Friday, March 19, 2010

White Day

Whereas in the US, Valentines Day is usually all about guys buying chocolates and flowers for girls, but they do things a little different here. In Japan, without exception, Valentines Day is a day for girls to give chocolate (often homemade) to guys they like and guys are expected to do absolutely nothing. Instead, exactly one month later, on March 14th, they have White Day, which is the exact opposite of Valentines Day, i.e. guys give chocolate to girls they like.

On Valentines Day this year, Yuki took me out for a really nice of creative Italian food, made me chocolates, and cooked me a multi-course dinner. All very good stuff. So the bar was set pretty high for White Day.

I started things off with breakfast. First came french toast, soaked in whole milk, eggs, sugar and amaretto (Yuki is a fan), then sprinkled liberally with brown sugar and cinnamon before being fried in butter. You can buy bread cut super thick here and I used a loaf with nearly inch thick slices. Douse it with maple syrup and it's hard to tell whether you've made breakfast or dessert. To blur the lines even further, I followed it up with chocolate covered strawberries (fruit is an important part of a balanced diet!)

We lounged around for a couple of hours to give our stomachs a chance to catch up. There was still plenty of eating yet to come.

For lunch, we headed to Naka Meguro, in the South-West corner of Tokyo. Yuki had recently expressed interest in North African food, so I'd found a place that specialized in Moroccan cooking. Bistro Khamsa is located right next to the Meguro River in a very beautiful (and hip) part of town. All those trees lining the river are sakura (cherry blossoms) and will be blooming in the next couple of weeks. Even without the flowers, it was a pretty scenic spot.

The restaurant is a small place on the 5th floor of a building overlooking the river. There are table seats for 12 plus counter seats for 4 more, but that's it. From what we saw, the staff consisted of two waiters and two cooks. It is full of ceramics and small items that, as far as I could tell, seemed to be from Morocco. By far the coolest part was the lights hanging from a big mirror on the ceiling. The general feel of the place was pretty bistro-like (or at least, what I would imagine bistros should be like).

Normally when we get a lunch like this we'll have a cocktail or glass of wine to go with it but, far more appealing, they had mint tea. Yuki is a HUGE tea drinker so it was a must have. Mint can be a strong and overpowering flavor but, after dissolving a sugar cube in each glass, it was an awesome combination of sweet and refreshing.

On weekends, they offer a 3 course lunch which consists of an appetizer, a main dish, and dessert. When we go out for lunch, we always make sure to order different things so that we can share and try as many dishes as possible. For my appetizer, I went with a Toulouse-style sausage and Yuki got a vegetable soup. The sausage was handmade and delicious, served with a sweet vegetable puree (I think it might have had apple in it too) and a light salad. Yuki's soup was, unfortunately, rather uninspired. That's not to say it wasn't good, but it tasted like a simple soup that you can get at any of a million places. It wasn't on the same level as the rest of the food we got there.

For the main dish, I went with chicken confit, served with green beans and scalloped potatoes. A confit is basically a piece of meat braised in its own fat (kind of like a half way point between regular braising and deep frying). Once the meat is fall-off-the-bone tender (and this was), it is seared in a hot pan or oven to make the outside golden and crispy. I'm sure it's terribly unhealthy, but damn was it good. Healthy eating is important and all, but sometimes exceptions need to be made. An added surprise was the scalloped potatoes, which were also phenomenal. They were so good I could have sworn I was eating my mom's. If I closed my eyes, it was like being at home again. Big thumbs up. Yuki got a lamb stew with couscous which was quality stuff as well. The stew was full of chunks of lamb, carrots, celery, and some kind of bean, cooked in a broth with coriander seed, anise, and cumin, which I have read are common spices in North African cooking. The broth was delicious and the lamb practically fell apart in your mouth. It was so good I've decided to start looking up some recipes to see if I can't recreate something similar myself.

Finally, for dessert, I ordered a pudding, which was cute and tasty, but nothing to write home about. Simple but good. Yuki got "fromage blanc" with a fig compote. I don't know what I was expecting "fromage blanc" to be (it means "white cheese" in French), but what came out was somewhere between a cream cheese a yogurt. It was a little richer and thicker than most yogurt, but still had that slight sour tang that yogurt has. Interesting, but again good not great.

Our stomachs full (again), we wrapped up the meal with a cup of coffee, served in really cool little mugs. It came with real cream, not milk or little imitation-cream packets, which was a really nice touch.

It was a beautiful sunny day, so we took a walk around Naka Meguro and Daikanyama, the district next to it, to enjoy the good weather and work off some of the many calories we had just consumed. Somewhat counterproductively, we stopped in Dix Neuf Cent Quatre, a little bakery that has a pretty good reputation. One of the coolest things about the store is that they had an open workshop in the back where they prepared their cakes and desserts that you could see into. We were still pretty full, so we just picked up a couple little small goodies to go. We took them to a park at the top of a hill in Daikanyama with a pretty good view and enjoyed them while soaking up some sun.

After wandering around a bit more, we headed back to Yuki's place to relax a bit before dinner. Oh yes, there was still more food on the agenda.

First, a made a red shrimp chowder with corn that I'd seen on a blog I follow. The author had raved about how good it was (though bloggers are prone to that regardless) and it looked like it would go well with the rest of the meal I had planned. You know what: it was every bit as good as she said it would be. It was one of the best things I've cooked in recent memory and I only regret that I waited this long to try it. I had shelled 40 shrimp for this dish and another (1/3 of the shrimp went into the chowder) and had the shell left from a crab I'd cooked the other night (a story for another day), so I simmered those to make a seafood broth while I chopped up potatoes, carrots, celery, and onions. It's a fairly simple recipe with all sorts of little tricks that make it so great. Things like smashing some of the potatoes to thicken the soup, red pepper flakes to give it a little kick, and fresh basil at the end to liven it up a little more. Really the only downside was that I made far too much of it. It could easily have fed 4 and would have been enough for 6 as an appetizer. Unfortunately, it was so good we ended up eating most of it anyways. I suppose there are worse problems one could have...

Yuki is a big fan of Spain, having studied Spanish for several years including a study abroad there, so for the main course I decided to make paella. One of my mom's former clients had moved to Spain and sent her two containers of saffron, one of which she let me have. I had the rest of the shrimp, plus I'd picked up some chorizo and small-neck clams (I'd wanted mussels, but they sold out before I got there two days in a row...) This was my first time making paella and I had high hopes. I have only actually eaten it on a couple of occasions, so am by no means an expert, but can assure you that this was an epic failure. I probably needed to cook the rice longer because it ended up being pretty soggy, bordering on a risotto-abomination. Not cool.

But just when all seemed lost, I pulled out my ace and saved the day. Creme brulee suckas. One of Yuki's favorite desserts. Complete with the freakin blowtorch and everything.

Despite a couple hiccups here and there, it was a great day and I think she was pleased with it too. I didn't buy her a box of fancy chocolates or Pierre Hermes macaroons like most of the 20-something guys in Tokyo do, but I think this was more personal and showed her that I cared in my own sort of way.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Low and Slow - Braising

Most nights, I'm in a hurry to throw a meal together and opt to whip together a random sauce and stir fry whatever meat and veggies I happen to have in the fridge. Once the ingredients are all cut up it, it rarely takes more than 10 minutes to get food on the table. But when I have the time, I like to slow things down and cook something a little more time consuming, something that feels a bit more significant.

Since, for the first time in a long time, I didn't have any plans on a Saturday night, this past weekend I decided I was going to stay in and braise a big hunk of meat. Thrilling right? I know, I live a life of high adventure. It's totally ok if you're jealous.

I've been reading up on braising a little bit recently so I've got a basic idea of how to go about doing it, but still don't have enough experience to know the little tips and tricks to make it turn out particularly special. With no specific idea of how best to start, I picked up a 1lb pork loin and a bottle of white wine, I patted down the pork with paper towel, then heated a couple tbs of oil in my pan and browned the bejesus out if it. People have a terrible tendency to constantly mess around with food in the pan, when really they should just let it be. I am as guilty of this as any and have found my only way to resist the urge is to walk away from the stove all together. It's tough, it really is, but when you see the color you get when you leave the meat alone, you realize how important it is.

Once I'd browned each side of the pork, I temporarily removed the meat and swirled in a couple glugs of wine to deglaze the pan and free up all those delicious crispy brown bits at the bottom. I then poured that liquid into a pot, added the pork, more wine (I used 1/3 bottle total), 3 smashed garlic cloves, a sprinkle of salt, a dash of pepper, and enough chicken broth to half cover the meat. Normally, you could (and should) do everything in one pot, by my pot is a little on the small side and my pork was a bit on the large side, so this seemed like the best option. Once the liquid was simmering gently, I dropped the heat to low, put the lid on the pot, and left it. After an hour, I tossed in some roughly chopped carrots. An hour after that, I added some chopped onions. Finally, half an hour after that, I took the meat and veggies out, added about 1/2 tbs of butter and let the liquid reduce down into a sauce. Unfortunately, I got a little distracted talking to my dad on skype and let it reduce a bit more than I'd intended, but it was still ok and I drizzled it over the food before digging in. The carrots and onion were soft but not squishy and the pork was tender enough that you could pull it apart with a fork. Normally I'd try to avoid eating a pound of meat for dinner, but this was too good to even pretend like I wasn't going to finish it all, so I just dug in.

Start to finish, the process took nearly 3 hours, but it only required my attention for about 30 minutes of that, making it a fairly undemanding meal. It may not be an option on weekdays, but dinners like this are one of my favorite parts of the weekend.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Something Savory, Something Sweet

Tokyo has a lot of excellent restaurants, but it’s not uncommon for dinner to run $70+ at them. However, those same places offer lunch for a fraction of the cost, with most of the same foods in only slightly smaller portions. There's also a large number of European/cafe style places that are really good and reasonably priced, but not really the kind of place you'd go for dinner.

Yuki and I try to go out for a nice lunch on the weekends whenever we can, but had been pretty inconsistent about it during the colder months. We recently decided to try to get back in the habit of it and started off by going to Au Temps Jadis, a small restaurant that specializes in crepes and galettes that I'd read a very good review of. We'd actually tried to eat there last summer, after having seeing Cirque Du Soleil with Mike, Satomi, and Mamiyu, but the place was packed and everyone was hungry, so we ended up going to TGIFridays (I kid you not. Worst. Choice. Ever. This is why I usually do the planning myself.) After that, I'd kind of forgotten about the place and we hadn't tried again since.

Tucked away below street level on an alley off a side street almost exactly halfway between two stations, it's neither convenient or easy to find. In fact, I'm pretty sure you would never just stumble on this place, and even if you're actively looking for it you've got your work cut out for you. The place was packed all the same and we were lucky enough to grab the last open table. It's a small place that's cute in a rustic French countryside sort of way, to the point where Yuki asked "Do you think France is actually this cute?". There's seating for about 20 on the inside and for a dozen more outdoors (with a huge space heater to keep warm). A team of 6 women who look like they're in their early 30s run the place, working out of an open kitchen that practically spills over into the dining area. It's a fairly small place with a lot crammed in it, but ultimately comes off as feeling close and cozy rather than cramped and uncomfortable.

They have a fairly extensive drink menu with a large variety of coffees, teas, and juices, but I opted for a thick and rich mug of hot chocolate. The food menu is more or less split evenly between savory galettes and sweet crepes, so we decided to do one from each. We started off by splitting a gallete provencal, filled with cheese and stewed chicken and tomatoes then sprinkled with paprika. Simple, warming, delicious. We had a much harder time picking the crepe, but ultimately went with our waitress' suggestion and got a chestnut and cream filled one, as chestnuts won't be readily available once the weather warms up soon. There was nothing terribly fancy about either the crepe or the galette, but they were so good that they really don't need anything more. Sometimes simple is best. Our total bill came out just short of $35 for the two of us, a steal really.

I'm constantly impressed by the quality level with which restaurants in Tokyo create European food. Their representations of other Asian food tends to underwhelm and I often think that there aren't enough truly quality Japanese places around, but I keep finding great French, Italian, and Spanish restaurants all over. This is the kind of place you want nearby your home to be a regular at, where you can pop in every weekend and enjoy a nice slow brunch. Eating here gives you a feeling similar to wrapping yourself up in a blanket and eating breakfast on the couch on a cold morning, something basic and calming. If there is time, I think I might bring my family here when the come to Tokyo this summer.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Close and Comfy

This past weekend a few of us got together at Yuki's place for dinner in drinks, the first time we'd had a get-together at her place even though she moved there more than 8 months ago. I hadn't done a very good job of planning and invitations had been a bit late, so half of the regular crew couldn't make it. Fortunately we had a couple of guest appearances to help boost attendance in the form of our friend Jake, who is teaching English in Mie-ken but was visiting Tokyo for a conference, and Yayoi, Mike's girlfriend who has recently started to coming to more and more of our events. Shunji is good about making it to just about everything we do, so there was 6 of us in total, just enough to keep conversation interesting but still small enough to feel close and intimate.

When I cook for other people, I like to go big. Monday-Friday, cooking for myself at home after a long day at work, it's ok for my meal to be a simple stir-fry, but not on the weekends. Weekends give me the time to put real effort into making something special. Not only was this the first time getting together at Yuki's, it was the first time Yayoi had come from Yokohama, where she and Mike live, so I wanted to make something memorable. For that, I called on Thomas Keller, whose book is full of mouthwatering recipes design for 6. I opted to go with Pan Roasted Chicken with Sweet Sausages and Peppers.

Admittedly, I cheated on the recipe a bit. I didn't break down a whole chicken (for some absurd reason a whole chicken is more expensive than the sum of the parts in Japan), nor did I brine it (though I def want to try it some time!), but I did make a soffritto, which I thought was pretty badass. How do you make a soffritto? You take a healthy dose of olive oil and a bunch of diced onions and you cook them over low heat for a looooong time (I went with 2 hrs), then you add a bunch of tomatoes and let them cook for even longer (another 2 1/2 hrs) until it all melds together into a smooth, sweet, delicious sauce. Living in dorms sucks a lot, but free utilities helps a lot.

I loaded up on ingredients in Kameari, where they're cheaper, before heading over to Yuki's later in the afternoon to start pulling everything together. First, I cut a half dozen bell peppers in half and roasted them until they were pretty soft, then peeled the skin off once they had cooled and tore them into strips. I seasoned a small mountains worth of chicken thighs, drumsticks, and wings with salt and pepper and seared them until the skin was gold and crispy then gave 3 chopped up sausages a whirl in the pan as well. The meat got set aside and into the pan went the soffritto, some chicken broth, and the peppers. The sauce thickened up a bit, to peppers softened, and deliciousness was born. The meat got tossed back in and mixed together to make beautiful sweet meat-meets-vegetable slow cooked goodness and all was right in the world.

I know it isn't the sexiest looking dish you've ever seen and the peppers look a bit like bright colored slugs, but damn was it good... I like to think I'm usually pretty modest, but this stuff rocked. It is now officially on my go-to list for kickass meals.

Yuki and I also have a tendency to indulge ourselves in dessert as well and it is rare for us to not have something sweet after a weekend meal. One thing we've tried a couple of times now and are getting pretty good is making our own chocolate sauce. While it doesn't hold a candle to my Grandma Brock's homemade hot fudge sauce, it's definitely good stuff and makes any bowl of ice cream waaaaaaaay better.

A small gathering with good food, good friends, and a good time. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday night if you ask me...