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Posts Tagged ‘oyster’

Uichiro, Yuki’s dad, makes a mean oyster gratin. Once a year one of Tamiko’s (Yuki’s mom) friends from her hometown of Miyagi in Japan (unfortunately not far from the recent earthquake, but fortunately everyone is alright, will be quite some time before the oyster population recovers though) sends her the famous oysters that she grew up on. A big container filled with the juiciest, most flavorful oysters you could imagine sinking your teeth into. Just so happens that I have timed a couple of my trips to Japan around oyster season. So, I’ve enjoyed Uichiro’s oyster gratin twice.

On to last night. While trying to decide what to have for dinner I remembered the oysters that I got at Whole Foods a while back that were freshly packaged. Nice big and juicy with great flavor. I asked Uichiro if he’d make his oyster gratin. He was happy to oblige but didn’t want to make the bechamel sauce. No worries, I happen to make a tasty bechamel.

At Whole Foods I noticed that they didn’t have the oysters I remembered in stock. All they had were oysters in the shell. It would’ve been a bit costly to buy the necessary amount to make gratin for 4. Improvisation is the key to cooking (life too), so we decided to get some of the beautiful shrimp behind the counter instead. Along with some chicken thigh we had the necessary fixens to make a classic gratin.

For the bechamel sauce I melted 5 tablespoons of butter over medium heat and then added 4 tablespoons of butter. I whisked it constantly for about  minutes until it became a dark golden color. Then I poured in 4 cups of hot milk and whisked that for 10 minutes giving it a nice thick consistency. Then I seasoned it with 2 teaspoons of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg. I set that aside.

Once I was done with the range Uichiro went to town on the rest of the ingredients. In some butter he lightly sautéed together about 1/2 pound of shrimp that he shelled and halved, 3 chopped skinless chicken thighs, 1/2 half large onion diced, 6-8 (not exactly sure how many) button mushrooms quartered, and some al dente macaroni (again, not exactly sure how much, but I think about 1/2 a package). He seasoned it all with salt and pepper and then mixed it in the bechamel sauce.

That all got poured into my ceramic baking dish. He topped it with some mozzarella and matzo meal. We didn’t have any panko, so again, we improvised. 35 minutes in a 400 degree oven, some parsley garnish, and it was ready to go.

Two things with this gratin. First, my bechamel, while extremely tasty, could’ve used another 3-5 minutes on the burner before letting it rest. A little bit thicker consistency would’ve been nice. Second, with oysters not used scallops would’ve been a little better than shrimp. Scallops are a lot more expensive though, so shrimp do a pretty good job, but scallops would be outstanding!

To balance out the heavy, creamy gratin Uichiro made this smoked salmon and onion dish. He thinly sliced a Vidalia onion and soaked it in cold water. He changed out the water 3 times squeezing the onions dry with each change. They were scattered all over a plate and then topped with thinly sliced smoked salmon. On to of the salmon went some thinly sliced lemon, including the rind with lends a nice bitterness to the overall flavor, not to mention a lot of nutrients the people usually waste by not eating the whole fruit. Then he scattered some chopped parsley all over the whole thing. I made a simple dressing to drizzle over the top. I whisked together 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar, 4 tablespoons of olive oil, a pinch of salt, and some black pepper until it emulsified.

Some sliced baguette and a cold beer completed the dinner. But, I still crave his oyster gratin!

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I’m just not as young as I used to be. I can tell that I was at an izakaya last night because all of that sake floating around my liver is taking its toll. However, slow-moving Saturdays usually mean fun Friday nights.

A group of Yuki’s co-workers got together last night for food and drinks at Chizakaya, a newly opened izakaya here in Chicago. Actually, it’s probably the only real izakaya in town. While there are a few places claiming to be izakayas, they’re really just sushi places. Chizakaya doesn’t serve any sushi at all. I first heard of Chizakaya a few months ago when my mom sent me an article in the Huffington Post about the very fact that there aren’t any real izakaya’s in Chicago, until now. It also mentioned that the group that opened Chizakaya came from L2O, arguably Chicago’s finest seafood restaurant. Naturally, it made the list of places I wanted to go. With Yuki’s group meeting there last night I took the opportunity and ran with it.

I got there before the rest of the group, except for the two white guys in her work team (everyone else is Japanese). We sat at the bar and had a glass of sake while waiting for everyone else. I will say that the bartender knows his sake! It’s not a huge sake list, but a very well put together one with a good variety at all price points. He also gave us each a sample of sweet potato shochu, something none of us have ever had. It’s actually quite good.

Once everyone showed up they took us to the back room at one of the two big tables. I like it much better back there because the kitchen is open and the atmosphere is a little more izakaya-like.

Our waitress was also well-trained in the art of sake flavors as well as their menu. True to being an izakaya, the menu is based on small plates and nibbles to go along with drinking. We ordered a bunch of things and just grabbed and ate as we went, along with numerous bottles of sake. Since I’m drinking for 3, I’m struggling to keep my eyes focused as I write this.

As we sat they brought out little bowls of miso soup. Really good miso, they got the ratio of miso-to-dashi right. Instead of wakame which is typically put in miso soup they used hijiki.

Japanese sweet potato fries with spiced mayo.

Puffed pig ears with togarashi soy dipping sauce. Move over potato chips, these little cracklins are fantastic!

Crispy pork with a slow poached egg.

Pork shoulder gyoza. The gyoza could have been a little bit crispier, but the braised pork shoulder filling more than made up for that shortcoming.

Oysters with bacon and shishito. I don’t know if the bacon was over smoked or if they added a little liquid smoke, but there was a bit too much smokiness to this one. The natural sweetness of the beautiful little oysters was lost. Cut back on the smoke and this one is a winner.

Grilled ika togarashi with a yuzu vinaigrette. This was some of the most tender squid I’ve had in Chicago.

This was one of the night’s specials, duck liver karaage with scallions. Little deep-fried nuggets of ducky deliciousness!

Home-made basket tofu with bonito flakes, scallions, ginger, and soy sauce. You haven’t had tofu until you’ve had a really good home-made tofu. This was a really good home-made tofu. Totally different beast than the store-bought packaged tofu. Very clean, very light, very tasty.

Crispy-braised lamb belly with chopped edamame. This one was another of the night’s specials and quite honestly, one of the most special dishes I’ve ever eaten! I’ve never had lamb belly before and after eating it am wondering why. You see pork belly everywhere as it’s one of the more trendy cuts of meat these days. As much as I love pork belly, and I do love pork belly, I’d drop it in a heartbeat to sink my teeth into some lamb belly. That layer of belly fat may be the most lamby of all lamb flavors that animal has. I absolutely luz it! The only thing that would have made this dish better would be to puree the edamame into a thick sauce instead of leaving it chunky. Otherwise it was perfect.

Now, I’ll show you all of the kushi-yaki (grilled skewers of meat) that we had.

Chicken skin, mother of schmaltz how I love thee!

Chicken meatballs.

Chicken gizzards, next to liver and sweetbreads my favorite offal.

Beef heart, surprisingly tender and juicy for such a hard-working and lean muscle.

Beets with shiso, both red and golden.

We also ordered a the ramen and oden. Both of which were, quite honestly, very disappointing.

The ramen came with braised pork, fish balls, a slow poached egg, radish, bamboo shoot, shredded scallions, and some nori. The ingredients were all top-notch, but the noodles were overcooked and soft while the broth wasn’t quite were it needed to be. With everything else so high quality I wonder why they’re using regular old store-bought quality noodles. This bowl of ramen just wasn’t up to standards. If it’s ramen you want, head over to Arami instead.

The oden wasn’t even close to what oden is. Oden should be a dashi broth filled with various fish cakes, potato, hard-boiled eggs, konyakku, etc. It’s something that we make at home a couple of times every winter. This was nowhere near oden. This was a soy-based dashi with overcooked soba noodles, a few spinach leaves, a couple of pieces of potato, some slices of radish, and a few adzuki beans. It wasn’t a terrible noodle soup, but they shouldn’t call it oden and they should be more careful with the noodles.

Now, on to desserts, which were all very creative and well-prepared.

Yuzu cake with green tea ice cream.

Tofu cheese cake with kuro mitsu (black honey) and adzuki bean sorbet. Usually you see adzuki bean ice cream, making it a sorbet was a nice touch.

Chocolate ganache with puffed barley and black sesame ice cream.

I will say, that all three desserts are among the best desserts I’ve ever had at a Japanese restaurant.

Overall, Chizakaya is a fun atmosphere with great food. There were a couple of lows, oversmoked bacon and poor noodle soups, but the rest of the food was outstanding. Don’t come here expecting a substantial sit-down meal. Come here expecting a great list of sake, beer, and cocktails with delicious small plates and skewers to match. In that sense, this is a true izakaya. They also use top quality ingredients from local sustainable farms, and you can taste the difference. I will definitely go back, I just have to be more mindful of the amount of sake that I guzzle.

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The other day Yuki requested macaroni and cheese. I thought that was weird because that’s not her favorite dish as a main, she prefers it as a side. Then she went on about how she misses her parents gratin. I have to agree, they make delicious gratin, especially with oysters. So, I found a recipe on Food and Wine’s website by Jeremy Fox that looked interesting using a carrot and cheddar sauce. It looked to me more like a side, so I put my own twist on it to make it a more fulfilling main.

The ingredients I used were 1 Valencia orange, 3 ounces medium cheddar cheese, 1/4 onion, 9 ounces serpentini pasta, a sprig of rosemary from my back porch, 3/4 pound carrots (turned out to be 2.5 carrots), and 3/4 pound ground turkey thigh.

I pretty much followed Jeremy Fox’s recipe in the beginning. I sliced the carrots and simmered them for a half hour with the zest and juice from the orange as well as 1/4 cup of water. Then I discarded the zest and puree’d the carrots into a smooth paste. During that time I boiled the pasta until it was al dente, then reserved 1 cup of the boiling liquid and drained the pasta. Then I added my own touch.

I diced the onion and sautéed it in olive oil for about 4 minutes and then added the turkey meat. I broke the turkey meat up as it cooked through, about 6 or 7 minutes. Once it was cooked through I got back to the recipe on hand and added the pasta, the reserved cup of water, and the carrot puree. I mixed it all together and let it thicken for about 5 minutes. I added 3/4’s of the cheese after grating it and mixed it in well. Then I seasoned it with salt, white pepper, and the rosemary. Once everything was well mixed I poured it into my glass baking dish.

I topped it with the rest of the cheese and then some panko. That all went into a 350 degree oven for 20 minutes and was left to rest for about 5 minutes before I cut it up and served it.

While the macaroni was cooking we made a side to go with it. I cleaned 3 ears of corn and chopped them into 2 inch pieces. I tossed them into boiling water and let them par-cook for about 3 minutes. Then I drained them and cut the kernels from the core.

In a heated pot Yuki melted some butter and added two minced garlic cloves. After a minute she added the corn and some halved haricots vert. She sautéed it all together for about 7 minutes and seasoned with salt and pepper.

I also made up a simple salad. Torn iceberg lettuce, sliced tomatoes, sliced cucumber, and shiitake vinaigrette.

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Alright, last night I was able to knock out one more Iron Chef from my list as Yuki’s parents took us along with her sister to Iron Chef Italian Masahiko Kobe’s restaurant, Ristorante Massa. It’s located in a very cool neighborhood of Tokyo called Ebisu tucked away off a main street. It’s a simple little restaurant that seats only about 25-30 people. It was full when we were there, and probably is most nights due to his celebrity status and fantastic food.

There were two pre fix menu options. The one we opted for was the less expensive of the two (approx $65 compared to $85) as it offered one less dish than the other. Since none of us are fat Americans it seemed like the right choice. We could chose one from each category of Antipasto Freddo (3 choices), Antipasto Caldo (three choices), Primo Piatto (5 choices), Secondo Piatto (4 choices), and either a Dolce (5 choices) or Formaggio Plate (pick two out of 4 cheeses) followed by either tea or espresso. We washed down the meal with some Chianti Classico. I have pics of everything, but I’m only going to mention what I ordered otherwise this post will be way way way too long. This is already one of the longest introductions I’ve written. So, on to the food!

We each started off with the Oyster starter that was not part of the Pre Fix. It is probably the largest oyster I’ve ever eaten in my life! So fresh and clean it was simply served in its own juices with a little squeeze of lime and some rock salt. What more does a good oyster need?

Then they brought out an amuse bouche. Baked pasta filled with ricotta cheese, a little slice of pear, and an Italian parsley leaf. It almost reminded me of matzoh with cream cheese, a treat dear to my stomach for one week out of the year.

The Antipasto Freddo I ordered was a foie gras terrine with chamomile. It was served with smoked Ishikawa potatoes, a yuzu consomme jelly, Italian Arugula, and sprinkled with flaked red pepper.

My Antipasto Caldo of choice was a bit of a mis-translation. I thought I was getting duck confit, when it showed up we thought is was duck balls, but it turned out to be chicken gizzards. I actually preferred it to be balls since I’ve never eaten bird balls, but it was still outstanding! The gizzards were served on top of a kabocha puree with thinly sliced red onions that were soaked in cold water, a shishito pepper, and a pea pod.

The Primo Piatto, pasta course, I ordered was chitarra with cremini sauce. The sauce was as simple and delicious as could be…olive oil, garlic, and minced cremini mushrooms. There were big slices of sautéed cremini in it as well. With Kobe being the “Prince of Pasta” it was easily the best pasta in my life. Cooked to perfection, nice and al dente.

For the Secondo Piatto I got the beef, of course. A perfectly grilled strip loin to medium rare covered in a light mustard sauce and served with asparagus, a shiitake, a pea pod, and a slice of red pepper. Uichiro, Yuki’s dad, ordered his with black truffles on top. I wish I knew I could do that. He gave me a few of the truffles and they made an outstanding steak even better…as truffles always do.

I opted for the Formaggio instead of a Dolce. I chose the parmigiano and taleggio. He served it very typically with some dried fruits and sliced nut bread. I washed it down with lemon tea instead of espresso as I wanted to sleep later on.

Maki, Yuki’s sister, couldn’t finish her Tirimisu so I took it upon myself to not waste any food. It was served with kiwi sorbet and fresh fruit. Of course, it was the best tirimisu that I’ve ever digested.

Overall, this was by far the best Italian food I’ve ever eaten, hands down. And I’ve been to Italy. I’m sure there are places as good in Italy, but when Yuki and I went there we couldn’t afford any of the top restaurants. We ate some pretty damn good food there, but nothing as refined as this.

I have also said before that I didn’t think modern Italian food existed. I said that due to the lack of creativity and refinement of Italian food in Chicago (although, I have yet to eat at Spiaggia). At home it’s mostly humongous bowls of pasta with thick rich sauces that weigh you down. Nothing like Ristorante Massa where the portions were clean, fresh, perfectly sized, and creative modern takes on classics. I have a newfound respect for Italian food.

While I have eaten at Sakai’s, Michiba’s, and Chen’s restaurants, this is the first time that an Iron Chef has actually cooked for me. It was very exciting to see Kobe back in the kitchen when we walked in. I think there are two reasons Kobe was cooking for us. First, he only has one restaurant while the others all have numerous. So you know where Kobe will be when he cooks as opposed to it being a crapshoot for the others (I missed Sakai by 4 hours back when Yuki and I went to La Rochelle). Second, he’s still young at only 40 and still wants to create. Michiba is an old man and doesn’t cook anymore and I don’t think Sakai cooks too much anymore either.

No more Iron Chefs this trip as we head back to cold Chicago tomorrow. Next trip I’ll visit Iron Chef Japanese Nakamura Komei and maybe Honorary Iron Chef French Ishinabe Yutaka. Morimoto will have to wait as his Teppanyaki restaurant here in Tokyo starts at approx $300 a head!

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