Blanca in Bushwick

It came time to plan an outing for a milestone of a birthday, I started from a very short list. I first started with some regions and got it down to New Orleans, San Francisco and Napa, or New York. It didn’t take long to hone in on New York but still there was some more work to be done. I’ve always pined for a Thomas Keller meal, but Per Se and the French Laundry seem just out of reach for me. Three summers ago, I had one of my all-time favorite meals at Blue Hills at Stone Barns and have always imagined what they would do in different seasons, so this was the fallback plan. The backup plan if we weren’t able to secure reservations to a pretty new place called Blanca which sits in the ramshackle compound of Roberta’s a pizza place for those in the know out in Bushwick. And with a little bit of effort (none of my own doing, thanks to my companion who manned the phone) and luck we secured 2 of the 12 seats available for my birthday night. And for a month the anticipation grew and grew as I read the handful of reviews and reports from the past year since it opened.

They ask that you check in at Roberta’s, then lead you through what looks like a cross between a construction zone and a junkyard. But then you arrive at a separate building that is at once austere, serene, yet fully comfortable. Clean, cream colored walls, cushy leather backed stools at the counter facing the steamy, smoky both hi- and low-tech (and always calm) kitchen, and Sticky Fingers blaring from the turntable.

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Then the relentless begins. I won’t even begin to describe every dish. I couldn’t if I tried. When trying to recount after the fact, at first I forgot some of my favorite dishes. That’ll happen when your head is swirling deep into a tasting menu of 25 or so courses that come like clockwork over the span of 3 hours. Oh, but before I mention a few of the dishes, let me mention the service.

It was perfect. The right combination of attentive, informative, conversational, and absent. There and helpful when you need them, and helping someone else when you don’t. Like a great host at a party. The service really is part of the whole package, creating a really relaxed and fun environment.

But now back to the menu highlights.

It started with a slew of seafood dishes including a plate of 5 different raw preparations, each one better than the next. Needlefish, geoduck, herring, horse mackerel, and sea perch, each with their own garnish. A real microcosm of what the kitchen excels at. There were lightly breaded and fried veal sweetbreads with lime that were definitely the best sweetbread preparation I’ve ever had. Deep in my memory banks, I’m recalling perfectly tender squid, though I’d be hard-pressed to remember what else was on the plate. Shortly after that there was possibly my favorite savory dish of the night, thinly sliced strips of barely grilled Wagyu in a sweet kohlrabi broth that reminded me of sukiyaki. The paper thin, fatty beef literally melts in your mouth as you eat it. At some point deep in the middle of the evening we were presented with the simplest presentation of the night. A giant king crab leg still in its shell and a large dollop of plankton butter. And a hot towel to clean up with. A perfect dish for a kitchen that tries (and succeeds) so hard to present the most elegant and exquisite dishes and plates and presents them in the least stuffy way possible.

There was a string of pasta dishes, including hand-rolled pici with squab and a single ravioli filled with nduja – a spreadable spicy salami. There was a course that was just bread and butter. But of course, it was 4 different breads and homemade butter. After about 15 courses, I thought this was going to be the end of me, but it actually invigorated me for the home stretch.

In between some key transitional courses, there were some palate cleansing sorbets and granitas. Most notably, a celeriac gelato with lime gelee that tasted exactly as you’d expect and want. And a buttermilk sorbet with Meyer lemon marmalade.

For the meat courses, there was a chicken dish that we watched all night as the whole bird – head and feet included – spun around in the oven for an hour, then was grilled on a yakitori grill – meat and skin separately and served on polenta. Obviously, the skin was the best part. And then another Wagyu dish for the ages. Aged New York strip cooked rare and sliced, served with radish, and a sauce enriched with melted beef fat.

Finally dessert was the real surprise of the night. Following a cheese course of runny La Tur atop a lemon jelly, there were just a couple of similarly presented dishes but they might have been two of the strongest dishes of the night. The first is a contender for my all-time favorite dessert and absolutely one of my favorite dishes of the night. An orange sorbet sat atop a rye “foam” that reminded me of a zabaglione with crunchy rye berries sprinkled on top and a surprise dollop of caramel along the bottom. Totally amazing and wholly new. This was followed by an almost equally strong dish of apple ice with a thick sunchoke puree, dehydrated sunchoke chips, and some sort of sunchoke dust. Both desserts were complex, not single-note sweet, and completely unlike anything you’ve ever had before.

So I enter a new chapter of my life noted arbitrarily by the calendar, I am thoroughly nourished and possibly changed forever by this meal, now more than 24 hours and a so-so night’s sleep in the past, that still has my head spinning trying to figure it all out.

Seasonal Pantry Supper Club

Some secrets I like to keep to myself, but some are eventually revealed despite my best efforts. Dan O’Brien chef/owner of Seasonal Pantry was recently unveiled as a cheftestant on the upcoming season of Top Chef Seattle, so it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the city – and probably the country – catches on to what’s been quietly going down in the transformative Shaw neighborhood for the last year or so.

By day, Dan and his tiny staff are peddling all sorts of handmade goods like pasta, sauces, jams, flavored salts, you name it out of a tiny little storefront. By night, the Seasonal Pantry crew transforms the small space into a dinner party for 12. And a dinner party that is ultimately more than just the sum of its parts.

Here’s how this works. Every couple of weeks, Dan comes up with a new multiple course menu that’s usually based around what’s seasonally available, but there’s often also some sort of theme. The menu gets posted on the site and the scramble for the limited available seats begins. It does require at least a modicum of planning – basically remembering when “tickets” go on sale, usually about 2 weeks ahead of time. The whole night will cost you less than $100 for more food than you should be eating, a few glasses of something delicious and alcoholic, and that’s it – tip and tax essentially all included. A scream of a deal when you think about it.

On the night of, show up just before 8, and if you haven’t bought out the whole table with your friends, you’ll introduce yourself to bunch of other like-minded, adventurous food-people that will be your companions for a fun and filling night. And, honestly, a lot of the fun is the fact that you’re having dinner with a bunch of strangers. I’ve met some really interesting folks with some really interesting stories.

That would be great and all on its own, but if the food Dan and his assistant are serving wasn’t any good, it’d all be for naught.

The first night we went, the main attraction was fried chicken. But, to be honest, I thought the chicken, albeit really good, wasn’t the best dish of the night. The sides that accompanied that course were amazing, all of it served family style. A summery succotash-like salad, corn pudding, and deeply flavorful baked beans stole the show of the course. But, I’ve skipped to the end on you. Preceding all of this were some of the tastiest devil eggs I’ve had, a pimento cheese and salad that changed my perception of pimento cheese. Continuing the southern theme, there was a delicious dirty rice with generous amounts of crab and shrimp. All of this accompanied by a lethal punch flavored with peaches, vanilla, and sparkling wine that might just have been the best thing of the night. No one left hungry, and there were mounds of leftovers. A magnificent introduction to the supper club phenomenon.

The second and more recent time we went, the menu on paper looked just about perfect to me. But, here’s the fun part of it. The menu is really just a list of ingredients for each course. The surprise is what Dan is going to actually serve for each course. How are those ingredients going to come together? First out was “Egg, mushroom, oyster, bacon.” Pretty much 4 of my favorite things. What came out was probably the best thing I’ve had there. Crispy oyster mushrooms, a couple of lardons of really good bacon, a creamy, earthy, and briny sauce made of oysters, all topped with a slightly runny omelette. I seemed to be the last one finished each course, but I lingered with this one possibly a little too long, as Dan asked if I was intending on licking the bowl before he cleared it away.

Next out was an ingenious squash soup. On the surface, it looked pretty straightforward – dark orange with a dollop of creme freche. But what lurked along the bottom of the bowl was a brown sugar custard that you scooped at to raise the sweetness of the soup. Crazily creative, but also crazy good. Third course was a pasta – small sheets of pasta, wrapped around a simple ricotta filling with the ends twisted so it looked like a caramel candy. Accompanied by a sauce featuring bits of salami, again, a dish totally up my alley. Next up was a dish I think Dan ought to start offering up at the market for take out. These would kill. A steamed, slightly sweet brioche bun filled with braised chicken thighs in a spicy sauce flavored with Dr. Pepper and chiles. Imagine something like a steamed bao. It was about half through stuffing this bun in face that I started to realize just how full I was. But, to hell with it, there are two more courses!

Course five was a pretty traditional braciole in a brightly flavored tomato sauce. Really good. Just wish I could’ve eaten more of it. At this point, I did something I rarely do – throw in the towel and leave my plate unfinished. Well, at least until dessert showed up – a small cake with pluots and sabayon.

As you can see, there are so many reasons why this experience is so special. The hands-on service, the camaraderie of total strangers, the seemingly endless stream of imaginative and delicious dishes. And the menu’s just keep getting more and more imaginative. I’m already thinking about the next one. And while I wish Dan all the luck and success he deserves, a part of me is feeling just a little bit selfish and wishing the supper club could just be our little secret.

destination: Clifton, VA

With a new car in the driveway, a beautiful Saturday, and nothing to do, a drive out in the country makes perfect sense. I was already familiar with this quaint Virginia town, as I’d been to Trummer’s on Main a couple of times before. This beautiful restaurant out in Clifton, VA is definitely a destination restaurant for any of us in the city who want to get out into some peace and quiet. The dining room itself is a spectacle – bright with high ceilings and full of windows. The kitchen is sending out some really nice food that’s mostly seasonal and slightly risky. And you can’t beat the deal on Sunday where you help them drain their open wine bottles from the weekend for $5 glass and eat off the reasonably priced 3-course prix fixe menu.

But it was the promise of chili dogs and ice cream (two of my most favorite things) at Peterson’s Ice Cream Depot that sealed the deal.

Peterson's Ice Cream Depot

Peterson's Ice Cream Depot

I’ll be honest right up front – neither the chili dogs nor ice cream were that amazing (though they do lay claim to the Best Ice Cream award in Northern VA,) but much like what they say about pizza – there are no bad chili dogs or ice cream. They were totally satisfying, and pretty much dirt cheap. But this place isn’t really about the food. What makes this place so special is everything else.

The Big Dog

The Big Dog

First, it’s set back from Main St Clifton and shielded by trees and shrubs just enough that it feels like you’re in someone’s backyard. And pretty much you are. The set up is basically an old house. When you walk into the patio, you’re met with large chalkboards touting the menus – hot dogs of all sizes and toppings, ice cream, sundaes, shakes, pretty much any delivery mechanism possible for ice cream. And while their ice cream menu isn’t that deep – softserve chocolate, vanilla, and one flavor of the day, the options are still seemingly endless. Order at one window, pick up at another, and then take a seat either at the outdoor bar around back or at any of the various benches, adirondack, or lawn chairs scattered throughout the property.

The hot dog menu

The hot dog menu

On a Saturday, the action is non-stop. City slickers from out east, families and their soccer playing kids loading up on calories after the game, local teenagers. And even though it’s pretty busy, the lines move fast and the atmosphere is that of a neighborhood block party.

So, if you’re looking for a reason to get out of the city for a couple of hours, set the GPS for Clifton, VA. The drive’ll take you through some nice rolling backroads, and at the end of the drive you’ll find the promise of chili dogs and ice cream. What could be better?

Throw in a stop at the Paradise Springs Winery a vineyard with an expansive lodge at the end of a deadend street not far from DT Clifton and you’ve made a day of it.

notables and edibles from Amsterdam and Brussels

Earlier this month, I spent a delightful week over in Europe – 3 full days in Amsterdam, 3 in Brussels. While I’ll have fond memories of all of the sights we took in, as always, it’s what I stuffed my face with that I’ll likely remember most. So, here’s the rundown of much of the sustenance we enjoyed throughout the week.

After a red-eye flight, a short train ride, an even shorter tram ride, and a little bit of walk (not to mention about 36 sleepless hours), we found ourselves at Noordermarkt – an open-air market featuring endless produce, baked items, cheese, charcuterie, and flea market-type vendors. Despite being all sorts of discombobulated with the time shift and sleeplessness, we soldiered forth to round up a great little breakfast of a couple of different breads (that served as breakfast for the next couple of days, too.)

Bread with ham, cheese, and zucchine

Bread with ham, cheese, and zucchini

One thing worth noting. Make reservations for dinner in Amsterdam. At least on Saturday. We walked seemingly endlessly looking for a place that could accomodate. After being nixed from all of our top choices, we found solace in a cozy little Italian place that I enjoyed quite a bit, while my companion’s lasagne could’ve been a lot warmer.

Sunday night had us tucking into a gluttonous Indonesian feast that is actually more Dutch in tradition than Indonesian. Rijsttafel is a gigantic meal of various small servings of many Indonesian dishes. We settled on one that had about 12 different plates from Kantjil & de Tijger. The highlights were most of the vegetable dishes, especially a cold salad of cucumber and mango.

Moments before digging into our rijsttafel

Moments before digging into our rijsttafel

Some 45 minutes later

Some 45 minutes later

de Kas at night

de Kas at night

For our last night in Amsterdam, we had thankfully planned ahead and made reservations at de Kas – a restaurant embracing locavore culture. In addition to the produce they grow in the greenhouse in which the dining room is housed, they’ve got their own farm about an hour outside of the city, as well as relationships with many producers of produce and livestock and seafood in the area. Before we were even handed menus, we were presented with a small round rustic bread loaf, basil oil for dipping, marinated giant green olives, bright and fresh tasting pickled zucchini, and glasses of champagne with edible flowers in them. Next up was a round of three different starters served family-style. The best dish of the night was the heavily smoked salmon served with beets – both cooked and shaved raw – and hazelnuts and dressed with a lemon dressing. This course also had an eggs benedict-type of preparation and a grilled skirt steak with mushrooms. The most underwhelming course was the entree that followed – a tuna steak with mashed potatoes. The tuna was not cooked quite properly resulting in some dry spots. But the atmosphere and the rest of the meal more than made up for the lapse. For dessert, we split a cheese plate of various French and Dutch cheeses and a vanilla panna cotta with a violet sorbet. Delicious and beautifully presented.

smoked salmon and beets at de Kas

smoked salmon and beets at de Kas

Panna cotta at de Kas

Panna cotta at de Kas

From the crowded busy streets and restaurants of Amsterdam, we headed off to quieter, more tame Brussels. It’s worth noting our indulgence on the train ride between the two cities. Biscuit cookies with chocolate hazelnut spread, though the cookies were overshadowed by the power combo of Sweet Chili Bugles paired with Schweppes Bitter Lemon soda.

on the train from Amsterdam to Brussels

on the train from Amsterdam to Brussels

While Amsterdam for us was all about grandeur, our meals in Brussels were far more relaxed and spontaneous, quite possibly due to the copious amounts of Belgian beer that accompanied most meals.

Lambic pitcher

Lambic pitcher

For our first night, we found a great little hard-to-find place in an alleyway called A La Becasse that specializes in Gueuze (and other) lambics served in clay pitchers – a wildly fermented drink that is more like a cider than a beer. The menu offered basic open-faced sandwiches or tartines (we got a ham one and gouda one, and in true foreigner style, combined them to make a single sandwich.)  And besides basic plates of cheese, salami, and wursts, they also offer lasagne, spaghetti bolognese, and spaghetti with ham and gouda. We would see similar menus in other pubs we visited.

Ham and cheese tartines

Ham and cheese tartines

We visited another pub, the Poechenellekelder, where I ordered lambic faro by the half liter and dined on French and Belgian cheeses and pate campagne and more pickles and cocktail onions.

Cheese plate at Poechenellekelder

Cheese plate at Poechenellekelder

At another place, we had the obligatory serving of mussels, that were just, frankly ok. Though the broth was wickedly good.

Can't believe I ate the whole pot

Can't believe I ate the whole pot

Throughout the city you’ll find Liege waffles on just about every corner and even the occasional little waffle-iron equipped truck. These are like super-Belgian waffles. They’re denser and chewier and crusted in crystallized sugar. And served piping hot and fresh. They offer all sorts of toppings, but, really, they can’t be beat just straight up. Our favorite was a truck we found just outside the Atomium.

Anticipating those Liege waffles

Anticipating those Liege waffles

And while the waffles were hard to beat, easily the best meal we had was a lunch near Ste Catherine’s at Noordzee (Mer du Nord.) A stall out on the street that sells fresh fish, but also will cook it up right in front of you. The menu changes everyday, based solely on what’s fresh and on hand. It was late in the afternoon, so there were a few things that had come and gone through their makeshift kitchen, but we were more than satisfied with the fried shrimp, seared scallops, and unbelievably plump and juicy mussels.

seafood lunch al fresco at Noordzee

seafood lunch al fresco at Noordzee

Oh, and how could I forget the Belgian chocolates? We staged our own tasting crawl, and while we didn’t find anything that was bad, we did find some that were substantially better than others.  By far our favorite was Elisabeth whose truffles, mint chocolates (with the taste of fresh mint), and candy that was made of their handmade nougat, something crunchy, and covered in chocolate that was so good we took home a whole bunch.

Belgian chocolates

Belgian chocolates

the Kaiseki tasting at Sushi Taro

I’ve got a real soft spot in my heart for two things that, at times, seem diametrically opposed. A many-course tasting menu and a deal. It was with luck and the assistance of one of the recent entrants to the group-buying site Village Vines that I ended up the opportunity for both. Kind of. Somehow, I’ve ended up with a bunch of free credit on Village Vines which can be used towards 30% discounts at a number of top-notch restaurants around DC. The 30% more or less covers your tax and tip. You just have to make a reservation through their site, and keep in mind some of the places have time and day restrictions (as did Sushi Taro) and some other stipulations, but nothing too overwhelming.

With some credit about to expire, I opted to make a reservation at Sushi Taro, where I could use my discount toward one of their tasting menus. First a word about Sushi Taro. A couple of years ago, this was the no-brainer go-to sushi and yakitori place in DC where the a la carte menu was ample. The prices were reasonable and the sushi and grilled offerings were best-in-the-city excellent. Since then they’ve remodeled which resulted in less seating and higher prices and a smaller a la carte menu and the addition of several higher priced tasting menus. Well, to be honest, this was infuriating and disappointing. Our favorite sushi place, just got more expensive and more exclusive. This is no longer the weeknight sushi place it once was. Since the remodel, we’d only been back twice before — for restaurant week lunch and dinner that were quite great and actually, a relative bargain. But with 30% discount in hand, it was time to take on the big guys, the Kaiseki tasting menu. To be fair, while our trips back to Sushi Taro are less frequent as a result of all of these changes, it is still the best sushi and Japanese restaurant in town. But, just not an everyday kind of place. (For that distinction, check out Kushi.) And, so without, further ado, I give you the play-by-play of the 10 courses that made up this tasting menu (the sushi tasting was 11 courses and featured several more courses of sushi and sashimi.)

signature dish

sesame seed tofu with sea urchin in dashi broth

sesame seed tofu with sea urchin in dashi broth

Right out of the gate, this was one of my favorite dishes of the night. The tofu was soft and delicately flavored and perfumed with the dashi. The sea urchin, tofu, and dashi all together were just so perfect. And ever since another many-course dinner (that time 21 courses!) at Volt, I’ve been won over by sea urchin.

zensai

bamboo shoot, lotus root mochi, and crispy asparagus

bamboo shoot, lotus root mochi, and crispy asparagus

Very interesting flavors. The bamboo shoot tasting of wood and earth, the lotus root mochi with a surprise taste-explosion on in the inside. Again, served with a very flavorful dashi.

winter dish

small delights of winter - smoked salmon and dried roe

small delights of winter - smoked salmon and dried roe

The delicately smoked and cured salmon and the pickled daikon was great. The dried fish roe on top was salty and chewy, but not a flavor I enjoyed all that much, admittedly.

sashimi

fatty tuna, yellowtail, horse mackerel, prawn, and sardine sashimi

fatty tuna, yellowtail, horse mackerel, prawn, and sardine sashimi

This was a knock-out course of sashimi. All of it very tasty. I ate it in a clockwise fashion, starting with the fatty tuna at 12 o’clock. Even the raw shrimp was great, which made me a little squeamish, but upon eating it, I was converted.

soup

Ozoh-ni New Year traditional mochi & duck soup with prawn ball

Ozoh-ni New Year traditional mochi & duck soup with prawn ball

Another one of my favorite courses. The broth was just plain delicious. The 2 slices of duck and prawn ball were a bonus, and the mochi, perhaps, unnecessary. But, man, that broth was good.

hassun

Osechi assortment of traditional new year ingredients

Osechi assortment of traditional new year ingredients

This is the point where I realized I was only about halfway through, and if I had any chance of enjoying the last few courses, I had to start choosing wisely. To be honest, while this course was quaint in its presentation and intent, there wasn’t a lot on the plate that I actually liked that much, except the cooked spanish mackerel which was real good. I ended up eating only about half of everything except the mackerel. From the left you’ve got burdock root with sesame paste, salmon roe, lotus root with mustard, two things I’m forgetting now, steamed prawn, and cooked spanish mackerel.

fukiyose

simmered winter vegetables

simmered winter vegetables

A cute little plate with not a lot happening on it. Nice nonetheless. A little more bamboo shoot, prawn, some pea pods, a sphere of squash, and some tourneed potato.

sushi

For some reason I failed to snap a photo of this course. The waitress provided a list of about 12 options from which I was to pick three. All of them were quite interesting, and I had a little bit of a hard time narrowing it down, but I ultimately opted for house-grilled freshwater eel, uni (sea urchin), and zuke soy marinated tuna. Each of these were splendid, the tuna and eel especially.

sukiyaki

sukiyaki simmering away over a charcoal fire

sukiyaki simmering away over a charcoal fire

This is the reason I ordered the Kaiseki menu and not the sushi menu. I love sukiyaki. When I see it on a menu, I order it. Period. By this time, I was already quite full. But, I mustered up a second wind for this. And it didn’t disappoint (except I prefer the thin, clear cellophane noodles over the udon noodles used here.) The beef was wagyu and simmering away in the clay pot. Separate bowls were brought out containing the udon and a poached egg, both of which I slipped into the beefy bath in front of me. Rich and sweet, this sukiyaki did not disappoint. (and still a day later, it hit the spot, since I couldn’t possibly finish it that night, and took the rest home.)

udon and poached egg for sukiyaki

udon and poached egg for sukiyaki

dessert

kokuto coffee ice cream

kokuto coffee ice cream

Once again proving the axiom that “there’s always room for ice cream,” I opted for the coffee ice cream choice for desert. Very delicious, and I probably ate a little too much of it. But I’m glad I did. A nice way to end an all around great meal.

Sushi Taro
1503 17th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20036

http://www.sushitaro.com/

… with tacos from Taqueria El Charrito Caminante

Despite living within walking distance of about 5 places where I can get tacos, I almost always prefer to take the 10 minute drive down to Washington Blvd. in Arlington, when I get a hankering for tacos.

Trio of tacos

Trio of tacos

Taqueria El Charrito Caminante is a store-front on the outskirts of Clarendon. The story goes that they used to have a taco truck, but opened up this brick-and-mortar joint several years ago. There’s not a lot of seating, just a short formica counter with a handful of stools, so most orders are carry-out. These guys do a steady business during the lunch hours (except on Tuesday, when they’re closed,) slinging tacos, burritos, pupusas, tortas, tamales, and a variety of mexican sodas (Jarritos and Inca Cola.)

I’ve been countless times and I’ve only ever gotten one thing. Tacos. If I lived within walking distance, I’d gladly jump around the menu, but since it’s only every couple of months that I end up going here, I really only want one thing. Tacos. For me, these are the prototype for a taco. So simple and pure. Two warm  soft corn tortillas, a modest amount of meat filling, radish and scallion, and some salsa verde. No cheese. No crispy shell (not that I don’t love a crunchy taco.) No lettuce or tomato. No nonsense. When I make tacos at home, this is what I’m trying to approximate. They offer a variety of fillings — pork, beef, chorizo, chicken, beef tongue, and goat. My usual order is  a trio of goat, pork,  and chorizo. And since this has become somewhat of an addiction/habit, I end up eating them in that order every single time. And wash it all down with a tamarind Jarritos. At $2 a taco and $1 for the soda, the bill runs $7, tax included.

Tamarindo Jarritos

Tamarindo Jarritos

The goat is slow-cooked and shredded. It’s not the least bit gamy, and occasionally a little greasy. Think shredded beef or lamb. The pork is similarly slow-cooked, probably shoulder, but the pieces are cubed, so they’re a little more substantial. Think carnitas. Lastly, the chorizo, my favorite (which is why I save it for last) is minced and, kind of greasy, but in the best possible way; the grease tasting of the spicy sausage. As bad as it sounds, think about the tacos you had at your school cafeteria texture-wise. I swear that’s a good thing. Each of these little guys are dressed with a simple radish and scallion salad and then a little of the spicy salsa verde. If I were ever challenged to some sort of eating competition, I would pick these. I’m pretty sure I could a thousand of them.

Taco de puerco

Taco de puerco

Whenever anyone suggests tacos, this is immediately where my mind goes. These warm little rolls of simplicity and tastiness.

… with life-changing ramen from Minca Ramen Factory

Ok. Forget everything I said last week about noodle soup. Ok, not everything. The sentiment still holds, I suppose. The places and soups I mentioned still have their merits based mostly in their convenience and comfort. But everything has kind of changed thanks to a revelatory bowl of ramen (and thanks to Mr. & Mrs. Kitchen Monkey for finding this joint) I had the other day in Alphabet City, New York, New York.

First, disregard the image that first popped in your mind when you read the word “ramen.” While I’ve had my share of revelations while enjoying a bowl of 10/$1 Top Ramen, this bears no resemblance to the college dorm-room staple. No, this is what I have to imagine is a fairly traditional Japanese ramen.

the tiny kitchen with pots of broth simmering in the background at Minca Ramen Factory

the tiny kitchen with pots of broth simmering in the background at Minca Ramen Factory

Let me try to set the scene. I’ve been in the car for 4 hours, on a drive up to New York from DC. I’m still reeling from the head cold that’s plagued me for several days now. It’s closing in on 2:30, and the only thing I’ve eaten since an early breakfast of cold spaghetti is a sack of peanut m&m’s. My fellow weary travelers and I park the car near the corner of 5th St and Avenue B and make our way to Minca Ramen Factory — a tiny hole-in-the-wall specializing in ramen. They’ve got 4 tables, a bar around the exposed kitchen, and 3-4 chefs/servers. After a first round of pork gyoza, I’m ready to approach the fairly simple menu. Pick a broth and a noodle and you’re done. I settle in on pork broth, shoyu flavor with thin noodles. Minutes later I am presented with anodyne in a bowl.

Pork gyoza

Pork gyoza

For me, the resulting bowl was on the surface pretty simple — some broth, some braised pork, some noodles, an egg, and some mushrooms. But from the moment I put spoon and chopsticks to mouth, any sense that this was a simple dish vanished. Each component of this is prepared with such care and thought, resulting in unbelievable complexity and deliciousness. When I think about each, I inevitably think, “yeah, this was the best part of it.” Then pause and think, “oh, but what about…”

Happiness is pork broth

Happiness is pork broth

The broth. Pork broth with soy sauce. The best way I can think to describe this broth is chewy. This was a substantial broth, thick and comforting and meaty tasting, but certainly still a soupy consistency. It tasted pretty clearly of pork and soy sauce. If I had only gotten a cup of this and nothing else, I probably would’ve been satisfied. At one point, I was getting towards the bottom of the bowl, and just about went face-first trying to get at the last drops of it. I have to assume this was the result of the long braising process for…

The pork. Oh lord. I guess in a pinch, I’d say this was my favorite part; but, again still debatable. On the menu it’s described as “Pork Charsu.” Some research reveals this is either belly, shoulder, or cheek (I’m guessing belly, or maybe loin, in this case) that’s slow braised in a variety of Asian flavorings. I also saw the chefs take a blow-torch to the pieces to get some char on them. To call the resulting slices (and a tip to the wise, one serving comes with just 2 slices, I’d suggest ordering extra) fall apart tender is an understatement. Upon contact with a chop stick, the slices splintered into smaller pieces that became distributed throughout the bowl, providing endless enjoyment. Again, the flavor was predominantly meaty and porky. Kind of a solid form of the broth.

Porky egg

Porky egg

And then the egg. Each bowl comes with half of a hard-boiled egg. From what I can tell, they boil and half the eggs, and then leave them to soak in soy sauce and probably some other stuff. Then submerged in the broth for as long as it was, the egg, too, was, well, porky. A couple of folks at the table ordered vegetarian, but also got the egg, so I asked if it was as porky as mine, and, alas, it was not.

Also topping the bowl were three or four varieties of fungi (“wild vegetables” reads the menu.) I would be hard-pressed to actually identify any of these, but their different flavors and textures were ideal accompaniments to the whole situation. Chewy and full of umami.

Lastly, the noodles. The menu provides a variety of choices, though with each broth selection, they recommend one or two particular choices. The options are thin, thick (not that much thicker than the thin,) wavy wheat, whole wheat, and bean. (By the way, the menu also allows you to substitute chicken for pork.) I opted for thin (one of the recommendations with the pork shoyu broth.) The noodles are just perfect. Just chewy enough. Soaking up the broth and other flavors in the bowl, but also having a distinct wheat flavor of their own. I didn’t actually see them making an noodles in the kitchen, but with the name of the place, I have to assume they are made in house.

As is often the case with me, it’s more than the food itself that factors into my enjoyment of any meal. It’s about context and circumstance, too. In this case, though, I’m pretty sure no matter what the circumstances, this bowl of ramen was one of those all-time great food experiences that I hope to recreate over and over.

… with Bibiana for lunch

Love Bibiana.
It’s quickly become my favorite lunch place, and is high on the list of places, period. I first heard about Bibiana at 12th & H NW from Metrocurean, thanks to her frequent postings of good deals around town. The usual deal at the bar during lunch is order one of five or six homemade pastas, a sorbet, and a drink (wine or italian soda) for $15. The couple of times I’ve been the portions were perfect and the pasta and sorbet were incredibly good. Each time I leave perfectly satisfied. I decided to spend the extra $5 and eat like a big boy in the dining room during their extended restaurant week.
Seated in the bright, airy dining room, I noticed one item missing from the menu that I had seen online (penne with confitted tuna) so making my choices were a little harder. I went with the polpette to start — a big veal meatball in a tomato sauce on white polenta. This was just plain awesome. The meatball was light in texture, the sauce was rich in flavor, and the polenta was soft and creamy.
Veal meatball floating in creamy white polenta

Veal meatball floating in creamy white polenta

Next up was the Agnolotti – sheep’s milk ricotta-filled agnolotti with spinach and lemon. Visually, this was a beautiful dish. The agnolotti looked like bright yellow half-ravioli sitting in a slightly lemony sweet sauce with leaves of perfectly sautéed spinach strewn about. The agnolotti were delicious and the pasta was so thin, that it lacked the usual “bite” (which I do love) of the other pastas I’ve had. This was a great, light pasta dish that I could certainly see trying to recreate at home. And, as usual, the portion was spot on.
Agnolotti

Agnolotti

For dessert, I went for the chocolate mousse which had some sort of crunchy tuille and whipped cream. Like the courses before it, this was the perfect combination of richness and lightness.
Yet again, I left Bibiana feeling perfectly satisfied.
Chocolate Mousse

Chocolate Mousse

And, given the title of this blog, it was all I could do to resist the urge to grab a lobster roll from the truck right around the corner.