NYTimes.com Article: Flavors Fresher Than Sushi

Lucas Gonze lgonze at panix.com
Thu Jan 8 05:38:37 PST 2004

Octopus balls are an intensely smelly and disgusting food.  Also  
disturbingly addictive.

On Wednesday, Jan 7, 2004, at 23:39 America/New_York,  
khare at alumni.caltech.edu wrote:

> 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
> 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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