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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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Sorry to all of my loyal readers (all 3 of you) for not posting anything in a while. Been pretty busy with life and life itself. Yesterday was by birthday however, so Yuki and Otis took me out for dinner. Tired of overpaying for mediocre celebrity-chef meals I wanted to go somewhere more casual and Otis-friendly. Also, now that we’re in the South Loop I wanted somewhere close. So, Tapas Valencia it was.

We’ve actually been there once before a long time ago. We joined a couple of friends for their happy hour tapas specials before heading down to Hyde Park to watch the movie, “Food, Inc.”. I remember it being very good and had a taste for bacon-wrapped dates. It all made perfect sense to head there last night.

Without further ado, here’s what was on our dinner table.

First up was the Calamares A La Plancha. The squid was perfectly cooked…soft and tender, yet crispy at the same time. A little too much salt, but not so much that it killed the dish.

Next we had the Jamon con Melon. You really can’t beat quality Serrano Ham on top of ripe, sweet, juicy cantaloupe. With cantaloupe at it’s finest about now we couldn’t pass on this one. Served with a simple cucumber and tomato relish this was tapas at it’s finest.

Then we had the Pado Confitado, duck confit with apples and mushrooms. Fall-apart duck leg, apples, and mushrooms…need I say more?

I can’t remember the name of this dish in Spanish, it was a special on the menu. Short rib braised in Rioja and then served with garlic and rosemary Israeli Couscous and spinach. While this dish was missing one note, something slightly acidic like tomato or even a small squirt of orange or lemon, this could’ve been an entrée unto itself.

Finally, our last tapas (or is it tapa?), the Datiles Con Tocino. Crisp bacon around sweet dates smothered in a roasted red pepper sauce, that’s where it’s at! A true crowd-pleaser if there ever was one.

While I did say that was our last tapas, it wasn’t our last dish. We also split an order of the Paella Valenciana. Paella with mussels, clams, shrimp, and chicken. This was huge! I’m glad we only got one order. I will say that my paella is a little better, but this was a very delicious paella, it just didn’t have that crisp burnt rice on the bottom that I love. I wasn’t dissatisfied at all though.

For dessert we split the flan of the day, coconut. Not too rich or sweet, this one was just right. I don’t think coconut is typical in Spain, but coconut almost always makes a great flan. This is one of the better flan in Chicago.

To drink it all down we forgoed the Sangria and went for a couple of glasses of Clara, which apparently is Spain’s most popular drink right now. It’s Alhambra Beer (a Spanish Lager) with a little lemonade. I was a little skeptical at first, but I will say that it wasn’t bad at all. I mean, you put lime in Corona, why not a little lemonade in Spanish Lager?

The service was great too. Very friendly and attentive. They gave us more of a private table where Otis’s stroller wouldn’t get in the way, and where it’d be a little quieter for him. Food was served and cleared in a timely fashion as well. It was a little slow being a Wednesday night, but this seems to be a very well run restaurant.

All in all, there are probably better Spanish and Tapas joints somewhere, but I haven’t found them yet here in Chicago. The dishes are well prepared, the portions are big, and the quality of ingredients are high. If anything, and I hate to say this, the prices might be a little too low for what you get. But don’t tell Tapas Valencia that.

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A few nights ago Yuki and I went for a walk and realized that we were pretty hungry. The beauty of Chicago in the summer is the numerous al fresco options. We walked by Angels and Mariachis on Division and I remembered something my friend Chef John Caputo said about the place, “it’s tacos for gringos.” I happen to be a gringo, and I happen to love tacos. Mind you, he didn’t say they were good, so I had to find out for myself. Yuki’s quite frequently up for some tacos as well, so we grabbed a table outside and dined.

Pitchers of the House Margarita were on sale, so we got one. Typical bar margarita, not very strong and a little sweet. Oh well, it was hot out, the margarita was cold, I wasn’t gonna bitch too much. It was refreshing, I just prefer a little tequila in my margaritas.

The chips were freshly fried and nicely salted. The salsa, well, it was salsa. A tad sweet, not quite spicy enough, and very mediocre.

We split a tamale as an appetizer, that was a mistake. The texture was alright, but there was absolutely zero flavor! It was stuffed with slow simmer pork, but you wouldn’t know it without looking. The pork lacked seasoning, the masa lacked seasoning, even the sauce lacked seasoning. I told the waitress to let their chef know not to be afraid of serving a tamale with some flavor. She did remove it from our bill, but they should be ashamed to serve a tamale like that…blaspheme!

We also split a rice and beans plate. They were ok, but definitely not Mexican in flavor. The black beans I make at home are far better than these, but they were edible.

On to the tacos. They come 4 to a plate and are small, about 2-3 bites each. We decided to share three different orders. First was the short rib braised in red wine. It was actually pretty good. The beef was soft and tender while it had the right amount of seasoning, surprisingly after that tamale. Then we had the carnitas. Again, it was also pretty good. The pork was properly cooked and they topped it with matchsticks of carrots and pickled daikon, almost Vietnamese in flavor. It was a nice match for the pork. Last was the lobster. It was basically a seafood salad with lobster meat. Not bad, but not anything special that sings lobster. Could have easily have been crab or shrimp and you wouldn’t have noticed the difference.

The service was pretty good overall. I didn’t have to ask for that tamale to be removed from the bill. I just mentioned how bad it was and she did the right thing. Food came out at a nice pace as well.

All in all, I completely agree with Chef Caputo’s assessment that the place serves tacos for gringos. You really don’t need to say whether or not it’s good or bad as that statement pretty much says it all. While the tacos weren’t too bad at all, I don’t think I’ll jump out of my seat and rush back for more.

On a side note, I’m still very dissapointed that Andy’s Deli is no longer there. I still mourn when they sold the building, and having flavorless tamales served from the very space that used to sell the best tubes of smoked pork in town only makes me miss them more.

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We had some salmon that needed to be used up, 2 servings worth, so I decided to make this simple recipe last night. The beauty of a pepper sauce like this one is that you can do almost anything with it. I used red bell pepper, but you could use any kind of pepper you like…poblano, green bell pepper, jalapeno, etc. You can also use any kind of green. For example, yellow bell pepper with cilantro (you could even add some ginger) would be great with shrimp. Red bell pepper with basil would be great for Italian flavor. The possibilities are endless once you know learn this simple technique.

On to this wonderful technique. I used 2/3 cup of milk, 1 red bell pepper, 2 cloves of garlic skinned, 1 tablespoon of flour, and a handful of watercress roughly chopped.

Over a burner on my range I roasted the pepper on all sides, until the skin was black and blistered. This takes about 1o minutes or so and can be done on a grill or under a broiler as well. I prefer the grill because it adds a nice smokey flavor, but we saw a bit of rain yesterday so I kept it inside.

Once the pepper was roasted I put it in a glass bowl and covered it with plastic wrap. I let it steam in its own juices for about 15-20 minutes, until it was cool enough to handle. Then I peeled off the skin, seeded it, and gave it a rough chop.

While the pepper was steaming I roasted the garlic on a dry pan for a few minutes on each side. This brings out some of the sweetness of the garlic and mellows the punch.

Then I put the pepper, garlic, milk, and flour into a blender, along with some salt and pepper, and pureed it up into a smooth liquid. I let it blend until there were no chunks left. Then I poured it into a pan, added the watercress, and simmered it for about 10 minutes constantly stirring it. This thickens the sauce up nicely because of the flour. If the sauce gets a little too thick just add a little more milk.

I made a simple miso soup to go with dinner. I made it my usual way using 2 shiitake sliced, 3 small fingerling potatoes chopped, 2 green onions cut up, and 1 tablespoon of miso. I also rinsed off some salted wakame, but didn’t remember to get that out until after I took this photo.

My other side, besides white rice, was some corn. I cleaned off one ear, broke it in half, and boiled it for about 10 minutes. I used some of the sauce on the plate to flavor the corn.

Finally, for the salmon I simply drizzled it with olive oil, salt, and pepper. I put it into a 375 degree oven for about 10 minutes. When I took it out I topped it with the sauce and we ate.

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Saturday night I got a free pass from diaper duty to go out for a few hours. Ever since doing the Playboy Pilot and meeting my new friend Melody there I’ve had a hankering to give DMK Burger Bar a whirl. You see, she works there and talked that place up to no end. I figured that Saturday would be a great time to go since that’s one of her work nights. I had a buddy all set to join me up until the last minute when he bailed. That wouldn’t deter me though. When I have a burger in my sights nothing is going to stop me! So, I headed up to Lincoln Park all set to sit at the bar and fill my belly with beef…and beer. Happily, Melody was able to join me at the bar. When I eat a burger alone, I prefer to be by myself. But, I prefer to not eat a burger alone. It all worked out.

French fries with parmesan and truffle cream started the meal off. Good starchy potatoes home-cut, fried to a nice crisp with pillowy innards, and topped with some parmesan cheese. A thing of truffle cream on the side. Funny, that’s exactly what the menu said it would be. The truffle cream was pretty good. Just enough earthy truffle oil mixed in to let you know that it’s there. Honestly though, I love that expensive swine found fungus and would not have minded a little more truffle oil. But, you do get what you pay for (except for in Lincoln Park usually) and the price was right for the amount. Good french fries.

We also got deep-fried okra with herb ranch. Again, exactly what we were supposed to get. The okra was fresh and there wasn’t too much coating allowing the okra flavor to stay in the forefront. Simple, but tasty.

We split two different burgers so that I could enjoy two different flavors and see just what DMK had to offer. The first was number 1 on the menu. A grass-fed piece of ground up cow topped with aged cheddar, smoked bacon, charred balsamic red onions, and Rufus Teague’s BBQ. First, the good. The quality of the ingredients were fantastic. I’m a big fan of the real beef flavor of grass-fed bovine. Nature did not create any of the multiple stomachs to digest corn. With grass-fed you get a more natural flavor from a usually healthier animal (one that does less damage to Mother Earth as well). The toppings were high quality as well. I have a Rufus Teague sidenote for you at the bottom of this post. The bad, the patty was a little bit too thin. I’m a believer that you don’t need a 1 pound patty, that’s just way too American and unhealthy. But, a little more beef wouldn’t hurt me at all. I mean, I did have some beer to thin my blood and counteract the cholesterol intake. Honestly though, that’s my only gripe as the burger was damn tasty.

The other burger was the number 11, grass-fed lamb with sheep’s milk feta, olive tapenade, greek salad, and tzatziki. Again, really high quality ingredients full of natural flavor. However, this one tasted a bit too much like a gyro for me. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good gyro as much as the next guy (sometimes even a bad one will do). But I wanted something a little more creative than a gyro with olive tapenade smeared all over it. That’s not a huge complaint though as I’d eat this burger any day of the week. I’m just pickin knits here.

Overall I will say that DMK Burger Bar does serve up some tasty grub, as well as a really nice beer list. If it were closer to my humble abode I’d probably make it over there on at least a semi-regular basis. As it is, with my friend Melody working there, I will probably make it back over there anyway. They are pretty much true to what they try to be and I applaud the use of grass-fed animals. It’s also not overpriced like much of its surrounding neighborhood. Even though the burgers aren’t ginormous, at $8 a pop you’ll be satisfied. That is unless you’re one of the 63% of Americans who are obese (only 30% of you were in 2002!).

Now, on to my Rufus Teague story. Way back before Binny’s corporate take-over of Sam’s Wine and Spirits I used to get little birthday gifts from Sam’s. They’d send me a card before my birthday telling me to stop by their meat counter. One of those gifts was a little jar of Rufus Teague Blazin Hot BBQ Sauce. Binny’s doesn’t do that, one of the many reasons I miss Sam’s. The hot sauce was fantastic though! I slathered that all over chicken and shrimp before grilling ’em up. I never thought about using Rufus on beef though. It did work pretty well, probably because of the smoky bacon. Whatever the reason, there’s a soft spot in my heart for my boy Rufus. Plus, Rufus is just a fun name to say.

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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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This past Friday night I made a rice noodle soup with some really nice shrimp I picked up. Being a Friday night dinner, this is a 2 person recipe as opposed to my normal 4 person.

First I had to make a broth. To do that I used the shells from my shrimp (I had 10 shrimp that I shelled and butterflied), 1 stick of lemongrass cut in half both in length and width then bashed up with the back of my knife to release the oils, 1 inch of ginger sliced, 1/2 tablespoon whole black peppercorns, 3 cloves of star anise, and 1/2 tablespoon of whole coriander seeds.

I heated my pan up and added the shrimp shells dry. I let them cook, tossing them around, for about 6 minutes or so until they turned pink. As they do so they release some of their oils. While the pan was still dry I added the pepper corns and coriander and let them toast for a minute.

Then I poured in 2.5 cups of hot water while scraping up the little pieces of shell that stuck to the bottom of the pan. Once the water came up to a slight boil I added the lemongrass, ginger, and cloves. I covered the pan, turned the heat to med-low, and let it simmer for about 30 minutes. I strained the broth into a clean pan and set it aside while I prepped my veggies.

Along with my shrimp, the veggies included 1/2 a red bell pepper sliced, 3 shiitake sliced, 6 asparagus chopped, 1 tomato cut into 6 wedges, about 2 ounces of bean sprouts, and a bunch of green onions sliced.

I brought the broth back up to a slow boil and added everything except for the shrimp, tomato, and bean sprouts. I covered it back up and let it simmer over medium heat for about 10 minutes. Then I added the shrimp and tomato and let it go for another 4 minutes, just until the shrimp were cooked and turned pink. Finally, I added the bean sprouts and then turned off the heat about minute after that.

While this was going on I boiled some water in a large stock pot and cooked my rice noodles according to package instructions.

To put it together I simply placed the noodles in the bottom of a bowl and ladled the soup along with shrimp and vegetables on top. I garnished with a squeeze of sriracha, 1/2 an avocado diced, some lime juice, and chopped cilantro.

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