Kimchi Cha-Shu Ramen at Ramen Dojo.

30 Sep

“Dojo” is a Japanese term that means “place of the way”, often referred to a formal training place for a practice to forms of arts. At Ramen Dojo, this would be where the chefs practiced, and we observed, the art of the slurpy noodles.

The first lesson at Ramen Dojo was that of patience. With a shop this size and the fervent fan base, the average wait time was about an hour to an hour and half. Adult beverages a block down at a dive bar ironically named Yuppie definitely helped us through the process; but the more devout stood brave in the cold.

The restaurant was a small, cozy one. It was warmly lit, with tables and chairs enough for only 20, while an L shaped counter top allowing an additional eight, also conveniently carved out the register section. Parallel to the front door was the entrance to its kitchen, a small cave of florescent light and steaming pots of broth. Chefs working away cooking noodles and adding toppings to the giant bowls.

It was almost like a made-to-order sandwich shop or pizzeria: select your basics and add to your liking. The ramen come in three broths of soy sauce, garlic pork, and miso, at three degrees of spiciness, and the garnishes of sliced pork, quail egg, roasted garlic, greens and saffron. Available toppings included boiled egg, bamboo shoots, corn, kimchi, and many other standard favorites. What made me gleeful was their giant slogan: “Our Ramen is not Vegetarian Food”.  As ramen broths were often pork based, I appreciated the declaration.

Before we were seated, we were inquired if all four of us will be having ramen. Which probably allowed them to prep the noodles in time, so that when we ordered they would only need to add broth and toppings. That was the second lesson: organized assembly. Efficiency was nice, but definitely added a more nervous atmosphere. The waitress stood glaring while we giggled our way through the menu, pressured to think fast. We ordered a round of beer just to buy a little bit more time.

But these tiny tests to our dedication came with great reward, the reward being our bowls of ramen. Ramen Dojo had been on the way of ramen and back a few times, the wait was not for naught. First of all, it was one of the most beautiful ramen I had seen. The bowl was filled with a gold richness containing tiny red flakes; steam rose through the pile of noodles and garnishes seducing our olfactory senses. The toppings were nearly piled, faced up with a wink. A tiny bunch of saffron acted like the ethereal red bow on the head of a brunette beauty, creating an airy structure to the image.

I had chosen the miso broth, which was rich and warmed the soul. The sliced pork was beautifully marbled, with just the right amount of fat-to-muscle ratio, its flavor deepened by the char. Tanginess of kimchi helped cut through the thick broth, giving away a crunching texture against the egg’s softness. Meanwhile, packed full of harvest’s eve, the roasted garlics melted like butter at my bite.

But the most wondrous for me were the noodles. Too often had I tasted noodles al dente at first but soon succumb to the power of the broth and sag into a sop of sadness. Not at Ramen Dojo, where their noodles were properly trainer to the way. It was almost reminiscent of spaghetti in firmness at first bite. Five minutes in, however, the ramen noodles came to life and became one with the broth: it was springing yet light, while the broth clung to their curves coating it was that extra pack of flavor.  It danced. Like the noodles at Ippudo I’ve tasted, but in a meatier symphony this time. And life was amazing.

I resurfaced twenty minutes later, tiny beads of sweat gathered on my forehead, face red and shone. The last bits of broth laid at the bottom of the bowl, last smoke of steam waving for me to consume it. My stomach was close to bursting, but somehow, my hands moved as if with minds of their own, and held the bowl up high so I could devour even the last drops of delicious soup. It is here that I learnt my third and final lesson at this place of the ramen way: there was no such thing as self-control in front of the ultimate deliciousness, such as this bowl of divine ramen.

Ramen Dojo | 805 S B Street | San Mateo, CA 94401 | 650.401.6568

 

French Onion Soup and Duck Parts @ Les Philosophes, Paris.

5 Aug

“It is just onion soup if you’re in France.” M declared, as he watched me edit and label the photos on the interwebz.

Il a raison. It wasn’t French onion soup, the French was unnecessary. Yet I included it anyway, because it seemed incomplete without calling it French. An what-would-be-ordinary onion soup made better because of that pile of crusted bread with melted cheese floating on top. The cheese just whimpered and dissolved into a pile of delicious mess under the scorch from the boiler, bubbling and browning. Caramelized onion shreds were non-existent by this point, forming thin jello-like substance inside the beef broth, a deep golden-brown.

This was the first part into my two-part meal at Les Philosophes in the Marais, the latest and trendiest district of Paris. The cafe was hidden between narrow streets lined with boutiques and other cafes. Situating ourselves at the outdoor seating, we had the luxury of watching a mixture of classily dressed office ladies strutting off in their 3-inch heels, business men in suits on their uncharacteristically bright  (only to me, it seemed) scooters, as well as dark-haired art students holding their canvases in outfits likely made by themselves. A lunch menu was typical in French restaurants and cafes: 25 Euros for an entree and a main course, more to include dessert. Entree in France is an appetizer, which makes sense (the ‘entering’ plate). I wonder where it turned into main course in the United States.

I didn’t capture M’s entree, but snuck a picture of his main course of the day’s duck breast special with gratin dauphinois. The duck breast was slightly overcooked, to shame, while the potatoes were undercooked. It was lovely nonetheless, but we couldn’t help but have much heightened expectation in Paris.

My main course, on the other hand, was out of this world. A scrumptious piece of duck leg laid in my plate, crisp and golden. It came with a tiny ramekin of honey; poured on top of the leg and the golden liquid oozed slowly into the crevasses of the fried skin, giving the leg added sweetness and an almost nutty flavor. The skin crumbled like fall leaves at my bite, while the dark meat revealed itself in the most flavorful form, tender and juicy like harvest. It blew my tongue’s mind.

Even the salad and the fried potato slices were delicious. Simple, without many bells and whistles. But simple done well. I sucked the bones through of that duck leg, not exactly a very classy thing to do, especially in Paris. M watched me as I chowed down like a mountain lion, and could do nothing but sigh a very French sigh. But I simply didn’t care.

Les Philosophes | 28 Rue Vieille du Temple | Marais 4eme Paris 75004 | 01 48 87 49 64

Raw Scallop, Uni Tempura and Kimchi Ramen @ Namu Gaji

3 Jun

Hidden next to the always-busy Bi-Rite was this little hard-to-spot eatery. Namu Gaji, the rebirth of Namu back in Inner Richmond, had opened shop by Dolores Park in mid-April. The long rectangle space with an open kitchen and neatly stacked wooden tables tout Korean and Japanese style cuisine. Their produce sourced from local farms, including their very own. And the decor somehow reflects it: clean, rustic and unassuming.

The menu was categorized by preparation: broth, salad, crispy (fried), grill and ‘comfort’ – the belly-warming carby delights. While we were surveying the menu, the restaurant brought on small pickled vegetable assortments for our enjoyment. Kimchi, sesame tossed Chinese broccoli, and bean sprouts; all house-made. The kimchi had a nice texture, though missing the customary sweetness comes from Asian pear (often used in the kimchi-pickling process).

We started with a really lovely raw dish. The sliced scallops arrived on a glass plate looking like a neatly painted flower. It was a petit symphony of flavors. Tangy and sweet from the tangerine slices, sparks of heat from the red pepper. Sliced battera konbu gave way to a reminder of the ocean, all while the sliced scallop – trembling at touch then soft and embracing at taste – set up the perfect envelope for all the flavors. It was clean and vibrant like the first sunny day at sea.

Following the raw we had a crispy: fried uni wrapped in shiso and other tempura vegetables. Uni and I had been faithful for years, oh you yellow spoonful of the ocean’s essence. Any time, any where. If there is uni on the menu, I will order it. Uni and fois gras, but I digress. Yet this dish, with all my passionate hopes, had failed in the use of uni. I could barely taste it. Overpowered by the shiso, the batter, and the sauce atop – and probably fried for a bit too long – the uni became faint and shriveled. $12 piece of sadness. The ‘onion rings’ were nice though.

Our comfort came in the form of Namu Gaji’s limited-supply ramen, serving only 24 orders a day. A kimchi ramen (a popular stable back in the motherland, according to  my Korean companion) with some unconventional toppings: hot dog and panko-cursted then fried egg. Needless to say, we had high expectations. The egg was a great touch: the panko crust soaked up the broth nicely, yet still maintained its crunch. The center of the egg was of course gooey and delicious. Ah, my golden melty sunlight of joy. But everything else fell a bit short. The ramen itself needed a bit more work and springiness. Might be the kimchi and the hot dog, but the broth felt a little dead with saltiness. Hot dog was a fun idea, but I wasn’t sure this would be its place.

All in all, I thought Namu Gaji had great potential to be something truly wonderful. It was nice, but not quite enough. And at the price range offered, I felt that we should expect more. They were certainly capable of intricate flavor-building, manifested through the beautiful scallop dish. Maybe just more experimenting, and less hot dog.

Namu Gaji | 499 Dolores St. | San Francisco, CA | 415.431.6268

Stewed Tripe, Chicken Feet and Coffee Ribs (and more) @ Koi Palace

19 May

I had always wanted to go to Koi Palace. It was one of the legendary dim sum places everyone’s talked about. But being a total city girl without actual form of transportation, a restaurant outside the city limits could always be bit of a challenge. Thanks to my lovely roommate and her trusted Corolla: I was finally able to make the trip this past Sunday!

Warning: the wait was very, very long. They had a system fo walk-in’s and call-in’s, systematically displayed in the overhead screens. Underneath were mic’ed up front of house ladies, and a man making dragon’s beard candy as a form of guest entertainment. The wait area was cramped, with people of all ages and races, craning their necks impatiently next to the large water tanks filled with live sea creatures to be devoured. So close, they thought to themselves, to the luminous hall behind the arch, underneath the ornate cloud lanterns.

And everyone knew that the wait would be worth it. As soon as we sat down, the steaming carts came roaming. Cantonese ladies approached us one after the other, displaying buns and dumplings and many other delicacies hidden in the rolling metal cages of yum.

Dining with my Filipino roommate and her family meant, to start off, our orders were slightly out of the ordinary. First thing first: tripe stewed with daikon in herbed broth. Meaty, chewy yet soft at the same time, the rich flavor complimented by the cleanse of daikon: everything an offal lover enjoyed. We got two things of this.

A dim sum trip, for many, may not be complete without some shrimp dumplings and shu mai. For us, it was the chicken feet. Unlike the fried then steamed in red sauce variety often seen in Chinatown, Koi Palace prepared our delicate digits by stewing them in a nice flavorful broth, probably for an insanely long period of time. Because the skin and the tendons (what you eat with chicken feet) just falls right off when you suck on them, forming such deliciousness that, well, only select Asian people could appreciate – sadly. It was an acquired taste. Matt, in the blurred background, agreed.

It had come to my attention that no visit to Koi Palace would be considered authentic without an order (or three) of coffee ribs. Marinated in coffee grinds overnight, the ribs exuded such elegant flavor rarely found. They were fried to seal in the juices then steamed to tenderize the meat to a level of dreaminess. Do not leave without ordering. Ever.

We have also ordered scallion pancakes and steamed rolls. The scallion pancakes had more of an American pancake texture, soft and spongey.

The steamed rolls pictured here were referred to as “flower rolls” back in Taiwan. The dough was pulled into thin threads, then rolled together to form the shape seen here. Mega delicious eaten alone, or dipped in condensed milk.

For dessert, we had fried sesame balls: made with rice flower stuffed lotus seed paste, then covered in sesame before frying. Frying, such key in Chinese cuisine, more so than you’d think.

Last, but not in the very least, my absolute favorite dessert was douhua, a mildly sweet, extremely soft tofu. Transported in a giant metal can, our lady scooped out the trembling tofu into a giant bowl, then passing us, in a separate bowl, some ginger-infused syrup. It was like eating the finest custard with a sweetness of soy not often found in store-bought tofu cases. The syrup, cool with an enticing aroma, elevated to the clean flavor of the tofu without much disturbance. A must try.

There were many other dishes we ordered: shrimp dumplings, chive dumplings, soup dumplings and more. But I was too busy to stuff my face to make proper records of these small pockets of deliciousness. The impressiveness of Koi Palace continued even after we finished the meal. The expected feeling of greasiness-induced lethargy was not there. We were so full, yet so bright-eyed and alive at the same time. Like some odd magic spell of happiness (or of the Koi King). Long live the Koi King.

Koi Palace | 365 Gellert Blvd. | Daly City, CA 94105 | 650.992.9000

Fried Sweetbreads and Artichokes @ Locanda.

8 Apr


It was grey that evening, the pavements smelt vaguely of rain despite its dryness. From there we entered Locanda, a restaurant reminiscent of other renown Mission eateries: high ceiling, low lamps, paintings neatly stacked in giant frames against the tiled walls, open kitchen radiating a warm aroma that blankets you in. And per usual, my companion did not enjoy being photographed.

There we were greeted with drinks accented with fresh fruits (Piedmonte Punch was very fun) and a fresh board of foccacia; olive oil gathered in little navals of the sliced bread, enticing our taste buds.

As recommended, I had the fried sweetbreads and artichokes as my appetizer. And my, I had to thank my friend twice for his advice. Tender halves of artichoke hearts were the taste of spring mornings, gently enveloped in a delicious, almost airy, crisp. Tossed in the mix were the sweetbreads; they too resided in these perfectly seasoned golden pockets.. The sweetbreads were soft yet bouncy, with a salty creaminess that reminded me of steamed fish milt. Scattered were fried sage and capers, all consumed and without a trace.

For entree, I had the grilled lamb leg with chickpeas and lettuce. Lamb had never associated with the word ‘light’; yet somehow, this dish was exactly that. Pink, juicy slices rested on top of mashed chickpeas, adorned by pale emerald greens. It was flavorful yet delightfully refreshing at the same time. My only tiny hope would be for the lamb to be better seasoned; something to round off the slightly overwhelming gaminess.

Not photographed here was the prosciutto wrapped rabbit with gnocchi and grilled lettuce. Smoking rabbit, was it delicious. No matter which cuisine it is, nothing could quite go wrong with bacon-wrapped-meat.

It was a lovely meal. Not the rustic affair I had anticipated, but a simple, refreshing Californian twist on some old world components. There were small details here or there that could be a bit more balanced, but it had been a delightful experience. I may be back for the home-made pasta.

Locanda | 557 Valencia Street | San Francisco, CA 94110 | 415.863.6800

Wasabi Tonkotsu Ramen @ Ippudo.

11 Feb

“The wait will be roughly four and a half hours.” Said the lady with minimal expression, as if a smile could hurt every facial muscle she possessed. I could see the smily chefs down the dark tunnel leading to the dining room area, working away at producing bowls after bowls of could-only-be deliciousness. It had to be, the wait was four and a half hours long.

And so we wandered the city of New York, mainly the lower East Side. Bookstores, comic stores, the Christmas market, bars and coffee shops. Everywhere.

Not a hidden gem missed.

Four and actually fifty minutes later, we were in. In the spacious yet dimly lit room of huddled tables, leather-bound menus with too many options were passed around. The official word on the web recommended the classic Shiromaru Hakata Classic: the original Tonkotsu – ramen soaked in white, cloudy broth made of pork bones and fat. Danny claimed Akamaru to be the word – Tonkotsu topped with their secret ‘dama’, an additional sauce (the make-up depends on different restaurants) to be infused into the ramen broth.

Akamaru- Source: http://www.ippudony.com/

But I, always a sucker for Chef’s Specials, took the rebellious rout of Wasabi Tonkotsu. I may regret it later, I thought. Questioning my choice twice, thrice, four times as others took their turns to order. Yet, already in my mind’s  make-up, the idea of a rich white broth balanced by a subtle hint of the green root couldn’t possibly disappoint.

And it absolutely did not. An otherwise rich and sometimes too heavy pork broth was cleansed by the shavings of fresh wasabi roots. It was delightfuly clean without losing the body a Tonkotsu promised. The sprinkle of green onion provided an unexpected crunch, while the chashu – while thin – gave a burst of maximum pork favor. Swimming alongside was the extra-ordered onsen egg, softly poached to savor the golden yoke; no longer runny, yet still malleable – the ramen-optimal phase.

The noodles was where I brushed up on the holy grail. For the many, too many, bowls of ramen I have ingested in the San Francisco, the noodles always slurped up nicely at first but fell limp 2/3 ways down the meal. Not Ippudo’s. Perfectly springy, they became alive in my mouth like the most wonderful acrobat dancers, bouncy and full of life. For the 20 minutes it took me to finish the bowl, the noodles sustained their curves, never wavered even while I took time to admire other elements in the bowl.

It was an amazing meal. Not to say the fried shishito peppers dipped in yuzu salt – sweet, tangy, salty, mildly spicy – didn’t bring on a spring-filled surprise in a dark winter night; but the ramen stood supreme.

It was such a feel-good experience despite the near five-hour wait. A bowl of good ramen brought on this satisfaction nothing could quite compare. The only way to top this experience better may be if we were to ingest it Japanese businessmen style: standing, by the road, after way too much soju and chicken gizzard skewers.

On our way out, we passed the expressionless front-of-house again. Unphased against a group of growingly agitated men, I heard her calmly stated: “The wait will be roughly one hour. But by the time you get your table, the kitchen will be closed anyway.” I admire you, straight-shooter.

Ippudo | 65 Fourth Avenue | New York, NY 10003 | 212.388.0088

Redd.

17 Dec

It was a fall day in Yountville, where the air was crisp and the trees had turned a gorgeous palette of gold and red. Nothing about fall that didn’t make me want a stiff drink and warm food in my system. Along the street of the Thomas Keller franchise, Redd sat quietly by the stone mushroom garden, unassuming.

Seated at the bar, we were welcomed by quite the menu of fall drinks. Feeling daring, I had ordered a “Fall Fashion” – Bulleit bourbon, antica formula, butternut squash puree. That’s right, I had proper vegetable in my cocktail. It was smooth and almost earthy, with a faint kick of the bourbon that I so enjoyed. Recommended and thorough good pick on my part, I must say.

We had first a smoked salmon breakfast-style pizza. Eggs were soft scrambled florets graced by capers, thinly sliced chives and tiny dollops of creme fraiche. Sandwiched between signature pink-orange fish and the exceptional crisp pizza crust, this little dish was quite a treat.

On the fish-y extension, we had the yellowfin tuna tartare – tossed together with sweet asian pear dices, creamy avocado, and jasmine puff rice. Dressed in chili oil (and perhaps just a drop of sesame), it was absurdly refreshing.

Their signature steamed pork bun was a natural procession. Pork belly was fried crisp at the skin, but still fat and buttery at the meat, just how I like it. The bun had to be house-made, steaming doughy and soft as a baby’s butt. Yes, a baby’s butt. Sadly, the hoisin was drizzled a bit too generously on the bun; good thing the cucumber slaw backed it up a bit.

A surprise from the kitchen. Sous-chef Jacob Kossmann was testing out menu for his upcoming venture, Reddwood, a new Richard Reddington project to be opened come spring. A squid-ink pasta served cold, tossed in a clean yet creamy jalapeno avocado sauce with hints of cilantro. There was taste of lemon and fresh grass that came from the slightly under-ripe avocado. Mild heat underscore.  Squid ringlets were tenderly and perfectly cooked, the pasta al dente. A dish perfect for a hot summer day, maybe with a chilled sauvignon blanc. My favorite of the day.

As if that wasn’t enough, we also received a bonus little prawn tempura to round up this tasting trip. Nothing quite beat the sweetness of fried prawns. So sweet, so plump, so juicy. Fantastic with the red Sriracha aioli that, according to my notes at the time, “hits you in a good way”.

Really, if this was just the bar menu – I cannot wait to return for more. Perhaps for dinner. I wonder what magic awaits.

A special shout-out to Rob, our gracious host/bartender. A good man (and a not-so-secret Phish fan), thank you for making out visit so spectacular.

Redd | 6480 Washington Street | Yountville, CA 94599 | 707.949.2222

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