuda, and Kajitsu again.
Making the reservation at Kanda was my first reminder that we were traveling to the opposite side of the world. I waited until the middle of the afternoon to call . . . only to realize that the middle of the afternoon here is the middle of the night in Japan. Most foreigners ask their hotels to make dinner reservations for them, but we were renting out a private home, so when I called back later at 2 a.m. our time, I had to make the very kind and patient reservationist suffer through my English. In the end, she helped me decide on the private room and their ¥20,000 chef’s choice menu for Saturday night.
Addresses in Japan aren’t at all like addresses in the U.S., because they use a grid system that divides the city into districts instead of using actual street names. You’d say, for instance, that you were going to building 2 on block 5 of such-and-such city district instead of saying that you’re going to 138 Main Street. It’s very easy when you’re typing it into Google Maps, but it’s not so easy when you’re trying to direct your cab driver who doesn’t speak any English. So we ended up at a curry restaurant called Kando and had to call the restaurant via Skype to let them speak to him in Japanese, but a half an hour late, we finally made it to the deserted and sort of haunting street where you’ll find Kanda.
It was so nondescript that our friend Nik started to try to convey to the cab driver that he was wrong again, but then we spotted the sign for Kanda hidden next to a sliding wooden door completely devoid of any windows.
Inside, though, it was bright and beautiful, all clean white walls and simple light wood. The hostess recognized us immediately as the wild-eyed, lost Americans and led us to our private room, decorated with a wooden cricket in a cage for good luck.
We admired our simple place settings,
and then Chef Hiroyuki Kanda came in to introduce himself. I’d read that he speaks English and would ask us about our preferences for the meal, so we’d decided beforehand that I’d tell him we were “semi-adventurous eaters” who were up for being challenged “a little bit”. Instead, I got nervous and exclaimed, “We’ll eat anything!”
And then my friends gave me death stares until the chef left.
Kanda is known for their sake list, but it was entirely in Japanese, so we just told our server that we prefer sweet to dry, and she brought us this. I have no idea what it was, but even our non-sake-liker liked it.
Our amuse was this elegant egg custard with Japanese vegetables in contrasting textures and varying levels of sweet and salty. Shiso leaves are something I’ve had many times at Japanese restaurants, but I’d only ever had the tiny purple flowers from the plant for the first time earlier in the week at the foot of Mt. Fuji; in this preparation, they were much more balanced and less assertive than when we ate them off the stem.
We thought we were off the hook. Egg custard followed by eel! We could all handle this. The plum sauce on top added sweetness, and the eel itself was so tender it fell apart under the force of our chopsticks. And not just because we’re bad with chopsticks.
Then this dish arrived, forebodingly.
Followed by a basket of whole deep-fried fish, my nemesis!
Its beady little fried eyes stared up at me, its eager little tail still flicked up in the air. And its teeth!!
Luckily, I’d trained for this. The week before I left for Asia, I went to the Sun Noodle ramen dinner at Louro, where I was fed whole mackerel. I was squeamish and reluctant, but after flailing about for a minute, I went for it and became a fish-head-eater for life.
This ayu was served with a glass of beer and had a lot of delicious charred flavor. Its crispy tail was like eating a potato chip, and I didn’t even notice those teeth as I was crunching through them.
I ate a lot of wonderful things in Japan, but this was the single most memorable. The tuna belly was the fattiest, most tender piece of fish I can ever remember eating. The black truffles were pure earthy luxury. The salt scattered around the plate made sure every flavor was fully pronounced. But the best part was weirdly the rice. The rice! I think it had to have been made with butter, because it left a little oil slick behind when we picked it up. We were all going crazy over the salty, buttery rice and almost ignoring the giant piles of black truffles on our plates.
This looked like such a simple dish, but it left us with so many questions. What was the fish dumpling made of? Tofu? Egg? What was the round vegetable? Cucumber? Apple? We felt like our eyes were fooling our tastebuds. My palate was so confused by what I was seeing versus tasting that it wasn’t until I finished the soup that I realized it had been flavored with yuzu. (I later saw a yuzu in the grocery store near our rental apartment in Japan and died from how cool it was. Foreign produce!)
Flanked by a slice of sweet lotus root and what I think were ginkgo beans, the swordfish took a backseat to its accessories for a while as we tried to figure out what they were. Once we finally got to focus on the beautiful piece of fish, I realized that it seemed to be coated in roe. I don’t know how common this preparation is–I’ve only had grilled roe once before, at Tori Shin, but it’s a neat alternative to salt.
Tender and perfect with the sting of the shichimi spice mixture following the enticing smell of those little chive-like onions.
Apparently Miyazaki is on par with or better than Kobe beef, which explains why the three of us were falling over ourselves to out-compliment each other about this dish. It was so, so tender, which probably doesn’t need to be said. And then the crunch of the panko coating provided such a nice contrast. The mustard was flavored with matcha, which is used to make green tea, and even the seaweed salad somehow seemed new and necessary to balance the dish. My boyfriend wondered how much it’d take to convince Chef Kanda to bring us another round of this.
We ended where we began but this time with a sea eel. We were told to cut it in half with our chopsticks, which is something I don’t think I’ve ever heard before. It was so sweet, with a side of miso soup with taro
and green tea made with roasted rice water.
Our palate cleanser was a refreshing watermelon jelly dotted with balls of fresh watermelon.
Dessert was a simple scoop of barley tea ice cream, which tasted like coffee but with a hint of grain flavor. It seemed like a play on after-dinner coffee.
We lounged around in our private room for a little longer, my boyfriend picking things out of my teeth and wiping deodorant off of me with his hand towel without anyone out at the counter in the main part of the restaurant knowing, we used the Japanese toilet, because it’s not like you’re not going to use the Japanese toilet, and then we went back out to that deserted street, with some of the staff following us out to wish us a good night.
After five days of eating nothing but ramen, katsu, and double-decker Wagyu burgers, Kanda was the perfect way to end our trip to Japan. It was subtle, and it was nuanced, and I think we were able to appreciate every bit of it. But it was also wildly delicious food that I don’t think any American would have a hard time grasping. And it was definitely worth the money with that tuna, spread of truffles, and incredible A5 beef. Certainly I’d miss the opulence of the French-inspired 3 Michelin star restaurants in NYC if I didn’t have access to them ever again, but Kanda was so unpretentious in a noticeable way. There were no stacks of white plates under each dish, no little plush stools to put your purse on. The service was helpful and sweet, and everyone made us feel super welcome instead of super foreign. Such a memorable meal in a wonderful country.
I entirely understand why the marketing team for Walt Disney Studios and Dreamworks Pictures invited me to a screening of The Hundred-Foot Journey starring Helen Mirren, Manish Dayal, and Om Puri last week. Even as a food-obsessed avid moviegoer, I wasn’t planning to see the movie in the theater. I wanted to watch it eventually, sure, but it looked like one of those feel-good, fun-for-the-entire-family films that I could enjoy from the comfort of my living room while also browsing Twitter. It was feel-good, and your whole family probably will like it, but it’s so, so much more than that. It made me feel so many feelings. I had tears in my eyes for about 75% of it, and I had tears on my cheeks for the rest of it. It was unexpectedly beautiful and a must-see for anyone who’s passionate about cooking and food.
Nitehawk Cinema is an eat-in movie theater in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where servers bring food right to your seat throughout the show. You share a small table with the person next to you and write your order on slips of paper that attach to the front of the table and that the servers watch for while the movie’s playing.
The menu is full of new American classics like burgers and Carolina BBQ short rib sandwiches, familiar sides like tator tots with a twist in the form of queso and scallions, favorites from other cultures like quesadillas and empanadas, plus some frou frou farro and kale salads for the health-conscious. There are themed food and drink specials to go along with each movie, and sure, being served a meat and cheese tray in the midst of a film can be a little distracting, but I’m not complaining when I’m chomping chorizo a minute later. Plus, the theater plays these amazing retro ads and old movie mashups before the show that are better than any preview.
That night, we were served two types of popcorn to enjoy during the movie: herbes de Provence popcorn to represent the French cooking, and curry popcorn to represent the Indian.
Likewise, I had a glass of sauvignon blanc, and my boyfriend had a Kingfisher beer.
It’s hard for me to say exactly why the movie hit me so hard. Maybe it’s because Indian food was the first “ethnic cuisine” I ate when I left my tiny farming town and moved to the city, and I still remember what it was like for me to taste samosas and kormas and dosas as an adult who had grown up eating only American food. There’s this moment at the very beginning of the film where the young Hassan races through the streets of India, trying to catch a man who’s bringing sea urchin to a stall in the market. The moment he pops open the shell and smells uni for the first time, and his face melts into bliss–I know what that feels like.
Or maybe it’s that my Michelin-starred restaurant experiences have been so meaningful to me. I absolutely loved this scene where the director was trying to show the difference between the hearty, rustic Indian cuisine by panning over big pots full of curry at the Indian family restaurant and then cutting to a clean white plate spotted with tiny foods barely big enough to cover a spoon at the Michelin restaurant across the street. Later, we’re shown a sleek, supposedly soulless restaurant in Paris using molecular gastronomy techniques, where the clientele constantly demands style over substance. And I love all of those things! At that moment, I felt so lucky to have grown up eating the food of my family, the incredibly newfangled food at restaurants like Atera and wd-50, and the classic teeny tiny foods at Per Se and Eleven Madison Park.
I’ll stop giving away everything in the movie, but the scene that really made me tear up was the one where Hassan opens up his family’s spice box full of their own special blends, and I didn’t recognize a single word on any of the jars, and my heart was filled with all of this joy over secret family recipes and the fact that with all I’ve eaten, there’s so much more I have to eat.
This movie made me fall even more in love with food, family, and France. The acting was fantastic, the characters seemed real, and the entire audience laughed all the way through it. I understand why the marketing team for Walt Disney Studios and Dreamworks Pictures invited me to a screening of The Hundred-Foot Journey, because you can’t fit how wonderful this movie is into a 30-second preview.
It opens nationwide today, and if you’re a food lover of any kind, I hope you’ll go see it.
It’s rare that I leave a prix-fixe dinner wondering, “How did they do that?” But at most of the meals I eat, the chef doesn’t come out of the kitchen to explain exactly what was in each dish. That’s exactly what happened at the last Friday Night Dinner at the Natural Gourmet Institute, though, and I was left befuddled by how such simple ingredients were turned into such complex dishes. Or maybe it’s the other way around.
I was invited to dine on the house at the Natural Gourmet Institute by their marketing coordinator and, you know, immediately had my doubts about an all-vegetarian meal cooked by students. But once I saw the menu, I became a little intrigued. And then when my boyfriend and I figured out that bullet points under the appetizer, entree, and desserts sections weren’t “or”s (“pick this OR this OR this”) but “and”s (“you’re about to get this AND this AND this”), I was downright excited about getting to try all of these different tastes.
We were led to our table by a gentle, polite woman, and that was sort of the theme of the night when it came to the crowd there for the Friday Night Dinner series. Everyone was gentle and polite. A little free-spirited. Very knowledgeable about food. There to enjoy a delicious health-conscious meal and good conversation. We were seated at a communal eight-top, which shocked me a little at first, because ew, I don’t want to get to know strangers. But the couple next to us were lovely, foodies and wine lovers who were moving out west and wanted to visit one of their favorite places before they left. She was a vegan and he wasn’t, but he assured us we’d like the meal.
This isn’t the first time I’ve had vegetables masquerading as pasta, and I’m a huge fan as someone who usually eats a low-carb diet. The zucchini was so fresh and crisp and light, and it was a neutral enough base that the macadamia nut(!) pesto could really shine. A leaf of Boston Bibb underneath provided a contrasting texture.
It sounded like as strange a combination to me as mushroom ice cream, but the sweet and savory flavors really worked. The cabbage was mostly a textural component, so the flavor of the grapefruit really came through. The carrot coulis was lost on me, unfortunately, but I thought adding the natural sweetness of carrots was a smart idea.
This hearty stew with Cajun flavors was filling enough to have been full of meat, and its flavor was rich enough for it, too; chef Hideyo Yamada told us later that it was the addition of trumpet mushrooms that fooled us. An earthy chia seed cracker, grilled broccolini, a dollop of cucumber and shiso leaf pressed salad, and eggplant and shishito pepper tempura with horseradish sauce completed the sampling. I loved the fresh cucumber with the delicate shisho flavor, the buttery broccolini that probably didn’t actually use any butter at all, and the light tempura batter made with quinoa flour (low-carb!) and seltzer water. The bright kick of the horseradish provided a juxtaposition to the richer flavors of the dish.
Don’t even ask me what was going on here. The “cake” tasted like raspberry sorbet over a dense, chewy brownie, but it was raw and apparently made of cashews. What a feat. The tapioca pearls had a strong mint flavor and were dry, not slimy, so they stuck together and formed a solid mass. The fresh fruit was so summery with the mint, but the mint quickly gave way to the more forceful raspberry flavor. It sort of reminded me of the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, which is all about the fleeting beauty of natural objects. I loved the chocolate “tuile”, which was much too thick to actually be considered a tuile, and of course that’s just the way I wanted it.
The Friday Night Dinner at the Natural Gourmet Institute was serious enough that I felt like I was getting an inventive tasting menu at an NYC restaurant, but it was casual enough that I could go there any Friday night. There’s no pretentious decor, no attire requirements, and your placesetting won’t include four unnecessary plates there just for looks. The tickets were about $50, including tip and beverage, it was BYOB, and 10% of the proceeds from each dinner are donated to a worthy cause. The night we attended was graduation night for the students, and they came into the dining room with Chef Yamada to talk about the food, the school, and how it’s changed their lives. One of the students told us about how sick she had been until she started eating a vegan diet and how she chose the Natural Gourmet Institute because they were open-minded about different ways of eating and didn’t force her to take butchering classes like other culinary schools.
You can read more about their history and philosophy here, and check out the menu for the next Friday Night Dinner while you’re at it!
I’m writing pizzeria reviews as Examiner.com’s Manhattan Pizza Examiner. I know it shows that I have the palate of a 5-year-old, but pizza’s easily my favourite food, so you can count on me for plenty of fangirling over crust and sauce in these articles.
Read my review of all of the pies, meatballs, watermelon salads, and burrata cheese here!
Recently, I’ve been watching the movie Silver Linings Playbook a lot, both because it’s been on HBO and because I’m a sap. There’s this epic scene where Bradley Cooper’s character is desperately trying to find his wedding video in the middle of the night, and Led Zeppelin’s “What Is and What Should Never Be” plays over his frantic search. I try to imagine the scene without the song, and it’s just nothing by comparison. And I’m sure we all have these movie moments where the music mattered so much to us and really made the scene. Chef and author Barbara Werner has figured out that the same can be said for music and food with her new book series and app, Musical Pairing: The Art of Harmonizing Music to Your Meal.
When Barbara invited me to a nine-course music-paired tasting on her at the Ruth’s Chris Steak House near Times Square last week, I expected that she’d just rented out the upstairs meeting room for the atmosphere and would be having a caterer serve us tiny one-bite plates, enough to give us a sample of what an actual musical pairing dinner party could be like. After the first course, I was dying to know the caterer’s name. Because I am dumb. Of course it was Ruth’s Chris food we were eating, and it was all incredible.
My friend Kim and I were seated at a U-shaped table with other journalists, bloggers, photographers, and eaters,
and in front of each of us was a set of Frends headphones in either rose gold or black that were ours to keep.
When Barbara Werner began speaking, we couldn’t help but stop sipping our champagne and admiring our new electronics, because the woman is a real charmer. She was funny. She was honest. She spoke openly about being divorced and how much she loves being a single woman but how she hates the way restaurants announce to all of the other diners that she’s alone the moment she walks in the door. “Table for ONE? Do we have a table for ONE LONELY PERSON?” She didn’t want to have to join Match.com just to be taken out to dinner, she said, but she hated the stigma attached to treating just herself to dinner. So Barbara started wearing headphones while she ate to block out the clatter of silverware as the server removed the extra setting from her table for two, and that’s when she realized that something special was happening.
To start the evening, Barbara’s assistants hooked us all up to iPods,
and then servers brought our food to us as we began listening to the song Barbara had decided to pair with that particular course. She said that she’d specifically chosen headphones versus piping the music throughout the room over loudspeakers to ensure that we’d know it was the music that had made the meal so memorable and not the fantastic conversation we were having with the people next to us.
Our example course was a single scoop of vanilla ice cream, something we all knew well and could use as a baseline. As our dishes arrived, a classical music piece began playing. It was fine. The ice cream tasted like ice cream. But when they switched us over to “Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major”, the ice cream suddenly tasted . . . different. Brighter. Creamier. I knew it was just the power of suggestion, but did I care? If I stop feeling pain because of a placebo pill, I’ve still stopped feeling pain, right? It was a little bit exciting to me to think that my brain could be won over by a couple of violins. I was also probably won over by the fact that this woman was serving me ice cream for an amuse bouche.
The rest of the night would only get better from there, thanks to Barbara’s song choices and this sampling of the Ruth’s Chris menu.
Barbara explained that her pairings are derived from a simple mathematical formula that takes into account the type of protein, the way it’s cooked, and then all of the side dishes and sauces. Since this tuna wasn’t cooked, its musical pairing number was small, so she needed a song with a matching small number. She was looking for a steady beat with no big sweeps, not a lot of dynamics. What she ended up with was “We Got the Beat” by The Go-Go’s. I absolutely loved the spicy wasabi and ginger with the freshness of the tuna and cilantro.
Barbara has a culinary degree and comes from a long line of butchers. She was a self-described nerd in school, a choir geek, and learned about whatever music her crush of the moment was into to make boys like her. And she’s great at talking about food. The way she described the classic veal osso buco had my mouth watering even before the dish was anywhere in sight. This one was infused with saffron and was so rich and buttery. I’m not sure I’d heard of Florida Georgia Line before the dinner, and I don’t usually listen to country music, but “Cruise” had me wanting to dance in my seat and sing along.
I don’t eat a whole lot of squid in my life, and I was actively trying to control my portions so I’d be able to save room for the THREE COURSES OF DESSERT, but I couldn’t stop shoving this stuff in my maw. Set to the tune of Carly Simon’s “Let the Rivers Run” (the theme from Working Girl), it was bursting with red pepper flavor that’s making me salivate even as I type this. The lemon we squeezed over the whole plate was the perfect bright contrast to the heavy batter.
And speaking of heavy batter, next up was the biggest onion ring I’d seen in my life. Barbara called this “the greatest stoner food known to man” and paired it with stoner music, “Paint It Black” by The Rolling Stones. The coating on this was so thick it went from crunchy on the outside back to doughy again on the inside. I loved getting the best of both worlds, and really, the fact that this was a tempura batter meant that it was surprisingly light. I loved the Thai flavors of the dipping sauce.
Next up was a roasted chicken breast paired with Cream’s “White Room”, perfect for the herbaceous cream sauce that burst out of the chicken when I cut into its crisp skin. But the star of this dish, and maybe reason enough on its own to visit Ruth’s Chris Steak House, was the sweet potato casserole with a pecan crust. It was CANDY. It could’ve easily been dessert. And did I taste a hint of orange in it? The fact that no one is writing love poems to these sweet potatoes is a crime. The Best.
Finally, we got to the Ruth’s Chris signature: a petite filet mignon medallion with roasted garlic mashed potatoes and asparagus. This is the dish that inspired Barbara to write her Musical Pairing series. She was at Ruth’s Chris one night by herself, listening to Luciano Pavarotti sing “Nessum Dorma”, when she was inspired to figure out why this song and this food went so perfectly together. The song was so epic–probably too epic for my taste in any other setting, actually–but there was this moment when I was spooning these potatoes drowning in butter into my mouth that I thought I’d never be able to eat steak without music ever again after this.
Harry Connick, Jr. sang “It Had to Be You” to us as we ate this mini banana cream pie that was more fresh banana than pie. We loved how it was just lightly sweet and how it was so much more “real food” than banana pudding is. The espresso martini it was served with was all chocolate and sugar, on the other hand, and of course I loved that in an entirely different way.
This was like an apple pie stuffed into a bread pudding with all of its cinnamon and fruits. It was paired with The Mamas and the Papas’ “Words of Love” and a creamy whiskey sauce that seemed to also have a whole lotta powdered sugar in it.
This really needs no description, because it’s all in the name. Eating this cake is a sin. Especially after eight previous courses and ice cream to start the whole night off. It was so dense and decadent that half of the room left their plate nearly untouched. I, on the other hand, ate nearly all of it but left behind a single bite to show that I’m in control of my appetite. And I’ll regret that decision every day of my life.
Several years ago, when I was a faithful minimum wage bookstore employee, I was so excited to read This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession the moment it arrived in the store. I was dying to know why music affected me so much, influenced my mood so intensely. What the book basically told me was, “We have no idea.” But even if I don’t know why my connection to music is so meaningful, it is. And well, my connection to food is embarrassing at times. As I sat listening to this Florida Georgia Line song I had never heard before and was finding it so unbelievably catchy, I wondered if the food had as much to do with me liking the song as the song had to do with me liking the food. It’s been a few months since I’d had a good tasting menu, so maybe it was partly just that I was experiencing the euphoria of an overly-full belly, but I kept exclaiming, “This is the best night of my life!” Loudly, so my friend could hear me through her headphones. And she was feeling the same way. Whether or not we can pinpoint the science behind musical pairing, we’re dying to host a music-paired dinner party full of the very best/truly, truly terrible songs our iPods can produce.
If you want to do the same, check out the beginnings of musicalpairing.com for videos and contests, and try the beta app at mpwebapp.com to see actual song suggestions based on your menu.
Thanks to Barbara Werner and Ruth’s Chris Steak House NYC for an amazing time!
pink donuts: expensive meals
glazed donuts: inexpensive meals
5 donuts: transcendent experiences
4.5 donuts: extremely awesome meals
3.5 donuts: good eats
2.5 donuts: food I could have made
1 donuts: dinners not fit for the dogs
• Daniel (2)
• Eleven Madison Park
• Eleven Madison Park (2)
• Eleven Madison Park (3)
• Le Bernardin
• Per Se
• Per Se (2) (extended tasting)
• Per Se (3) (vegetarian tasting)
• Per Se (4)