Monday, December 30, 2013

10 Best Dishes of 2013

2013 has been something of a strange year with six of my top ten courses revolving around some sort of grain or starch.

Barbershop Ristorante Italiano | Amatriciana senza pasta - Pork jowl, pecorino foam, tomatoes
Terre di Balbia Balbium Rosso Calabria IGT
Nagar's penchant for modernist techniques is clearly on display in this deconstructed Amatriciana but the ingredients adhere strictly to the classic recipe with little more than pork cheek, tomatoes, and pecorino. The sous vided cheek meat is utterly stunning, one of the tenderest pieces of pork that I've ever eaten with beautifully rendered fat evenly distributed throughout and a thin layer of crisp skin on top. The porcine sapor of the jowl is richly complimented by the foam which infused the dish with the cheese's salinity while the tomato adds a focused countervailing acidity.

Providence | there's one born every minute - cabacerra ham, octopus, manila clam
chardonnay, "golden slope" liquid farm 2011
Not so sure about the name but I absolutely loved everything else about this dish. The fatty savor of the Cabacerra ham is deftly balanced by a countervailing herbaceousness from the celery leaf. The octopus provides a nice snappy contrast to the al dente rice as well as a subtle oceany undertone.

Allumette | Bread 01 | Grilled Housemade Foccacia - Butterball Potato - Thyme - Salt
It's been a while since I've written about bread service but I thought Thompson's composed bread presentation deserved the recognition. The grilled foccacia is and potato are both delicious on their own but the combination has a starchy heft and fragrant herby smack that left me craving more.

n/naka | Shiizakana - Spaghettini with Shaved Black Abalone, Pickled Cod Roe, Italian Summer Truffles, Garlic, Ponzu, Daikon Radish Sprouts
Greco di Tufo, Villa Mathilde, Campania, Italy 2010
Where the last dish conveyed a sense of polish and grace, this course was all about bold lusty sensations. The pasta has a taut snappiness and comes smothered in a heady sauce of creamy pickled roe. The robust salinity of the abalone and roe are tempered nicely by the bitter sprouts while the truffle adds an overarching sense of indulgence to the dish.

LQ Foodings @ Vertical Wine Bistro | Rice Porridge - Veal Sweetbreads, Uni Bottarga, Uni, Wood Sorrel
2010 Monasterio De Corias, Maceration Carbonica
Easily the star of the night, this ambitious dish blended the salinity of uni and bottarga with the earthy gravitas of sweetbreads all on top of a lush creamy bed of rice. Though the uni and sweetbreads didn't compliment each other particularly well, I found myself wanting a huge bowl of the stuff or better yet two bowls of porridge one topped with sweetbreads and the other with uni. Surprisingly dry and refreshing for a red wine, the De Corias reminded me of a Beaujolais, an aptly subdued compliment to the multifaceted porridge
Yamakase | Steamed Awabi - Yuba, Truffle Butter
A special dish created just for us, this was my favorite course of the night. The abalone was slowly cooked for six days making it incomparably tender and had Yama-san simply served the awabi as nigiri it probably still would have been my favorite dish. The inclusion of rice and a heady truffle-laced seafood broth give the dish a luxurious gusto that perfectly ends the meal while the Japanese zha cai (pickled mustard) is the savory icing on this otherworldly dish.

Atelier Crenn | Nature rejoice, chasing childhood memories - Grains & Seeds, Sturgeon, Dashi
Bock-Style Ale 2012 Divine Brewing Co. 'Teufelweizen', Sonoma
I never would have expected that my favorite course of the meal would be one where the key ingredients were grains and seeds. Made from a mixture of flax, pumpkin, sunflower and quinoa, the grains have been smoked roasted and fried giving them a complex mix of malty aromatics and a deep woody heartiness. A broth of dashi highlights the savory notes while the sturgeon cream and salmon eggs add a contrasting chill to the grains. Occasional flashes of yuzu kocho add a fruity highlight to the dish that my friend jokingly referred to as savory Grape Nuts.

Rogue 24 | matsutake/caramelized béchamel/wild rice
the bruery/mischief/placentia/ca
This was probably my favorite dish of the night. The mushroom has a resonant woody perfume compounded with an intense sense of umami. The béchamel is mixed with caramelized Cippolinis, giving it an almost jammy sweetness akin to onion marmalade. The spinach leaves add a vital vegetal nuance while the rice adds a lovely textural structure to the dish. Up until recently this course was served with Wagyu beef but after seeing how well the mushroom works in this dish I don't think I miss the meat one bit.

minibar | Late-Night Chicken Shawarma
2010 Movia Sauvignon Blanc Primorje, Slovenia
Inspired by the staff's favorite after service meal, this course captures all the flavors of a classic chicken Shawarma wrapped up in an easy-to-eat spring roll. In a marked improvement since my last visit, the savor of the chicken skin is immediately apparent along with a heady blend of Mediterranean spices. The accompanying greens bring a succulent levity as well as an aromatic bouquet of herbs. A yogurt dipping sauce completes the dish with a potent lactic twang that counters the heft of the chicken. The accompanying Movia exuded tropical notes on the nose but had a bracing grassy dryness on the palate laced with a touch of pineapple and orange zest along with a slate-y minerality.

Sushi Taro | Cod Shirako - Uchiko, Yuzu
I know it sounds bad but Nobu has a way with sperm. I still think about the fugu shirako from my last visit and this was a more than worthy successor. A mixture of cod shirako and blue crab roe is stuffed into a hollowed out yuzu rind then briefly cooked over a tiny binchotan grill. The shirako exudes a creamy offaly richness akin to liver or sweetbread while the vivid orange crab roe is suffused with a sharp salinity. The warmed yuzu rind infuses an urgent citrus fragrance into the mix balanced with a trace of binchotan smoke.

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Thursday, December 26, 2013

VOLT - 12/08/2013

228 North Market Street
Frederick, MD 21701
(301) 696-8658

My third trip out to DC, I actually found myself with a coveted day off so I planned a visit to VOLT in Frederick. Of course a huge ice storm just happens to blow into town that day and not knowing when I'd next find myself in the area I opted to brave the storm and proceeded to spend two nerve wracking hours driving from DC to Frederick. Apparently two-thirds of the diners that evening decided discretion was the better part of valor and cancelled their reservations; there were even two coveted seats at Table 21 open. The main dining room format has changed a bit, with an a la carté menu and a 6-course tasting replacing the old 4-course and 7-course options.

BEET MACAROON - foie gras, cara cara orange
SAVOY CABBAGE - penn cove oyster, chili honey
CAULIFLOWER - za'atar yogurt, smoked golden raisin
VOLT's tasting menu begins with a trio of amuses. The foie gras stuffed beet macaroon is a welcome staple, decadent liver wrapped in an airy sugary shell. The oyster and cabbage was my favorite of the trio, the glassy vegetal chip and the saline of the meaty Penn Cove are lovely particularly with the touch of spiced honey. The final snack infuses a roasted cauliflower with a flourish of Mediterranean spice and kiss of ripe sweetness.

CRANBERRY - daikon, radish, buttermilk, surry county ham
Nominally part of the vegetable tasting menu, the kitchen sent out a version augmented with a ham chip as a gift. The mixture of radishes is delightfully crisp and light though when coupled with the cranberry the flavor is overly harsh and astringent. Against that backdrop, the thin sliver of ham is particularly sapid and rich almost downright sexy.

BAY SCALLOP - dashi, breakfast radish, sea succulents
This was probably my favorite course of the evening. The scallops are tiny, but dense and brimming with sweetness. The broth is a traditional dashi augmented with trimmings from the Nantucket Bay Scallops, the flavor is cool cohesive umami with a elegant citrus flourish from the olive oil. The bits of radish and succulents add the barest hint of herbaceous contrast.

CAULIFLOWER MUSHROOM - steel cut oats, sea lettuces, beer, yeast
I've enjoyed a outsized number of excellent rice and grain courses over the course of the year and I was hoping this would rank among them. Indeed the fragrant earthy mushrooms coupled with a caramelized sweetness are superb while the bright tang and crunch of the sea lettuces provide an integral balance to the creamy heft of the dish. The one fault with the course was a slight disconcerting funk which I suspect comes from the yeast.

ARCTIC CHAR - rye, cabbage, dill, concord grape
The char came with a mix of rye and sauerkraut; the lithe supple flesh infused with a smoky sour twang that is both rustic yet elegantly pure. I'm not sure if it was the combination of concord and dill but there was a secondary flavor of that reminded me of the smoke from a joss stick.

BLACK COD - yellow miso, hickory smoke, belgium endive
Miso and black cod is always a great way to start a course; add to that a bit of hickory smoke and you have a fish that is delightfully flaky and full of savory sweet contrast. A bed of charred endive adds a surprisingly mellow sweetness while the light chicory salad and pickles counters the weightiness of the fish.

FARM HEN EGG - frisee, brown butter, pine nut
No way I was going to skip out on the farm egg. Cooked to 63C, the egg was technically perfect with a supple white and golden creamy yolk. As much as I enjoy acid, the combination of celery and herbal aromatics was a bit too austere for my tastes.

CALAMARI BOLOGNESE - apple wood bacon, squid ink, miso, parmesan
If the last course was a bit too light this course more than made up for that. The dish starts off all bacon and tomato, with an aroma akin to a sausage pizza but the squid quickly makes its presence felt as well. The mix of bacon and squid is a one-two punch of fatty relish and briny flair wrapped in a hearty sauce of bracing tomatoes and pungent daikon kim chi

BEEF - salsify, embers, charred leeks
The final savory is a picturesque short rib; solidly dense yet tender texture to it with the abundant fatty meaty relish of short rib. The accompanying salsify puree has a weightier feel than mashed potatoes along with a lovely aroma of smoke and sweet root vegetable. Rounding out the dish are charred leeks and leafy greens a nice change from the tired vegetables that typically accompany a composed beef course

APPLE - aged cheddar cheese, apple pie sorbet, apple turnover
Another surprise gift from the kitchen. The cooked apple and maple has a sweet autumnal warmth to it touched with a hint of savor from the cheese.

CHOCOLATE - vanilla, peanut, marshmallow, caramel
The final dessert was built around a whimsical ball of chocolate chip cookie frozen custard with pillows of chocolate hazelnut mousse on a bed of toasted marshmallow cream. Rich sweet caramel and salted peanuts provide a spectrum of savor and sweet accompaniment to the various frozen delights.

Turns out the meal was well worth braving the storm with the tasting menu deftly showing off Voltaggio's elevated American cuisine and service seemed particularly on point; perhaps the staff's way of showing their appreciation for the diehards willing to brave the weather.

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Monday, December 23, 2013

Sushi Taro - 12/05/2013

1503 17th Street Northwest
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 462-8999

When it comes to sushi, Washington DC doesn't have the embarrassment of riches that Los Angeles has been blessed with, though the city does have a handful of good spots with Sushi Taro standing head and shoulders above the rest. To be clear, I'm speaking specifically about the restaurant's Omakase Counter where Chef/Owner Nobu Yamazaki and Chef de Cuisine Masa Kitayama create an intimate personal dining experience for up to six guests.

Coedo Shiro
Rather than dive right into the restaurant's sake list I thought I'd get warmed up with a beer. Like most Hefeweizens, the Shiro has a prevailing aroma of wheat with flavors of banana and clove.

Goma Tofu - Caviar, Dashi
Dinner at Sushi Taro always begins with their homemade sesame tofu and this was the best version yet. Instead of the typical tofu texture, this has a bit of mochi like chew to it. The accompaniments were simple but wonderfully complimentary, dashi provides an overarching savor accented by the saline flourish of the caviar.

Cod Shirako - Uchiko, Yuzu
I know it sounds bad but Nobu has a way with sperm. I still think about the fugu shirako from my last visit and this was a more than worthy successor. A mixture of cod shirako and blue crab roe is stuffed into a hollowed out yuzu rind then briefly cooked over a tiny binchotan grill. The shirako exudes a creamy offal-y richness akin to liver or sweetbread while the vivid orange crab roe is suffused with a sharp salinity. The warmed yuzu rind infuses an urgent citrus fragrance into the mix balanced with a trace of binchotan smoke.

Shishamo - Willow Leaf Fish
Like much of the evening's treats this tiny fish hails from Hokkaido. Part of the smelt family, the Shishamo is particularly prized during winter. Nobu cooked the fish over charcoal imparting a touch of smoky char that complimented the fish's intrinsic salinity beautifully. With lithe delicate flakes, the Shishamo had a sublime texture especially for such a small fish.

"Edible Charcoal" - Burdock, Mustard, Egg Yolk
Beneath the Shishamo was a bit of visual trickery from Nobu. Wrapped in layer of char was the best burdock root I've ever eaten; dense, crunchy, and sweet with a lightly spicy filling of egg yolk and mustard.

Kasu-jiru - Oyster, Salmon, Root Vegetables
Next up was a traditional winter soup made with sake-lees. The soup has a hearty milky thickness with a sweet woodiness akin to a whiskey cask. The shellfish is certainly enjoyable, but it was pastoral heft of the root vegetables that worked best with the broth.

Next up was a rare treat raw live octopus from Hokkaido. The ivory slivers have a slightly slimy crunch to them that required a fair amount of worrying to break down. To alleviate this, the sashimi came with a heated Himalayan salt block and a quick sear deftly softened the texture while simultaneously seasoning the octopus.

Nobu said he doesn't normally serve uni to guests from California figuring its probably better local, but he said this was an exceptional urchin. Served simply in a bath of light brine, the roe was a quivering creamy mass of sweet saline perfection.

Sushi Taro - Tokubetsu Junmai, Niigata prefecture
After dispensing with the Coedo, I decided to order a bottle of the house sake. Nobu found this sake during a visit to his hometown in Niigata and while it isn't the most refined sake; no fruit or vinous elements here just a viscous texture and a straightforward rice-y sweetness.

Kabura Mushi - Amadai, Turnip, Lily Bulb, Ginko
This was one of two steamed dishes of the night. One of the lighter dishes of the night, the base was made from grated turnip that radiates with a faint daikon-like funk and neither the fish nor any of the accompaniments do much to alleviate things. There was a thick glaze of some sort but even that was fairly mild.

Next up was one of my favorite part of the night. Just before serving the sashimi, Nobu slowly reveals box after box of pristine shellfish. As always I let Nobu pick what fishes to serve now and what he wants to serve as nigiri.

Tako - Octopus
First up was a more classically prepared octopus from Portugal. Though boiled, the sliver was still on the rare side with a pleasing dense snap to it. Not quite as impressive as the Hokkaido version but still one of the finest preparations that I've had.

Buri - Adult Yellowtail
Next up was a piece of beautifully marbled mature yellowtail, fatty and lush, the Buri had the prototypical flavor of yellowtail writ large.

Seared Buri - Seared Adult Yellowtail
The seared version loses some of the subtlety and trades it for a buttery Toro-like richness.

Shiro Sake - White Salmon
This was my first time having white salmon. Aside from the color the fish is quite similar to the more common version with perhaps a bit more fishy savor to it.

Kurodai - Black Snapper
Black snapper tends to be one of the highlights of any sushi meal and this was no different. The paper thin sliver of pink flesh is flecked with bits of silver and despite having a firm lean snap there was a subtle hint of oiliness on the finish.

Yagara - Flute Fish
My second experience with the rare flute fish in as many weeks. Delicate and mild with a soft even texture, the Yagara felt a bit boring.

Ishigaki Dai - Spotted Knifejaw (Parrot Snapper)
I think this might be my first time having Ishigaki Dai. Easily one of the firmest fishes I've ever eaten, almost like chewing a piece of raw tendon.

Kama Toro - Fatty Tuna
Nobu mentioned that just earlier in the day he'd purchased a tuna from New Jersey and as a result there was Kama-toro available. The generously marbled tuna almost looks more like a slice of Wagyu then it does fish. The biting into the delicately scored flesh releases a torrent of velvety fat and fish oil.

Akami - Lean Tuna
This was night-and-day from the previous piece. Firm and even textured, the blood-red flesh conveys a sense of clean freshness.

Nobu called this fish Suma, but didn't know the English translation. With flecks of silver skin and a sheen of oil coating the flesh, I was expecting a Mackerel-like intensity. While the fish had a dense oily texture the flavor was surprisingly delicate.

Saba - Mackerel
When compared to the suma, the mackerel has a similar compact denseness but with a drier slightly dessicated feel. The Saba has a more traditional silver-skinned flavor with a cooler almost steely twang on the finish.

Uni - Sea Urchin
Having already tasted the West Coast uni earlier, I opted to try the East Coast version during the sashimi courses. With a darker complexion and more compact size, the roe has a more viscous mouth feel than its Pacific cousin but a relatively mild flavor.

Amaebi - Sweet Shrimp
This may well have been the largest sweet shrimp that I've ever eaten, in fact the piece pictured is only half of the shrimp. With spot prawn so readily available in California this is my first time having Amaebi from Canada, the texture is absolutely enchanting running the gamut from crunchy to creamy with a gentle saline sweetness throughout.

Kobe Tenderloin - Truffles, Uni
The sashimi dispensed with Nobu broke out the big guns with a decadent mixture of seared Kobe tenderloin topped with truffles and uni, that I dubbed a Japanese Rossini. The tenderloin doesn't have the over-the-top fattiness normally associated with Wagyu, instead the meat is suffused with a pure note of beefy richness. The truffles and uni are both relatively restrained, the former adding an overarching earthiness while the latter brings a touch of creamy salinity.

Soba - Karasumi
The next course consisted of handmade soba courtesy of Masa. The soba comes with a traditional sauce though Nobu advised me to use it sparingly and let the a duet of mullet roe; a mound of golden loose eggs and a deep orange preserved version provide most of the flavor. The toasty nutty flavor of the soba works beautifully in concert with the salty fresh roe but really shines with the nutty super-umami flavor of the Karasumi; very reminiscent of a spaghetti alla bottarga.

Mehikari - Green Eye
Prior to serving the soba, Nobu showed me a pair of small silvery deep-sea fishes he called Mehikari. Served tempura style the fish is tender with a balanced intrinsic savor but it was the airy wisp of bone that really stood out. A trio of stuffed Ginko nuts brings a sweet nutty contrast to balance the Mehikari's savor

Sujiko - Salmon Roe
Salmon Roe comes in two varieties in Japanese cuisine, unlike the more popular Ikura, Sujiko is marinated in the egg sac and takes on a reddish hue and a slightly dessicated look. Considered more of a delicacy, the Sujiko tastes like a concentrated Ikura with a thicker, slightly tacky texture to it.

Yagara - Grilled Flute Fish, Liver
Time for Yagara round 2, this time the fish was seasoned with shoyu koji then grilled. The fish was solid but unexceptional dense and sweet with a nice smoky savor. The bit of liver was exceptional sweet and creamy it compared quite favorably to ankimo.

Kirin-zan - Junmai Daiginjo, Niigata prefecture
I decided to order a more refined sake to close out the meal. Nobu recommended the Kirin-zan, a delicate floral sake that goes down clean with a light touch of melon-y sweetness

Funa Zushi
Between Q and now Sushi Taro I've been getting quite the sushi history lesson in recent weeks. According to Nobu, Funa Zushi is a Japanese adaptation of the original sushi first developed in Thailand. Making Funa Zushi involves aging fish in salt for a year before placing in fermented cooked rice. The resulting product can keep for up to four years. After being removed from the rice, the fish is packed with a yellowish carp roe. The flavor was like a cross between mackerel and a really strong cheese with more than a whiff of ammonia to boot. Texturally the fish is dense and chewy, not too surprising since most of the water has long been extracted. While I appreciated the opportunity to try the Funa Zushi, I'm immensely thankful that sushi has evolved over the past millennium as this was easily the most challenging thing I've eaten all year. After eating this I asked Nobu how often he serves this, apparently I was the second guest to try it, lucky me.

Chawan Mushi - Daikon, Scampi, Shaved Foie Gras
The second steamed course was one of the highlights of the evening and consisted of a hollowed out ring of succulent daikon stuffed with fresh scampi and topped with shaved foie gras. The scampi is cooked perfectly with a nuanced shellfish brine that pairs exquisitely with the fatty liver.

Hamaguri - Topneck Clam
With the end of the kaiseki courses it was time to go back to Nobu's boxes of joy for some nigiri. I started with the Top Neck clam, a dense slightly chewy clam with a pronounced earthy heft and dark rich sweetness from the sauce.

Kawahagi - Trigger Fish
Another relative rarity, Kawahagi is often served as a substitute for fugu during the summer. A mild supple fish, Nobu topped his with some ankimo to give the piece a lovely countervailing richness.

Amadai - Tilefish
The Tilefish was one of my favorites with a dense jellied texture there was a kobujime like butteriness that I wasn't expecting.

Mejina - Large Scale Blackfish
I've only had Mejina a handful of times, lean and mild the fish has a unique sinewy toughness.

Kamasu - Barracuda
A must order for me, grilled barracuda is always a treat. In winter the fish becomes heavy with fat which lends itself well to searing or grilling. The resulting fish is super-tender with a sharp woody scent intermingled with charred fish oil.

Inada - Baby Yellowtail
Having served the buri as sashimi, Nobu opted to go nigiri-style with the Inada. The baby yellowtail is much lighter in flavor but still utterly tender albeit in a different fashion than the buri.

Ikura - Salmon Roe
Everything from the tactile feel of the orbs bursting to the gentle sweet saline marked this as a classic quintessential Ikura.

Ebi - Madagascar Shrimp
I'm not normally a fan of Ebi, finding the boiled shrimp dull and rubbery. Luckily Nobu agrees with me and stops cooking his while its still raw in the center. The result is a lithe lively shrimp still conveying a delicate essence of sweet brine.

Kohada - Gizzard Shad
I've seen chefs do some funny things with fishes but this was the first time I've had one braided before. As always the dry compact fish is saturated with oily goodness

Tamago - Egg
A fairly typical tamago the sweet eggy funk paired nicely with the warm rice.

Echigo Stout
Given how hard Nobu had worked up until now I thought it only fair to buy him a beer. He decided on the Echigo Stout, done in an American Imperial style, the beer has an aroma of chocolate and coffee with a hint of smoke. Dense and sweet to start there are some roast-y bitter notes on the finish.

Caramel Mochi Ice - mochi mixed milk ice cream, topped w/ fresh caramel syrup
I know it's a bit simple but after 38 savories, I was craving something utterly sweet and decadent and this fit the bill perfectly.

Anmitsu - green tea ice cream served over an assortment of mochi, red bean, and flavored jelly cubes, topped w/ dark syrup
Nobu decided to send out his favorite dessert for me to try. Much more restrained than the caramel mochi, Anmitsu is a traditional Japanese dessert of agar gelly with azuki bean paste. Nobu's version is a bit more elegant pairing the duet with a bitter and refreshing green tea ice cream.

Nobu's cooking deftly highlights his immense talent and unbridled creativity while respecting the bounds of Japanese culinary tradition. My previous visit was one of the my top meals of 2012 and this experience was every bit as impressive. For any fans of Japanese Cuisine visiting the DC area, dinner at Sushi Taro's Omakase Counter is an absolute must.

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