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.

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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/