Tuesday, February 27, 2007

New York: A Weekend of Fusion

Last weekend, I went to New York for a short weekend trip... and it was a shock to the system. The weather was 15 degrees, and 0 degrees by night time. I've been to NY a good 6 times, but this was nuts. Anyway, I was originally going for a college friend's wedding in Long Island, but work came down the pipe... also in New York! My agency asked me to attend a photoshoot for a client at New York's electronic club, Crobar. I took the red eye Thursday, and after a few drinks at dinner with J at Terried Sake House and drinks at the airport, I ended up passing out on my flight and waking up at 6 am... with only 1.5 hours till arrival. There's nothing better than sleeping the majority of your flight away. From JFK, I took a $45 flat fee taxi ride into Manhattan, an hour away. New York is not cheap! I was so tired from the binge drinking and flying, that I had to pass out at the hotel... the beautiful, Hudson Hotel. Designed by Ian Schrager, this boutique hotel is one that exhibits a very interesting concept... dark wood, bricks, ivy and taxidermy. Snazzy. A little bit of modernism and wilderness meshed together. The Hudson brings out the nature boy in everyone.

Be My Guest
Definitely check out Flickr's images of the Hudson Hotel and you'll know what I was googling at.

One Horny Lamp
This is a must for any pornstar in the Valley. These go well with polar bear rugs if you can afford one. They'd all go very well with my leopard-skin speedos and sheets. A perfect way to light up my room filled with the music of Kenny G and Yanni. Nice visual I know.

This was truly a work of art, although I didn't understand the neon lenticulars.

Billy Boy
This billy goat reminded me of the delicious birria (goat) taco that J and I had at El Parian in the Pico-Union area. Poor, delicious goat - good thing our friends at El Parian didn't see him - he'd be dinner. At least he's dying with style in the Hudson Hotel.

After a nice 3 hour nap in my $300 room that I wasn't paying for, I headed over to the Chelsea area to work. I was done within a few hours, and finally, my stomach started to talk to me. Yes, my fat one, I know... it's time to eat. I called upon my foodie friend DY, who took me to great places when she lived in SF, to show me around. We were also joined by my friend John Downs, who is a foodie in the making. His goal was to try out things he's never had and my goal was to convert him from John Downs to... Jéan Downs. Which pretty much meant food other than McD's, Souplantation, Musha and any Korean BBQ joint haha. DY recommended one of NY's top restaurants, WD-50, run by Chef Wylie Dufresne. You might have seen him in the Iron Chef America competition against Mario Batali (Battle Tilapia) and most recently, as a judge in Bravo's Top Chef series. Chef Dufresne is known for his molecular-gastronomic cooking techniques, in which he uses scientific methods to prepare food. Nice... I never thought beakers and Bunsen burners would be hip again. FYI, I was once a Chemistry major but that didn't last more than a quarter haha.

We trucked down to the Lower East Side of Manhattan towards WD-50 in 15 degree weather. With the wind freezing every part of my face, including my nosehairs, I thought about nothing else but the warm, delicious food I was about to eat. If Mt. Everest were laid flat, this would be the same type of expedition. I expected to see frozen carcasses of cat-sized NY rats along the curb. They too had heard about WD-50 and gone on the mission through the cold. After 20 minutes of walking, we reached our goal. Because NY restaurants don't really close till 2 or 3 am, a 10:30 reservation was quite normal. The restaurant was full and we quickly sat at the watering hole to get the stomach warmed-up. Within a few minutes we were seated. DY and I decided to split a few appetizers and main courses, versus ordering separate tasting menus priced at $115 per person. Quite hefty for me.

Hamachi in Oatmeal Consomme
Oh yes, a treat from the tasting menu, sent by the chef to all tables. I love receiving small culinary gifts. The hamachi was super fresh and was well balanced with a sour granny smith apple, candied celery in the warm oatmeal broth.

Jéan Downs: "Sushi. Facking delicious."

Hangar Tartare with Pickled Asian Pear, Amaro and Bernáise Ice Cream
This was beautifully plated and my first time pretty much eating raw beef. The beef was super fresh and well complimented by the pickled asian pear and Bernáise ice cream. My favorite appetizer of the night.

Jéan Downs: "Nice, raw beef. I liked the ice cream but not the sweet sauce. Still, facking delicious."

Corned Duck on Rye Crisp with Purple Mustard and Horseradish Cream
This was beautifully plated. We didn't understand the usage of both mustard and horseradish. DY and I felt it was too strong and wished we could taste the duck more. Still a very nice appetizer.

Jéan Downs: "Facking delicious."

Foie Gras with Mole "Lentils" and Quince Yogurt
This was absolutely amazing. The foie gras beautifully cooked and the "lentils" and quince yogurt perfectly countered the rich taste of foie gras. I love foie gras, but too much of it can be overwhelming. The reason I put lentils in quotation because they are not lentils. Our knowledgeable and friendly waiter, Evan, explained the process used in cooking the "lentils". Using hot water, the mole is dropped from a certain height into the water pot. The splashing process breaks the mole into perfect "lentil" shapes. We felt like we were being lectured by Alton Brown. This was my favorite appetizer of the night! I was worried Jéan Downs wouldn't like this dish because it was somewhat bloody and possibly too rich for a palate too used to fried Costco food haha.

Jéan Downs: "Bloody. Facking delicious."

Duck Breast with Soy Spaetzle, Jicama and Pickled Ramp
Duck was cooked to a perfect medium doneness. What really brought this dish alive was the sauce. Acidic, spicy and rich - excellent.

Jéan Downs: "Duck was somewhat chewy, but yet, facking delicious."

Lamb Ribs with Chinese Broccoli in Banana Cónsomme
Banana consomme?! Yes, I want to try that. This is the first time I've ever seen banana flavored broth/consomme. The lamb tasted nice and tender... but the bitterness of the Chinese broccoli (gai-lan) went very well with the banana cónsomme. My friend had this and I kept drinking the cónsomme.

Jéan Downs: "I like the broth. Facking delicious."

Pork Belly with Smoked Yucca, Romaine and Papaya
Perfectly cooked pork belly. What looks like fried tofu is actually fried yucca.

Jéan Downs: "It's like bacon. Facking delicious."

Beef Shortrib with Brussel Sprouds, Cheddar Sauce and Pink Lady Apple
This dish was really good. The cheese sauce and beef reminded me of a fancy burger. The shortrib was so tender and fatty - so good!

Jéan Downs: "I didn't try, but I'm sure it was facking delicious."

Turbot with Smoked Bulgur and Coffee-Saffron Sauce
This got the gold medal tonight from me. I've never had turbot and fell in love with it immediately. Chef WD poaches the fish in olive oil and the result is a perfectly buttery/moist piece of fish. I couldn't believe how tasty it was. I put this fish right below Chilean Seabass and Blackcod in the cooked fish category. The Coffee-saffron sauce was simply amazing. And I finally found a dish that caused food-envy...

Jéan Downs: "This is SUPER-facking delicious."

DY, Jéan Downs and I freaking ate a lot. If you couldn't tell, Jéan Downs is a man of few words and limited culinary vocabulary. But I admired his open-mindedness in trying háute cuisine. There's nothing more ignorant and annoying then ppl that say 'eew' even before trying. Just ask Eddie. Jéan Downs later on went to eat escargot, fried oysters, and bone marrow. Good boy. Anyway, at the end of the meal, I snapped my final shots and looked over to the kitchen. There I saw WD glancing at me as I took photos. I whispered to DY, shoot, he saw us! He started walking through the restaurant towards us and I could feel sweat starting to build up. I hope he didn't grab the camera from me and throw it in his banana cónsomme pot to braise. I bet it would taste good though. Instead of putting my head down, I said "hello" to him. We talked to him about his cooking techniques and asked if he minded the photos - not at all. He was supercool and superintelligent! Check out WD-50 if you get a chance, it's definitely an interesting experience for those interested in trying an up and coming style of cooking. Go molecules!

The next day, I was headed to Long Island for a beautiful wedding. It was so nice to get out of the compact city. No taxis to fight over, no humid subway stations to breathe in. Just beautiful towns covered in February snow. The train ride lasted no longer than an hour each way. I was able to get back to Manhattan by 11 pm at night and of course, my stomach was knocking on the door. Ok ok, let's go.

I met up with DY and her friend and we headed over to another New York hotspot. A place where chefs go to dine after their long nightshifts: Momofuku SSäm Bar. They also have a noodle bar that specializes in various pork ramen dishes.

SSäm Bar is really dim and cool inside. I like restaurants where I can see the kitchen activity. This place was pretty full even at midnight. DY said we had to try the Berkshire pork buns and Asian burritos.

Berkshire Pork Buns
Tender pork belly smacked between a bun with cold cucumbers and what tasted like hoisin sauce. Nice, but not worth the $8-9 for two.

Asian Burrito
Like it's relative, the Kalbi taco, this contained tender pork, rice, edamame beans and KIMCHI! I loved this. I'm going to try and make my own version at home. Seems easy enough.

The next day, I joined 12 of my other friends (also attending the wedding), including Le Culinary Food Critic, known for his explicit responses to food, Jéan Downs, for a Sunday brunch. New York is the Big city of Big dreams.... and also Big Xiao Long Baos. I'm talking BIG.

We were so excited to head down to the popular Joe's Shanghais but found ourselves caught in the eye of the storm. We had forgotten that it was Chinese New Year. Oh, lord. The constant banging of unrhythmic cymbals got to our nerves quite quickly. We dodged the parade and headed down small streets to our destination.

Oh great, there were nearly 30 people waiting outside for a table. After an hour long of enduring near-death experiences from the cold, we were shown our table.

And this is what we were coveting. (The people in the photo above are actually frozen. )

Xiao Long Bao (Mammoth Size)
I think these were as wide as 2". They weren't tall but you could just tell they were filled with delicious pork gelatin cubes... mmm. There I said it, it's pork fat you are drinking. I wonder if the customers at Din Tai Fung know that. Oh well. Anyway, one of our rookie friends went for the first grab with the tongs provided. Instead of grabbing by the head of the XLB and supporting the weight with a soup spoon, he grabbed it by the side. Lost cause. It was a bloody massacre, like an Italian mafia-whacking out in the public. He was consequently boo'd by everyone at the table which caught everyone in the restaurant's attention. They too, knew the travesty that had occurred.

Before I knew it, I was back on the plane to LA. I was overjoyed to hear the pilot announce "We are preparing to land in LAX now. The current temperature at our destination is 75 degrees." I wore the biggest smile and remembered that LA is definitely a great place to live and eat in. Thanks for reading. Read more!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Hometown Buffet - The Perfect Un-Valentine's Day Dinner

Sunday morning, I woke up and started flipping through the freshly printed newspaper. I wasn't reading any of the articles, but rather thinking of where I was going to take J for Valentine's Day. For many, Valentine's is short for gift and snazzy dinner. I'm really not into holidays, or rather, non-holidays such as Valentine's day, but it was going to be our first. Was Valentine's Day a cruel day created by marketers at Hallmark or by women who want to gauge their man's affection and commitment? Whatever the case - I didn't have anything planned. I could spend $200 on sushi. I could go to a posh restaurant and select their prix fixe menu. But all of those just sounded so... booked and overdone. Besides, almost every decent restaurant in LA was probably booked with lovebirds. Last year's V-Day was fun because I went with a friend to Beacon and gawked at all the couples gazing into one another's eyes over pork belly and seared albacore. They were all in a trance. I gave J a call.

Me: "Hey, what do you wanna do for Valentine's?"
J: "I don't know. Surprise me. I like surprises."
Me: "Ok. How about something... different?"
J: "Different is good. Prix fixe sounds good."
Me: "Ok, careful what you wish for."

I jumped back into flipping through the newspaper. Where was I going to find an inexpensive place with a prix fixe menu. Nothing left in the newspaper, but a stack of coupons and direct mail. I went ahead and perused it and eureka... here was what I was looking for!

Oh... yes. A coupon for two to Hometown Buffet. Different? Check. Surprising? Double-check! Prix fixe? Oh-yes, triple check... a $10.69 + tax prix fixe menu. For those that don't know what Hometown Buffet is - think of it as an all-you-can-eat Sizzler, minus all that popcorn shrimp and shrimp scampi. I called J right away.

Me: "Ok, I've got a place."
J: "Yeah? Where?"
Me: "Mmm, they've got a reasonably priced, prix fixe and it's definitely different."
J: "Oh nice. Where?"
Me: "Hometown Buffet."
J: "...... what?"
Me: "I'm serious. They've got coupons too haha."
J: "Haha! Let's do it."

Wednesday night, after work, I drove off to J's place to pick her up. I had also forgotten to buy a gift. Any well-respected gentleman presents his lady with a gift on Valentine's Day. I didn't have anything in mind to buy. I was stuck. But as I was driving on Venice Blvd., something caught the corner of my eye. I saw a man and a woman standing behind a pack of stuffed bears. Furry white teddy bears holding red heart pillows, wrapped in cellophane. Oh nice... and only $8!! Wait? Is this cheesy? Who cares, I ended up buying one. Now, I had some company in my car.

I got to J's place and walked into her place with the bear covering my face. She freaked out and realized what I got her and started busting up.

J & Venice Blvd. Bear
You can't see it, but J is actually staring me down with evil contempt. She asked that I censor her face. The bear requested anonymity as well. Nice picture frame huh? It's furry too. This bear is going to be extinct very soon. RIP.

We got to Hometown Buffet at around 7:15 and the line was out the door - about 40 people waiting to get their $10.69-grubbing on.

The Buffet Line
I was baffled - I didn't know if we were at the DMV or Hometown Buffet. The line was painfully slow. People were pacing back and forth. Everyone eyeing each other to see if anyone would attempt to inch past their place in line. Hometown Buffet should just offer motor-vehicle services. That'd be nice to get the license mugshot and a $10.69 meal all in one stop. There would be less angry (and less hungry) people in the world.

Pure Class... and Glass
To make this evening even more special, I took a lunch break at Target and picked up tea candles, two plastic wine-glasses (re-usable of course - i'm not rich) and a snazzy wine-in-a-box package. (Hometown Buffet doesn't serve alcohol.) The wine box included 4 Hi-C like packages with a foil-sealed spout. I chose the 50% Cabernet and 50% Shiraz.

The Tablesetting
*Gasp* Breathtaking I know. A wrong pairing of reds to fried chicken, sliced ham, garlic mushrooms and canned, Sysco corn. What the hell is that thing in the back??? Whatever, this was supposed to be our special meal and Hometown Buffet lets you be your own chef. After shooting the photo, I took a sip of the 50/50 Cab/Shiraz varietal made by the Target Vineyards. My thoughts on this wine? It really wasn't 50% Cab and 50% Shiraz... it was more like 100% undrinkable. 100% refund too, please.

Deep Sea Creature
Do not be frightened. J's first dish resembled an angler fish. If you threw this in front of Jacques Costeau, he'd have a genus species name for this dish within a few minutes and have it mapped in a fish family tree. This 2,000-calorie creature inhabits the sheet pans and chaffing dishes of Hometown Buffet. This still looked better than a lot of the dishes presented at the first annual Iron Chef Souplantation.

Fried Chicken
Oh yes. This wasn't bad at all. I prefer it over KFC, but definitely not over Popeye's and Mrs. Knott's. The skin was nice and crispy and the meat was very moist - it just wasn't that flavorful. Needed some more salt and cayenne/paprika. I still ended up eating 5 drum sticks and am paying the price with a 'yeet hay' sore.

Mound O' Mac
To make the night even cheesier, I indulged in HTB's mac n' cheese pit. Honestly, I don't mind Souplantation's mac n' cheese. It's bland but they leave it to you to flavor it with their table salt/pepper. Hometown Buffet's is way better because it's similar to TV dinner M&C. Yes, microwave M&C is one of my guilty pleasures - as well as Jeno's pizza. I wouldn't be surprised if I caught the cooks back there emptying hundreds of boxes of Swanson's mac n' cheese into a chaffing dish. I had 2 rounds of this, mmm.

The USDA rates all of the beef before being sold. Prime being the best, then Choice and Select. This quality of meat was unidentifiable. It was the lonely stepchild of all meats, placed in the dark, unmarked on a dusty rack, crying in naked/fetal position. The marking on the label probably looks something like "USDA??? Beef??? Sell by ??????" Maybe it's a zebra? Anyway, I constructed my own Steak Frites dish for under $10.69. Don't bother asking Hometown Buffet for Steak Frites because you'll get a blank stare. just go make it yourself. I ate 3 pieces of the beef and stopped before dislocating my jaw from overchewing.

Pinkberry! 911!
In addition to the fries, J feasted on two bowls of these. Like the beef, it's also the lonely, neglected stepchild of all meats, crying in naked/fetal position. I wonder how soon it'll be before Pinkberry starts selling their machines within convenience stores or selling boxed frozen yogurt in supermarkets.

A Moment of Affection and Indigestion
After the many plates of food, we couldn't move and ended talking for a little while. We then went over to a 'Valentine's Day' booth that Hometown Buffet set up and took a few goofy photos. Although this wasn't a typical Valentine's Day venue, we had a total blast eating here. J was so happy that we followed through haha. We both didn't really care for V-Day, but if we were going to go out, we should try doing something different. We looked at the many other couples and family who were here tonight enjoying their evening. And although not everyone eating here is wealthy enough to enjoy the finer places in LA (including us of course), they still knew how to enjoy themselves. Because at the end of the day (and bill), whether it be a nice meal or a hole-in-the-wall meal, it's about having good company.

On the drive back, J passed out because of food coma and I was slowly feeling the effects of the Sysco corn and Target Vineyard wine, hitting me. I looked over at the sleepy one and smiled and thought to myself... "what a cool girl I have."

P.S. The coupon is fake, so don't bother printing it out. haha. Happy Un-V Day to J and thanks for reading.
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Sunday, February 04, 2007

NRM 2.0: A Revisit of Niu Rou Mian 牛肉麵, Chinese Beef Noodle Recipe

Chinese Beef Noodle Soup 牛肉麵

Nearly after one year since my first post on this popular Chinese dish, I continued to work on this recipe at least once a month. Known as 'niu ro mian' (牛肉麵), this is a dish that is shared widely within the Chinese culture - particularly in Northern China and Taiwan. My favorite being the Taiwanese version which is not as spicy as the Chinese version - yet more oily and richer in spices. Tomato paste is also used heavily for its acidity, which balances the 'beefiness' of the dish. I recently went to Taiwan for the sole reason of eating their night markets and pursuing their beef noodle soup. In 2005, Taiwan was named the beef noodle soup capital and started holding competitions that displayed the talents of nearly 40 top noodle restaurants in the city. While I was there, I raided a bookstore for books on beef noodle soup and gladly walked away with 4 books that my parents need to help me translate. I also met a wonderfully sweet lady, that ran a small beef noodle soup stall, that was more than happy to give me her recipe. I was in a rush to fly back to Hong Kong and told her I HAD to have a bowl of her noodles before departing.

With my books and visual lesson of making beef noodle soup, I knew what I had done wrong all this time... I was using way too much star anise and five-spice powder. The technique I used belonged more to the mainland Chinese way of NRM. After cooking NRM with the Taiwanese recipe, I had to have my Taiwanese/Chinese friends come over for a test... and they really enjoyed it. Pictured below is the cut of the beef shank braised in the soup. In my original version, I had cut the beef shank into large cubes. After hours of braising, the cuts of meat lost its shape and much of the fat/tendon content. I found that braising the whole fiber of shank muscle was a better way to serve this wonderful dish. Not only was the soup pot less crowded, I was able to make nice slices - the same way cha shu pork is served in Japanese ramen shops. It's more presentable, easier to eat and shows the grains within the shank meat.

Here's my recipe for Chinese beef noodle soup. Since there are HUNDREDS of variations in China/Taiwan, I picked 2 of my favorites and mixed them together – Sichuan and Taiwan style.

Ingredients for 6-8 Servings in a 5 qt pot
2-3 lbs. of beef shank (use brisket if you don't like tendons)hot chili bean paste (attachment is a non-hot version, but hot is recommended. you don't have to have that same brand. just match the Chinese characters with whatever you can find. In the image attached "chilibeanpaste.jpg", I prefer the brand all the way on the left with the blue label from Taiwan. I don't really like Lee Kum Kee products.)
dark soy sauce (also labeled as Mushroom Soy Sauce)
soy sauce
sesame oil
6 garlic cloves
Small handful of star anise
6-8 slices of ginger
2 bunches of green onions (cut off the green part)
3 small tomatoes, quartered (or whole canned tomatoes for a more punchy, hearty tomato taste (taiwanese) - omit this for Chinese style.)
2 cans of beef broth or 2-3 tablespoons of beef demi-glace (paste)
1 large onion
8" piece of daikon radish (optional... adds a nice sweetness like tomatoes. taiwanese ppl use papaya sometime.)
2 chinese spice packets (image attached)
shao xing rice wine
rock sugar for a subtle sweetness - should not be candy sweet
white pepper
whole black peppercorns
sichuan peppercorns
dried flour noodles
cheesecloth/string (for star anise, sichuan red peppercorns and whole black peppercorns) - omit sichuan red peppercorns if unavailable

green onions
bok choy or spinach ( i like spinach better)

Use this as a starting point. Our pots and BTU's are all different so everything is affected... add more as you need. don't be afraid to add/taste things.

(1) Cut the beef shank into 1.5" square pieces. Place in a pot of water and bring to boil to remove blood and impurities. Remove from pot and rinse off the meat – set aside.

(2) Add oil to a pot, once it's hot, add garlic and ginger to flavor the oil for 1 minute (do not burn). Add the beefshank back into the pot and brown the meat - don't overcrowd the pot – fry in batches. Take out the meat once it's browned, and repeat till finished. Add all the meat back in and add 3 tablespoons of hot chili bean paste, 2 tablespoons of dark soy sauce, 1 cup soy sauce, small handful of salt, tablespoon of white pepper, 1/4 cup of shao xing rice wine and 2 tablespoons of sesame oil. Fry for about 8 minutes.

(3) Add tomatoes, green onions, spice packets (image attached), a handful of sichuan red peppercorns and a handful of whole black peppercorns) along with 2 cans of beef broth, and filling up the rest of the pot with water. Bring to a boil with lid on and lower the heat to a simmer for 2.5-3 hours. longer the better, you want your meat to break easily w/ a fork.

(4) When the meat is tender, adjust the taste of the soup with soy sauce, white pepper and rock sugar to your liking. If the soup is too dense, add water to balance it out. The soup may appear oily from the hot chili bean paste, but keep that in there for flavor. And add another tablespoon of sesame oil to wake up the broth. To ensure a beautiful clean bowl of beef noodle soup, ladle thesoup into a sieve with cheesecloth over your noodle bowl. Aesthetics count! Boil some water and cook your dried flour noodles al-dente. The Chinese refer to the chewiness of the noodles as "Q" and it's important in making a perfect bowl of NRM. Garnish with green onions, cilantro and whatever boiled vegetable.

It is important to note that after your first day, the soup will turn a bit sour from the soy sauce and sesame oil. This is normal. Restaurants make fresh batches every day and never reuse soup. You will have to add more water or sugar to bring back the taste if you eat for the next few days because it will lose its potency.

enjoy, please send photos of your final products. regards, dylan.

Here are some other links to NRM.

Kirk of Mmm-Yoso
Chez Wang
2005 Taipei Beef Noodle Festival

Feel free to add any NRM links to the comment section. Thanks for reading.
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