Monthly Archives: November 2015

Yakitori Torishin

 

Third time’s a charm it would seem for solidifying that a night on Broadway involves yakitori for dinner. Not really being one for the theatre, I splurge on tickets when I want to see a favourite celebrity in the flesh for an hour or two. That becomes almost the only reason I go, because I am so distracted by the star that I rarely remember the name of the play. So, it’s easier for me to tell you that yakitori nights are because I saw Ewan MacGregor, Larry David, and Clive Owen. You’d be disappointed to hear what I could manage to say about the plays.

Third time is also a charm because instead of heading back to Yakitori Totto, I made a reservation at Torishin. By far the better choice when it comes to yakitori quality. The atmosphere is not as lively, the room not as packed, but on the flipside, there is that element of quiet authority and austerity that is often felt in revered Japanese restaurants. That’s not to say that it’s cold, as you get warm saluations from everyone as you enter and leave, but the décor and price separate it from the bustling casualness of Totto and its notorious waits. Torishin also brings you much closer to the action when you sit along the counter. At Totto, the chefs who man the charcoal grills are elevated and feel removed from you. You still don’t get to see the skewers cooking at Torishin, but your chef is much closer, like at a sushi bar; close enough to converse and easily pass you each course and close enough for you to watch them fan the coals. And also like at a sushi bar, the chef has the ability to watch you eat, watch you deciding how you will remove the pieces of chicken from the skewer and maneuver the chopsticks. I will always be self-conscious eating with chopsticks in front of those who grew up with them. I am so thankful that good etiquette allows me to eat nigiri sushi with my hands. I understand that it is acceptable to eat right off of yakitori skewers, but I remove the meat first with my chopsticks. I feel better about incorrectly using chopsticks than being the chef’s comic relief as I try to use my teeth as utensils.

I went with the $70 omakase, which offered the chef’s choice of six meat and two vegetable skewers, a small rice dish, and a few small extras. One of these extras was a chicken wing. Unsure, I lifted the wing off the plate with my hands, only to have the meat slip right off the bones. The meat had been prepared in such a way that I could have liberated it easily from the bones with my chopsticks, preventing me the embarrassment of eating it with my hands and of the waitress of bringing me another warm towel. It was too good to leave me red-faced for long, however. The slightly sweet sauce that glazed it reminded me of the pans of oven-baked chicken wings that my mom and her friends would bestow upon party tables in the 80s. The other extra was a vegetal-forward pumpkin soup, with no strong spice or added sweetness to hide the flavour of the squash. The extra notes you wanted came from the chewy ball of mochi and the cube of creamy tofu. It was maybe a teacup’s volume of soup, but it made a strong impression on me.

And the skewers. Each one came out juicy, perfectly seasoned, at a perfect texture, and despite never getting the slightest whiff of charcoal, touched by the grill with incredible precision that the blisters almost seemed planned. I told the waitress I would try anything, hoping this might lead the chef to give me more of the “special” skewers. I.e. The more expensive parts, but moreover, the parts of the chicken that Picky Rhianna would never have dreamed of touching just a few years ago. My tactic landed me with liver (possibly now too common to be considered daring), main artery, the oyster, and the meatball. The last two are special due to their rarity and preparation. Fully okay with chicken livers, I was a bit nervous about the artery. With about eight to a skewer, they had a snappy chew that was first welcome, then desired. The chicken and duck meatball, called tsukune, was served with an egg yolk dipping sauce. I already knew it was the best part of the egg, so my only thought is, what else can we start dipping in it? Fries?

My vegetable skewers were cherry tomatoes and shiitake mushrooms, the latter of which had been prepared with butter and soy. The butter came through strongly and made me wish I could order a bowlful.

Although I had an included dessert, I paid a few dollars extra to supplement with a forgettable pumpkin cheesecake. I should have just went with the shiso sorbet. My real dessert was the one skewer I had ordered a la carte because I figured if not now, when. The whole chicken heart. It’s not easy to forget what you’re eating as you feel your teeth make their way through the different ventricles, the hollow pockets adding an unexpected but then obvious sensation. But denial easily follows as you taste the touch of salt, the coals, and all the… love.

Chicken wing and roasted daikon

 

Chicken livers

 

Main arteries

 

Shiitake mushrooms

 

Pumpkin soup with tofu and mochi

 

Chicken oyster

 

Oyako don, chicken and egg over rice

 

Whole heart

 

Horchata caramel Cronut™ from Dominique Ansel Bakery

The Cronut™(henceforth known as “the hybrid” for ease of typing). I don’t need to link to a description or spend time telling you what it is. After it’s introduction almost two and a half years ago, anyone who has a mild interest in eating pastries will have brushed up against a facsimile or been unable to avoid the PR and baking juggernaut that is its creator Dominique Ansel. I am someone who is more often than not indifferent to both croissants and doughnuts, so while completely intrigued by the arrival of the hybrid, I was not going to line up at 5 a.m. for one. And since the introduction, I’ve never gotten the impression that it was worth that level of crazy. Fun, interesting, novel. But not OMG-so-delicious-I-want-that-in-my-mouth-always. I resigned to make do with Dominique’s very good and easy to acquire kouign ammans and trying a new creation when it doesn’t require me to get up in the middle of the night, like the burrata soft serve.

But knowing that there were a limited number of hybrids that could be pre-ordered two weeks in advance and picked up without having to wait in line, I never ignored the hybrid. Just like with Shake Shack’s Custard Calendar, I pay attention to the new monthly flavour that the bakery creates. And again like with custard, I’m always much more interested in the fall and winter concoctions as warmly spiced, holiday-like combinations are my jam. It must have been fate for October’s flavour of horchata to occur when a doughnut-loving friend and colleague would be leaving NYC for greener pastures. A send-off with one of the city’s biggest contributions to the contemporary pastry canon seemed appropriate. And anything reminiscent of that ubiquitous cinnamon and rice-based Mexican beverage would work for me. Most especially because Instagrammers I follow who tried one suggested that it was one of the best hybrid flavours to date. I set an alarm to make the online pre-order, and my heart skipped a beat when my order for the max per person (six) made it to the checkout page.

The hybrid would be mine at last. And it would be mine for the novelty and to judge. Getting up an hour earlier to add the trip downtown to my commute was the effort I made in honour of my departing friend; getting the hybrids was my moment at last to gauge the hype. Based on my preferences, I’ve always expected to dislike it. I’ve read it’s greasy, too rich, and too sweet. All reasons that, if given a choice, I would go to a boulangerie over a pastisserie. I was happy that I was going to share the moment among friendly colleagues, but I was fearful that my displeasure might sour it.

To my great surprise, my reaction to the horchata hybrid was pretty much, “OMG-so-delicious-I-want-that-in-my-mouth-always.”

It was, amazing. As it’s taller than a normal doughnut, I opened wide and went in. The creamy cinnamon custard that was barely being held by the hybrid’s layers swiftly oozed out all over my cheeks and chin. I then deconstructed it, pinching off pieces of the crisp outer ring and then the doughy middle, all the while getting the custard and cinnamon sugar all over every bit and every fingertip. The little rice krispie adornment looked good, but was gone too quickly to add to the experience. The icing was the too-sweet element for me, but there wasn’t enough to cause a toothache. I didn’t get much more than cinnamon and maybe some vanilla in the custard, but that was fine by me. Because in the end, the fried buttery mass became more than simply a cross between a croissant and a doughnut. With the just-rich-enough custard, it became a party between those two pastries plus a cinnamon bun. The texture pushed all the crave-inducing cinnamon bun buttons: the firm, browned bun top, the doughy middle, the richness from the butter, the dairy fat mouthfeel from the cream cheese icing. I was shocked. In love. And so satisfied.

But… my skepticism warns that it was only this flavour of hybrid that would make me happy. Possibly. My critic was not dormant. I won’t complain about the sweetness of the caramel icing again because it’s personal. I don’t like glazes, frostings, and icings, and I know they should be on the sweeter side. But the texture was not ideal and revealed just how important it is to eat a hybrid while fresh. I think that Dominique has said that the shelf life is something like four to six hours. We ate ours about two hours after they came out of the fryer, and I don’t think I’d have wanted to push it to three. The icing hardens quickly, forming the tell-tale skin that cracks upon touching. Just like a croissant, the sheer amount of butter used to make the layers can make the pastry, well, greasier than you’d like as it ages, as well as wreaking havoc with the textural contrast between the outside and inside. The same as with a doughnut. And also like a doughnut, the moisture from a cream filling can start to soak through, ruining the height, layers, and integrity of the pastry. Eating it fresh is not a criticism, because I wouldn’t want to eat a croissant or doughnut after more than four hours either, just an observation that until the hybrid begins to be produced around the clock, it is firmly an early morning treat.

I’ve written way too many words about something I never imagined I would actually get to eat and never imagined I would actually like. Hip hip hooray for the picky eater who lives in one of the greatest eating cities in the world, I suppose.

I saw today that December’s flavour is milk chocolate-pear-gingerbread. Buttons are lighting up. Do I dare push them?


Madcapra

It seemed to me that as quickly as the good word rose and spread about the magic of flaky bread and a rabbit-for-two after the opening of Glasserie in Greenpoint, it went silent. Just when I thought I was getting myself organized to try and book a dinner there, the effort seemed for naught. The opening chefs, Sara Kramer and Sarah Hymanson, were leaving, and when the frenzy over the food was chalked up to their vision, the hype and yes, my interest, waned with their absence.

They did not stick around the Big Apple. The two Sara(h)s made the East-West switch that is commonly seen between New Yorkers and Angelenos. The new opportunity would be a falafel stand in the revamped Grand Central Market in downtown LA, which is now a major foodie magnet and strong symbol of the downtown renaissance. On my last visit to the market, I went to Eggslut, but this time it would be all about Madcapra.

My friend and I hit the stand at what looked like an uncharacteristic lull in the line and both ordered the green falafel in a wrap—”cauliflower, pickled fennel, labneh, cilantro, and mint.” I added a beet-sumac soda, and because I can never get enough labneh, celery sticks with a ranchy version of the thick yogurt.

We both felt pretty swoony about our lunch. For me, the falafel balls, excuse me, cubes, were almost last on my list of why I liked it so much. But to get that out of the way, they were crispy and light with the mashed chickpea interior soft, but not mushy. They were well seasoned and herbaceous, but still kind of plain enough that all of the accompaniments could both shine on their own and enhance the cubes. The cauliflower had been diced, removing any worry about a giant floret toppling out. The cilantro and mint were very present and reinforced the “green” designation. I like the licorice aspect of fennel, but there wasn’t enough of it to offend anyone. There was also lettuce, yes, but despite all the greenery, it didn’t feel like salad wrapped up. The labneh added some binding moisture if anything, and while there was some of the green hot sauce included, I added a little extra. I tasted the red hot sauce but didn’t need to add it. My friend’s wrap held everything together much better than mine because she didn’t unwrap hers for a glamour shot. And that wrap. It was everything. I wish I had now tried the Sara(h)s’ flatbread at Glasserie because the pita that they are making for Madcapra is amazing. It would have been a lesser lunch without that scratch bread.

The celery sticks were celery sticks with a nice, thick dairy dip. Nothing to rave about, but when you’re eating dessert and a constant roster of restaurant meals every day on vacation, you sometimes just want more water-based food. The beet-sumac soda was also a winner. It reminded me of slightly sweet pickled beets. I don’t have the words to make it sound as good as it was.

Add to the mix that it was the middle of October and about 90 degrees outside. Hashtag perfect day.

Mainland Poke Shop

Mainland Poke Shop and me were probably a match made in heaven. The restaurant  fulfilled everything I wanted in a vibrant, healthy(-ish) lunch experience in a neighbourhood that felt very Los Angeles, and I walked in with no pre-conceived notions about poke or reservations about it being sold as fast-casual. More importantly, I was very happy with my order and would go back regularly if possible.

In preparation for my recent trip to visit friends in LA, Chipotle-like poke places came up in my dining research as an emerging LA trend. There is poke here, but if a trend, something new to me, and most at home in warm weather, I decided to get my feet wet while in LA. While a fast-casual restaurant might seem like a less than desirable place to explore the joys of raw fish salad, poke’s regular inclusion in a simple Hawaiian plate lunch told me that I didn’t need Masa-level execution to enjoy it. Many of the recommended places are in Pasadena, which wasn’t going to work for this New Yorker taking the bus on that particular day. Mainland Poke Shop, the most bougie on the list, was in close proximity to my afternoon destination of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (a 20 minute walk). Again, given I had nothing to compare it to, its location (and thus clientele and prices) among the boutiques of West 3rd Street and proximity to the shopping and tourists of The Grove didn’t bother me. Vacation Rhianna doesn’t worry about higher costs. And authenticity didn’t concern either of us.

Luckily, when I walked in I was the only customer needing help, so the boy behind the counter gave me a rundown of the menu and options with some patience. He suggested the small size was more of a snack, so I chose large for my lunch. At that size, I could have my choice of three fish and any or all of the toppings and sauces. On a base of white rice and kale, I got ahi tuna, salmon, and octopus with almost everything else: avocado, cucumbers, scallions, seaweed salad, edamame, pickled ginger, tobiko, furikakke, sea salt, and shoyu. I got wasabi cream on the side for dipping.

After being presented with my high and densely packed bowl, my obvious question was “So, do I just take chopsticks and mix it all up?” I had visions of the bowl’s contents going everywhere because there clearly was no room to mix.  Any attempt to get that tobiko on top to dance with the rice at the bottom seemed unlikely.

“No” he replied, “Think of it like a seven-layer dip. I suggest using a fork. Try to make some room on the side and then work your fork downward to get a little bit of everything.”

Revelation. That method worked perfectly and enabled Vacation Rhianna to eat the bowl without making a mess. And because the layers stay intact, you actually taste all the components clearly; it doesn’t become a mess of lost or overpowering flavours. I did notice that as he was making my bowl, he stopped to ask me what shoyu I wanted (spicy or regular) after adding the fish, which came after the base. This allowed for the salty shoyu to settle into the rice and fish, seasoning both well. I think if it was added at the end, too much would be soaked up by the veg. Traditional poke is marinated, so while at Mainland it isn’t, they are still aware of a more optimal time to season. Everything tasted fresh, and all textures acted as hoped for with the exception of the too-soft avocado. The pops of flavour I appreciated the most were the tobiko, sea salt, and seaweed salad. The fish seemed totally fine to me, the tuna and salmon firm enough and the octopus enjoyably chewy. I liked the contrast of the warm rice, but I’ve read comments suggesting that’s not kosher when it comes to poke. The wasabi cream was excellent, especially when I coated the tines of my fork with it before digging in to create a mouthful. I would have found the bowl too rich if it had been added directly.

With tip and a bottle of water, I think I paid $16 and change. Highway robbery? Whatever, it was good, and I would/want to go back. Or, perhaps next visit I’ll head out to Pasadena to try one of the cheaper places that comes more highly recommended. That might pair better with Vacation Rhianna’s willingness to enjoy the $1.75 views provided by LA Metro.