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If memory serves me correct, there is a Chinese restaurant in Yokohama’s Chinatown that is not only the oldest Chinese restaurant in Japan, but also one of the most respected Chinese restaurants in the world. I first heard of HeiChinRou when watching Iron Chef years ago. The restaurant sent its top two deputy chef’s up against Iron Chef Chen Kenechi only to have him cut them down. Not satisfied, they finally sent their Grand Master Chef to set things straight, Xie Huaxian. Xie is considered by many to be the greatest Chinese chef of our time. He was victorious. Ever since then I told my self, “I have got to eat at that restaurant!” After 7 trips to Japan, including numerous time walking past HeiChinRou, that day had finally come. Yuki had plans with a bunch of her friends to show off Otis, so her parents took me to fulfill my belly’s destiny.

An elegant restaurant on numerous floors, there’s a peaceful bamboo garden when you walk in. They took us in an elevator up to the second floor and sat us in a very comfortable booth. Coming from Chicago I was pleasantly surprised by how absolutely clean the restaurant is. It had the look and feel of a high-end French restaurant, not the greasy Chinese stir-fry I am used to. The menu features many a la carte dishes as well as a handful of set course options. Being the first week of 2012 we opted for the “Happy New Year” course option.

Uichiro and I started off with some Shokoshu, a type of Chinese rice wine or Shaoxing. Served warm, it has a caramel color as well as taste more similar to a Brandy than a rice wine. Very smooth and very warm in the belly, its delicious on a chilly day.

The first course consisted of 5 tastes. Jellyfish, a baby squid stewed in soy sauce, a shrimp, a slice of smoked duck breast, a piece of Chinese BBQ pork, and a dollop of mustard. While they were all fantastic, I have to say that the pork may have been the best piece of swine that has ever graced my palette! If it were socially acceptable I would drape myself in it and nibble on it all day long.

The second course was Shark Fin Soup with Crab. I have eaten shark fin soup before, but always questioned the authenticity of the shark fins. I always thought I was being served cellophane noodles instead. I think I was right as this texture was nothing like the bowls I’ve previously eaten. Slightly chewy, they combined beautifully with the sweetness of the crab meat. This soup may not be humane, but it sure tasted good!

The third course was abalone with Simmered Shiitake and Bok Choy in Oyster Sauce. It’s really too bad that abalone is illegal in the States, it really is a wonderful mollusk. Dense in texture, it matched very well with the soft shiitake and bitter green.

The fourth course was Beef with Shimeji Mushrooms, Carrots, and Asparagus. Served in a soy based sauce it was simply wonderful. After eating this I don’t see how I can go back to eating Mongolian Beef in Chicago’s Chinatown.

The fifth course was Shrimp in Chili Sauce. A little bit of sweetness and just the right amount of heat to get your mouth tingling a little. The spice made you want to keep coming back for more. Fried wonton skins added some crisp texture and was Uichiro’s favorite part of the dish.

The sixth course was Sautéed Rice with Egg, Pork, Green Onion, and Lettuce. This dish is similar to fried rice except that it’s sautéed together over a lower heat. This keeps the rice a little softer and helps prevent the lettuce from wilting under the intense heat of a hot wok. I’ve seen his dish on Iron Chef and was glad to get the chance to eat such a high quality version of it.

The seventh course, dessert, was Almond Jelly with a sprig of mint. I think this was Uichiro’s favorite part of the whole meal. He’s eaten many different almond jelly’s in his life and couldn’t get over how good this one was. I’ve only eaten a few, but I agree that this one was the best I’ve ever had. Sweet with the texture of a fine silken tofu, a great way to end a great meal.

All in all, I will say that none of these dishes were out of the ordinary for Chinese food as far as creativity. However, that said, I don’t think you’ll find better preparation anywhere in the world. In each dish the ingredients were of the highest quality, they were all cooked to perfection, and the flavors were expertly balanced. Hands down the most fantastic Chinese food to ever pass through my tracts!

While Xie Huaxian is no longer cooking at HeiChinRou, his successor, Nishizaki-san, is no slouch.

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Friday night Yuki’s mom went to a concert with a friend, so it was up to me to decide where we went for dinner with her dad. In my quest to eat at every Iron Chef’s restaurants I was able to convince him that we should head out to one of Chen Kenichi’s joints. It wasn’t a hard sell. So, the three of us hopped on the train to Roppongi where Chen has one of his four places.

There were a handful of pre fix options, but none of them really had what we wanted, so we ordered a bunch of dishes in typical Chinese family-style dining.

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First up was a trio of cold appetizers. On the top were Scallops cooked with chili peppers. Not too spicy, just a nice, slow, gentle burn on the back of the throat. Bottom right was shredded chicken with a sweet miso sauce. Bottom left jellyfish in a light soy. All three were very complimentary of each other and made for a great start to the meal.

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Next up was Shark Fin Soup. Not the most politically correct dish, but hey, a little shark fin never hurt anything. A lot does, but a little doesn’t. The broth was a thick soy flavor and it had thin slices of pork in it alongside the shark fin.

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Then came Abalone, one of the sea’s finest of all creatures! Served with shiitake and bamboo shoots it was truly delicious. Judging by Uichiro’s (Yuki’s dad) reaction when he first bit into it, I’d say it was his favorite part of the meal, next to the beer.

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After that we had mixed seafood served on rice cakes. The restaurant manager poured the hot seafood on the rice cakes making it sizzle, much like the classic sizzling rice soup commonly found in American Chinatown restaurants. I need make a correction, I think Uichiro liked this dish more than the abalone. Hard to argue, the shrimp, scallops, and squid were cooked to perfection with all of the natural sweetness brought out.

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Next was probably my favorite dish of the meal, beef with mushrooms and lilies in a thick ginger soy sauce. The beef was so tender it almost melted in my mouth. The mushrooms and lilies were nice counterpoints to the salty soy. The only thing missing was white rice to balance a little more of the salt. This was definitely more of what Americans are used to than Japanese. Give me this dish and a cold beer and I’m a happy man!

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Here we go, the dish that brought me to Chen’s restaurant and the one that will make my brothers very envious, his famous mapotofu! There were two choices on the menu, Kenichi’s and Kenmei’s. Kenmei was Kenichi’s father, the one who brought true Szechuan cooking to Japan. It was a tough choice, but we opted for Kenichi’s since it was his restaurant and not his father’s. It wasn’t quite as hot as I expected, but it was definitely a hot and spicy dish! Packed with Szechuan peppercorns it gives an initial citrusy spice followed by a mouth-numbing burn. Yuki and I added some extra peppercorns to get the full experience, while Uichiro only ate a few pieces of tofu. I think it’s a little spicy for him. It was a little oily as it was douced in chili oil, but that’s what makes it so delicious. The funny thing is that in the middle of the night Tokyo experienced what it thinks was a small earthquake. It wasn’t an earthquake at all though, it was the effects of my trying to digest Chen’s mapotofu! I’m still not quite sure exactly what that dish did to my intestines, but it made a city of 16 million rumble a little. And somehow my chest got a little harrier.

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We followed the mapotofu with a mild pork and egg noodle dish. It had shiitake, green onions, chinese cabbage, sprouts, and bamboo shoots. It took a few bites to get the burn out of our mouths, but once it was gone this dish’s wonderful flavor stood out. It’s just too bad I couldn’t finish it all because we ordered one too many dishes I think. Oh well, what can you do?

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We thought we were finished when the manager brought us some complimentary dessert, Annin Tofu. Annin Tofu is a popular Chinese dessert. It’s basically just almond jelly. Very smooth, light, and creamy. It’s the perfect way to finish off a meal.

All in all, I have to say that I was a little dissapointed. After watching countless episodes of Chen creating some of the most amazing looking dishes anyone could ever think up, this meal was a very straight forward Chinese meal. Every dish was a classic that you can get at just about any Chinese restaurant. Granted, everything was perfectly balanced, but nothing was off the wall. I was kind of hoping for some Chen originals. This restaurant wasn’t the right format for him to create Iron Chef dishes. I have no regrets, but I wasn’t blown away like I was at other Iron Chef restaurants.

I have now been to three Iron Chef restaurants (4 if you count Bobby Flay, but I don’t consider him an Iron Chef and I never wanted to go to his place). I have done Sakai, Michiba, and now Chen. Next up….Kobe Masahiko.

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