NYTimes.com Article: Flavors Fresher Than Sushi

khare at alumni.caltech.edu khare at alumni.caltech.edu
Wed Jan 7 20:39:04 PST 2004


This article from NYTimes.com 
has been sent to you by khare at alumni.caltech.edu.


Ah, to be back in New York... it's crazy that with all the food culture of SF and immigrant population, I can't claim there's anything like this scene here...
RK


khare at alumni.caltech.edu

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Flavors Fresher Than Sushi

January 7, 2004
 By JULIA MOSKIN 



 

NEW YORKERS have long believed that a credit card, an open
mind and the wit to put yourself in the hands of a great
sushi master are a sure route to understanding Japanese
cuisine. 

But with a burst of restaurant openings that began last
fall and shows no sign of abating, New York is undergoing a
crash course in Japanese flavors that goes well beyond
sushi and soba. Learning to choose among maguro, chutoro
and otoro grades of tuna is, it turns out, the tip of the
iceberg. We now live in a world of sansho and shishito
peppers, griddled takiyoki (octopus balls), crisp
okonomiyaki (vegetable fritters), fine aged sakes with the
richness of oloroso sherry, handmade gyoza dumplings and
organic artisanal tofu. 

Japanese cooking in New York now is where French cooking
was in the mid-1970's: on the verge of a major breakthrough
in quality and authenticity. Thirty years ago, French
restaurants in New York all served pretty much the same
menu - onion soup, fillet of sole and chocolate mousse -
and as far as most of us knew, that was French cooking. 

For 2004, Japanese is the new French. In New York's top
restaurants, it's no longer possible to ignore Japanese
ingredients like miso and ponzu: they pop up as often as
mustard and parsley. Japanese cuisine is revealing its true
scope; regional specialties, obscure ingredients,
unexpected influences and restaurant options, from street
food to superdeluxe. 

Why Japanese, why now? "The food has always been here,"
said Yuriko Kuchiki, a Japanese journalist who has lived in
New York for 13 years. "The change is that Americans are
eating more like the Japanese - seasonal ingredients, small
plates, more fish and vegetables." Marcus Samuelsson of
Aquavit, whose first new venture in years is Riingo, a
Japanese-American experiment expected to open next week,
said: "The New York chefs I know have always been obsessed
with Japanese food. It's a challenge, because it's so
different." 

Tadashi Ono, a Tokyo native who built his legend combining
French technique with subdued Japanese flavors at La
Caravelle through the 1990's, decided to return to a basic
Japanese menu at Matsuri, which opened last year on West
16th Street. "I learned so much from cooking French all
those years," Mr. Ono said. "But then I thought, do I
really have to work so hard? It takes a long time to make
stock. It takes a long time to make a sauce." 

Two other top Japanese chefs, Noriyuki Sugie (Asiate) and
Masa Takayama (Asayoshi), are just opening splashy New York
restaurants. Koji Imai, Japan's answer to Drew Nieporent
(spiked with Alice Waters's ingredient obsession), is
expanding his empire to TriBeCa with the 285-seat Megu,
having taught a community of Amish farmers in Ohio to grow
edamame to his exact specifications. Eric Ripert of Le
Bernardin directed the menu at Geisha, a glamorous new
fantasy-Japanese lounge with an ambitious kitchen, and a
newcomer, Josh DeChellis (ex Union Pacific), is making his
name at Sumile with a menu devoted entirely to Japanese
flavors. 

For years, New York chefs have respectfully worshiped
Japanese cooking at authentic shrines like Honmura An, Omen
and Sushi Yasuda. With its strict rules about flavor
balance, visual harmony, seasonality and presentation, plus
its lengthy apprenticeship and formidable language barrier,
traditional Japanese cuisine has preserved its mystique
among chefs and diners. 

But several forces have combined recently to crack that
mystique wide open. Since 1991, Nobuyuki Matsuhisa has
paved the way for a mass audience for Japanese flavors at
Nobu, and chefs like David Bouley, Rocco DiSpirito and Gary
Robins have been chipping away for years at the notion that
Japanese food is about raw fish and ramen. 

On a more global scale, a weakening dollar and active
recruiting of Japanese students by New York art schools
like the School of Visual Arts have brought a large,
trendsetting, young Japanese community to Manhattan. The
East Village and East 40's are dotted with new shops
devoted to Japanese snacks like kushikatsu, skewers of
deep-fried asparagus and lotus root; curry pan, a mildly
spicy sweet roll so ubiquitous in Japan that it is sold at
every Starbucks; and omusubi, fist-size rice balls that are
the Japanese equivalent of New York's buttered bagel. On
St. Marks Place, a row of izakaya, boisterous Japanese pubs
associated with drinking and youth culture (that
traditionally do not serve sushi), is packed every night.
Japanese fashion, design and technology haven't been this
chic since the 1980's; throw the Internet into the mix and
the connection between New York and Tokyo has never been
closer. 

According to Robb Satterwhite, a New Yorker who lives in
Tokyo and publishes an English-language guide to Tokyo
restaurants on the Web, menus that mix Western and Japanese
flavors are just as common in Tokyo as in New York. "Yuzu
and caviar, foie gras and pickled radish, those kinds of
combinations are hugely trendy here right now," Mr.
Satterwhite said in a phone interview last week. Overall,
the cultural cross-pollination that has made American
steakhouses and French bakeries popular in Japan means that
Japanese cuisine, even in Japan, is more loosely defined
than ever. 

To shake up your notions of authentic Japanese food,
there's no better place to start than Otafuku on East Ninth
Street, a storefront sliver equipped with a single griddle.
Otafuku fries Manhattan's crispest okonomiyaki, a browned
pancake of shredded cabbage, carrot and ginger held
together with an ethereal batter and embedded with chunks
of squid, tiny shrimp or thin-sliced pork belly. Otafuku's
cooks also make fresh takiyoki, puffs of eggy batter
studded with octopus and scallion, turning them constantly
with a toothpick as the crust turns a rich golden brown.
Both snacks are garnished with katsuobushi, feathery pink
flakes of dried fish; a smoky-sweet brown sauce; and
lashings of mayonnaise, an American import that has become
ubiquitous in Japanese fast food. 

A few doors down, the cheerful Panya bakery seems like a
New York hybrid, offering a perfect pain au chocolat
alongside croissants stuffed with azuki beans, and
seaweed-wrapped bread rolls filled with spicy tuna. But
according to its manager, Noriyuki Tajima, Panya could
exist in any modern Japanese city. Bread and pastry, though
nonexistent in traditional Japanese kitchens, are now
completely assimilated. "French patisserie is considered
the most elegant, but the most popular dessert in Japan is
tiramisù," he said, pointing out the green tea version that
is the bakery's most popular dessert. 

And bread crumbs - or panko - are integral to the popular
Japanese art of deep frying; Win49 on the Lower East Side
specializes in kushikatsu, vegetables, meat and even fish
speared on a skewer, dipped in panko and fried crisp. 

On weekend nights, St. Marks Place is crowded with young
people, Japanese and not, prowling a row of izakaya where
the food is less alluring than the scene and the shochu, a
clear, vodkalike spirit that can be flavored with shiso or
plum or, in a recent Tokyo fad, infused with nicotine.
Izakaya Taisho specializes in enormous platters of
yakitori: grilled chicken wings, skin, livers and meat on
bamboo skewers; at night, Go's owner sets up an outdoor
griddle on the sidewalk and cooks yatai specials, Japanese
street food that his 20-something employee Kenny Hattori
calls "the kind of food you get in Tokyo at 2 in the
morning, on your way home from drinking." Yatai translates
as food stall; in Tokyo these highly informal places tend
to spring up around train stations, serving a single,
satisfying item like eel tempura, ramen noodles in broth or
roasted corn on the cob. 

In New York, the best izakaya are clustered in Midtown;
places like Sakagura, Ise, Riki and Ariyoshi have
good-to-great food and are the most crowded. (Reservations
are important: as parties often settle in for several hours
of drinking, tables are not always easy to come by.) These
are the places to taste savory little dishes that, like
tapas, are designed around drinking - deep-fried lotus
root, oysters, ginkgo nuts, crisp croquettes of potato or
pumpkin, fried whole small fish, homemade dumplings (a
world away from the frozen ones served at sushi
restaurants), steamed eggplant in rich sesame sauce, pork
belly braised in miso or beef chunks fried with garlic. 

At most Manhattan izakaya, the printed English menu does
not begin to list the dishes that are actually available,
but ask what the specials are and be persistent: the
servers will be able to tell you what's on offer. Most
dishes cost no more than $5. 

For refinement, nothing can compare to the gaspingly
elegant cuisine of kaiseki, the formal Japanese tea
ceremony that is also a Zen Buddhist meditative practice,
now offered in Manhattan at a few places, like Kai,
Sugiyama and Donguri. In Japan, kaiseki cuisine has taken
on a life of its own and is no longer necessarily
associated with a contemplation of the seasons, or even
with drinking tea. "Kaiseki now is a very careful,
beautiful, seasonal way to eat, but the chef can design his
own style," said Hitoshi Kagawa, the chef at Kai, where
dinner can include more than 20 tiny dishes, a practice
adopted in recent years by many top American chefs, most
famously Thomas Keller of the French Laundry. 

At Sugiyama, each course is no more than a few mouthfuls,
usually of something thought-provoking as well as
delicious: a whole crab only as big as a thumbnail, a
pickled plum encased in sweet plum jelly, or a dish holding
three plain white squares, one of tofu, one of monkfish and
one of pear. "Kaiseki is not how Japanese people eat every
day, but it is still very important to our idea of Japanese
cooking," Mr. Kagawa said through an interpreter last week.
In other words, kaiseki is the equivalent of haute cuisine
in France: expensive, elaborate and somewhat impractical,
but still a potent source of national pride and identity. 

Also shared by Japan and France is a national cult of
ingredients. At Kai, the menu proudly states that the udon
noodles come specifically from Inaniwa in Akita prefecture,
a boast that Japanese clients can instantly appreciate.
Megu is anticipating an audience for superpremium yakitori
made from hinai-jidori, the most expensive chickens in
Japan, grilled over binchotan, a charcoal from Wakayama
prefecture that is as hard as steel, burns extra-hot and is
supposed to imbue food with umami. Umami is the famously
elusive Japanese fifth flavor - salty, sour, bitter and
sweet are the others - and is pretty much untranslatable.
Savory and complex are two approximations. 

"In Japan, people grow up learning about these national
treasures, the plums from this region, the octopus from
that peninsula, the tamari from this town," said Harris
Salat, a New Yorker who has lived and worked in Asia for
many years. "The kind of people here who know about olive
oil, or truffles, are just beginning to appreciate that
there are different kinds of soy sauce." 

Those people, at least at first, are often chefs. Marcus
Samuelsson started as an amateur sushi lover and became
inspired, after several trips to Japan, to make a serious
study of the sushi of the Edo period (1603-1867). When
Riingo opens, pickled and preserved fish will appear on the
sushi menu. (Sushi originated as a pre-refrigeration way to
preserve fish. Wrapped in layers of rice, the fish would
slowly ferment, then the rice was thrown away and the fish
was eaten.) 

Josh DeChellis of Sumile, whose commitment to Japanese
ingredients verges on the worshipful, is equally intense on
the subjects of sea urchin, grated fresh wasabi (a bracing
treat that has finally come to New York) and yuzu. The
owner of Sumile, a Japanese pop star called Miwa Yoshida
(Mr. DeChellis describes her as "the Madonna of Japan"),
often sends him to cook and learn at her brother's upscale
izakaya in Tokyo. "When I am in Japan, even something as
basic as tofu is a total revelation," he said. "I dream of
cooking something as good as fresh-made tofu with real,
aged tamari." 

But on the business side of New York's restaurant world,
the Japanese value of simplicity has limited appeal; tofu
with tamari isn't going to pay the rent. And so we have
Asiate and Geisha, with Megu and Riingo still to come, all
big-ticket openings that aim to re-interpret Japan for a
well-heeled international crowd, as well as a local one. 

At elegant Asiate, overlooking Central Park from the 35th
floor of the new Mandarin Oriental hotel, Noriyuki Sugie
sticks closely to the fusion formula of French
technique/Japanese ingredients. (The French chefs who
practiced nouvelle cuisine were fascinated by Japanese
cuisine.) But look just past the usual luxury items on the
menu - foie gras, truffles, crab meat - and Mr. Sugie's
flavors are punchy, even proletarian: black soy sauce, beef
cheeks, smoky mashed potatoes and hearty linguine with
house-made XO sauce. 

Geisha opened in December, with the priceless imprimatur of
Eric Ripert (of Le Bernardin) as consulting chef. You can
taste his presence in the five raw-fish appetizers and in
the seafood it flies in from Japan. Geisha has even
introduced New Yorkers to anago nitsume, a sauce
traditionally made only in eel restaurants, by simmering
the eels in the same pot of water every day for several
months, then boiling the water down to a thick glaze (fear
not, these days, nitsume is more likely reduced dashi, or
fish stock). Despite its Japanese intentions, Geisha's
garnishes, layers and sauces give it a New York air -
kaiseki meets "Sex and the City." 

Tadashi Ono's Matsuri is a glamorous izakaya. To
Japanese-restaurant regulars, the little dishes at Matsuri
look familiar on paper - oshitashi, boiled spinach in
dashi; fluke sashimi with ponzu; yakitori; miso soup with
tofu and seaweed - but Matsuri is a lovely lesson in the
difference between good and great. 

Even to diehard fans, the textures and flavors of authentic
Japanese desserts are often mystifying. In the strict
Japanese tradition, there is no sweet course; the meal ends
with rice, pickles and tea. Sweets are eaten only between
meals, very sparingly, and always as an accompaniment to
tea. 

Bill Yosses, pastry chef at Boi and Citarella, who also
travels and works in Japan, explained that the classic
wagashi, the semisweet confections sold at Minamoto
Kitchoan and Toraya, are connected to the prestige and long
history of the tea ceremony. "These things are made from
400-year-old recipes," Mr. Yosses said. "It's as if we were
trying to enjoy mead. We probably couldn't." At Citarella,
Mr. Yosses makes his own kanten, juicy fruit jellies
flavored with persimmon, coconut and litchi. (In Japan,
kanten are made from agar-agar, a seaweed-based gelatin
that, to American palates, retains a slightly salty, fishy
taste.) Some very satisfying sweet fusions have been
accomplished recently, like Matsuri's exemplary yuzu crème
brûlée, but authentic they are not. 

And what of sushi? New York's trendiest sushi bars, like
those in Tokyo, are now (gasp) cooking the fish. At Sui,
when you order aji, or mackerel, the sushi chef, Masaki
Nakayama, fires up a blowtorch, then uses it to heat and
soften the chewy skin. "The heat also melts the layer of
fat right under the skin, which is where all the flavor
is," he said. 

And at Matsuri, Mr. Ono is not only searing sushi, but
adding a revolutionary dot of sauce to some of his pieces.
"This is very controversial in Japan," Mr. Ono said. "But
it is more and more popular. Even Japanese people can get
bored of soy sauce and wasabi." 

http://www.nytimes.com/2004/01/07/dining/07JAPA.html?ex=1074536744&ei=1&en=4f15bc0e93cdd20a


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