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Being an atheist Jew who doesn’t celebrate the birth of fictional characters I always end up at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas day. I know that Saturday Night Live had their famous skit about Jews going to Chinese joints on Christmas, but it’s only funny because it’s true. Buddhists share the lack of blind faith in Jesus that we do. Plus, with every other restaurant and grocery store closed someone has to make money on this capitalist holiday!

I did countless research to find something new and interesting as Chinatown (other than Cafe Hoang) is really nothing special. Every website had Lao Szechuan and Phoenix as the best places in Chinatown. Honestly, neither of them excite me at all. They’re ok, but nothing special. One thing New Yorkers truly can claim is far superior chinese food than Chicago (I don’t buy their claims of having better pizza or hot dogs, oh, they do also have better bagels though).

Then I came across Han 202. A little 36 seat restaurant in the Bridgeport neighborhood, 605 W 31st street. They do 5 course meals for only $20! When I read that Phil Vettel, he of the Tribune’s food critiques, enjoyed his visits there I thought it would be better than typical greasy chinese stir-fry. It was!

I started with the Spicy King Crab Miso Soup. A basic miso soup with real crab meat and some spicy bean paste added. It wasn’t en fuego spicy, but it had a nice little heat to jump-start my taste buds.

After that I got the Green Apple Salad. Julienned granny smiths tossed in a mix of olive oil and truffle oil with just a hint of fish sauce. There were also a few capers for saltiness and some red peppercorns for a little bite.

Yuki got the Lemongrass Beef salad which turned out to be the exact same as mine but with extremely tender slices of lemongrass beef on top. Had I known they were the same salad but with the beef I would have ordered this since beef is my favorite vegetable. Oh well, what can you do?

For the appetizer course I ordered the Salt and Pepper Calamari. Deep fried slices of squid with diced jalapeno and green onions. The squid was cooked to perfection, nice and tender without any rubberiness (is that a word?). My only complaint would be that it was a little too salty, but with salt in the dish’s name I guess that was to be expected.

For my entrée I ordered the Duck Breast in Sichuan Hot Bean Sauce. This was the only dish that truly had an authentic Chinese aroma to it, so good! The duck was a perfect medium rare. I would have liked for the skin to be a little crispier, but I can’t complain since it was otherwise cooked the way a good duck breast outta be cooked. The sauce had a nice little tinge of spice. There was sliced bell pepper, green onion, carrot, some sort of chinese green, and some diced pineapple for a little sweetness. It was a very well-balanced sauce that matched beautifully with the duck. A really nice modern take on a classic chinese dish.

Dessert was vanilla ice cream with some mango-tomato sorbet on top. The ice cream was nice and smooth while the sorbet added a nice flavor to the spoon.

Overall, I find Han 202 to be one of Chicago’s absolute best values. Besides my enjoyment of the food, Yuki also had only positive things to say about her Scallop and Lamb Chops. Our friend who joined us also enjoyed her Tuna and Strip Steak. Having sampled everything, I have to agree with their assessments as well. We walked out fully satisfied but not overly stuffed. They could have easily charged us $35 per person (I’m glad they didn’t) and I still would have been satisfied.

They’re also BYOB, which cuts the cost of dining. No corkage fee and they kept our beer in the cooler for us. They also have nice pint glasses.

Next time you’re in the mood for some good Chinese food head south of Chinatown for an updated take on not only classic Chinese flavors, but also extremely reasonably priced pre-fix.

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In light of my great respect for the fine art of Kaiseki, Yuki’s mom decided that she wanted to take me out for another style. That woman loves me! Frankly, I can’t blame her. At any rate, a friend of hers had recommended Ushiyama in the Meguro neighborhood of Tokyo, so we gave it a shot last night. And what a shot it was! Slam dunk!

It started off with a plate of carrots, shiitake, and mibuna with grated apple. Who would have thought of putting grated apple on mushrooms? Ushiyama, that’s who. I’m damn he did, it was amazing!

After that came a dish of four. I ate them clockwise from bottom left. Ama ebi (sweet shrimp), raw sardines with thinly sliced onion that’s been soaked in cold water to remove the sharpness, warm salted ginko nuts skewered on pine needles on top of seitan (wheat gluten) cakes on top of grilled sweet potato that was shaped like a ginko leaf, and uni in a lily blossom. No, I did not eat the maple leaf in the center of the plate nor the pine needles.

Next was the soup course. I heavily bonito flaked dashi broth that was nice and smokey with a rinkon (lotus root) and mochi dumpling and a bok choy leaf with some yuzu zest. It ranks right up there with the best soups I’ve ever eaten, next to the one I ate a few years ago at Iron Chef Michiba’s restaurant.

After the soup course was the sashimi course. It consisted of suzuki (sea bass), melt-in-your-mouth tuna, and ika (squid). It must be ika season because the ika I’ve eaten on this trip is by far the softest and sweetest I’ve ever had.

Then they served us home-made soba noodles in a light soy-dashi with some thinly sliced negi (green onions) on top. I’m telling you, there is absolutely nothing like top quality freshly made soba noodles. I don’t know if I can go back to store-bought dried soba when I get home. I mean, of course I can, but it just won’t be the same. So chewy and clean tasting.

Next up was the grilled course. Sawara (a cousin of the spanish mackerel) grilled with yuzu-miso and served with yuzu-miso konnyaku and daikon that was cut into a flower with a small slice of red pepper. I’ve never had yuzu-miso before, I’m a huge fan!

After that was the simmered course which was kinmedai (splendid alfonsino) in a ginger sauce. It was served with spinach and daikon radish with chawanmushi in the middle.

For the fried course we got a dish with some tempura. Shishito pepper and ebi imo (a kind of yam) served in a light dashi with momiji oroshi and chopped chives.

Then came the rice and miso course. The rice was a glutinous rice with chirimenjako (baby sardines simmered in saltwater, dried in the sun, and covered in a sweet soy marinade), sliced shiso, and served on top of a cherry leaf. The miso had mizuna greens in it. There was also some lightly pickled cucumber and daikon on the side (yes Nick, I even ate the pickles!).

Finally, for dessert we got sweet potato mousse. It was so soft and lightly sweet, it was really more like a light sweet potato cheesecake. Served with a sweet potato chip on top.

This Kaiseki was Kyoto-style which is considered to be the most sophisticated and delicate of all styles. Hard to argue as the food was simply magnificent! Plus, all of that food for only $50 per person! I challenge anyone to find a deal half that good for a meal of that quality prepared with that caliber anywhere in the states. Thanks so much for bringing me here Tamiko!!!

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So, Yuki and I took a few days to visit some of the early temples and castles in the Kansai region of Japan. Most of the structures we saw date back to the 8th century and are truly amazing! Besides the structures there were also tons of great sculptures from the same time period. However, as you all know, this blog isn’t about architecture, it’s about food. This post is to let you know about the incredible Kaiseki we ate our last night in Nara at the Ryokan (traditional Japanese Inn) we stayed at, Yoshino.

Kaiseki is the classic multi-course meal that progresses through various cooking techniques using regional, seasonal ingredients. It’s the highest art form you can find in food anywhere in the world. Focus on the subtleties of each ingredient to draw out natural flavors and not cover then with heavy sauces (sorry Frenchies, but the Japanese have your asses kicked in food culture!).

It started with that dish in the middle of the picture above. From left to right was a little fish grilled in a sweet soy marinade, a roasted chestnut, ama ebi (sweet shrimp), some sort of seafood that had a jellyfish-like texture in a miso sauce (I have absolutely no idea what it was, but it sure tasted good!), then a three-colored fish cake.

After that they brought out this dish. It was obviously a shrimp, but I’m not quite sure what else there was. I think it was a gratin made with the roe of the shrimp. Also on the plate as a macaroni salad and some lettuce with a tomato.

Then we moved on to the sashimi plate. It had some fantastic Chu-Toro (tuna), Tai (snapper), and the star of the plate….Ika (squid). In the States when you order Ika it’s usually very thin and a little rubbery. Not these two slices. They were about a half centimeter thick, squid steaks! Rubbery? Hell no! Each chew and the squid literally melted away in our mouths. Hands down the best squid I’ve ever eaten.

Then they brought us a plate of steamed Ayu (sweet fish). It’s a river fish that eats moss attached to stones giving it a really fresh and clean taste. It was served with a light ginger sauce. The thing that makes Ayu special is that it’s eaten when the belly is full of fish roe. There isn’t much meat, so it’s like dipping chopsticks into a bowl of fresh water caviar.

Being the meatavore that I am, the next plate was what I was most looking forward to….Beef Tataki. Lightly seared beef to give a little texture to the soft raw meat laden with mouth-watering fat. The dipping sauce is a soy-dashi mix. You see the little mound of reddish gew on the side of the dish? That’s a mix of togarahsi (Japanese red pepper) and yuzu (a small citrus fruit). You mix that into the sauce like you would wasabi for sushi, along with thinly sliced chives. With the tataki there was a small dish of sliced cucumber and I think seaweed in a vinegar sauce that cleansed the palette from the fatty beef.

Then we ate the Shabu-shabu. Unfortunately I forgot to get a picture of the individual hotpots we used, but here’s the ingredients. The broth was a light sake base, in it we added cabbage, enoki mushrooms, and shimeji mushrooms. Once they were cooked, we sloshed the thinly sliced beef around to cook it and then dipped it all in a light soy with more of the togarashi yuzu and chives.

After that we got two different preparations of Unagi. To be honest, I have absolutely no clue what the difference was. One was served on top of rice, the other with rice on the side. All I can tell you is that you will never find eel of that quality anywhere in the States. It tasted like they just caught it that morning. Best eel ever! Both came with a little dish of Japanese pickles. They were probably damn good pickles, but I don’t like pickles so I let Yuki eat mine.

After the Unagi was a clear broth soup with an ingredient we couldn’t figure out. At first, we thought it was some sort of mushroom. It wasn’t. Then we thought it might be shiroko, fish sperm sack. It wasn’t that either. We finally found out that it was eel liver, probably from the Unagi we just ate. It had kind of a crunchy yet soft texture. Not something you’ll find on any old menu.

Finally, to finish things off was a plate with fresh persimmons and grapes. persimmons are in season right now and are everywhere while Japanese grapes are absolutely huge compared to what we get.

All in all this was my 5th Kaiseki. I wish I could afford to eat like this every night as there is always something unusual and strange to the western palette. If any of you get to Japan I highly recommend splurging at least once to experience the delicate yet sophisticated Japanese cuisine at it’s finest.

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chen

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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