Category Archives: Food and Wine

The Easiest Soup Ever

Broccoli Soup with Spam
About a decade ago, before Gordon Ramsay was a household name here in the U.S. and before every video under the sun was available on Youtube, he had a show in the UK called Gordon Ramsay Makes it Easy. In one episode, he made a simple broccoli soup that really impressed me and it’s a recipe that I’ve revisited on several occasions over the years. The reason it was so impressive is because the soup was basically just 3 ingredients- broccoli, water, and salt, yet the end result was a soup with an elegant flavor and texture you might even call luxurious. It’s simple, delicious and versatile.

To make the soup, start by bringing some water to a boil with a little bit of salt. Drop in the broccoli florets and boil until they’re soft. Scoop them into your blender jar along with some of the cooking liquid. In terms of quantities, about 2 large stalks of broccoli will yield enough florets to fill my blender jar almost full, and for that amount, I would add enough water to go about halfway up the level of the broccoli. Cover the blender, but take the stopper out of the lid and cover with a towel. If you’ve never blended hot liquids before, do not take this step lightly because I don’t care how strong you are, you won’t be able to keep the lid on if the stopper is left in; if you don’t give it an opening to vent it will blow the top off the blender and cover your kitchen with broccoli. Even with the stopper out and a towel over the top, start with a few short pulses just to be safe before you allow it to really whirl. It should take less than 30 seconds to become soup-like. Just check the consistency and if it’s too thick for your taste, add some more of the cooking liquid and whizz it again. Add salt if it needs it, and then you’re done with the basic soup.

While it’s fine as-is, you will almost certainly want to chef it up a bit. Considering it’s basically nothing but the essence of broccoli, I find that it needs a little bit of fat and texture to elevate the satisfaction level and there are many different ways to get there. In Gordon Ramsay’s tv show, he finishes it with a some walnuts and a couple medallions of ash-rolled goat cheese. I’ve made a nice variation topped with fried garlicky bread crumbs. Or if you are insistent on keeping it fat-free, I once made it with toasted sliced almonds and it was really good too. But this weekend, I came up with my new favorite rendition, the one you see pictured at the top of this post. In true chef fashion, I was inspired by the fact that Spam was in season, i.e. on sale at H-Mart, so I decided to go with it. I did a brunoise of Spam (the low-sodium kind) and browned it up in a little olive oil with pimentón (Spanish smoked paprika) for a little smoky accent. And since I was feeling extra ambitious, before I served it, I actually ran the broccoli soup through a fine mesh sieve for an even silkier texture. That’s something I remember reading that they do in the French Laundry kitchen- whenever a liquid gets transferred from one container to another, they strain it through a chinois. It makes a noticeable difference. I was really happy with the end result- a nice color contrast, luxurious mouthfeel from the broccoli, a beautiful scent from the paprika, and of course the savory addictiveness that can only come from a processed meat product!

Taiwanese Mullet Roe

A few months ago I stopped by the Celebrate Taiwan event that was going on in Grand Central Terminal. They were trying to promote Taiwanese music, culture, and of course the food. I was particularly interested in checking out their dried mullet roe. The Italians have bottarga, the Japanese have Karasumi, but I had heard that the Taiwanese version was the best of the bunch. I was not disappointed. It was smoky, earthy and salty, kind of like a hard cheese that tasted of fish jerky. I posted a picture of it on Facebook at the time, and hadn’t really thought about it again until a couple of weeks ago. My old friend and 9-ball mentor Roger had seen my FB picture, happened to be in Taiwan this month, and lo and behold- a box of mullet roe arrived in my mail last week! Quite the unexpected surprise, especially since I probably haven’t seen Rog in about 15 years! I have the greatest friends. Thanks, Rog!

So tonight I decided to try it out. Here’s what the packaging looks like:
Mullet Roe boxMullet Roe package

And here’s what the product looks like when sliced:

Mullet Roe sliced

So what can you do with it? Well, with it’s inherent cheese-like character my first thought was to let funk play with funk, so I put together a riff on a traditional party hors d’oeuvre- bleu cheese crumbles on endive drizzled with white truffled honey and topped with shaved mullet roe:
Mullet Roe endive
This was just ok. This particular mullet roe is actually milder than the much saltier and smokier one I had tasted at the Grand Central event, so in retrospect, using a microplane to grate the roe wasn’t the best choice. The shavings were too fine, so it would have taken heaping mounds of it to stand up to the bleu cheese and white truffle. It was still a treat to eat, but didn’t allow the roe to shine.

Next up, a more traditional pairing with some egg on egg action. I made a chawanmushi by preparing a quick dashi, cooling it, mixed in some beaten eggs and then steamed it in a ramekin. Since I wanted bigger roe flavor this time, I abandoned the microplane and switched to a box grater to get some bigger chunks. This was, if I may say so myself, a great success:
Mullet Roe Chawanmushi

Even though my chawanmushi skills leave much to be desired (there were bubble holes on the surface from cooking too quickly I think), the flavor and texture were spot on, and the mullet roe funk was in full effect. With every spoonful, the custard would cleanse and reset the palate so that the bits of roe could follow up, bringing their intense flavor with full force. Pretty awesome.

Then it was time for something more substantial and so I went with another classic preparation- roe on pasta. Typically of course it would be bottarga on pasta, but essentially it’s the same thing with a different name. Granted bottarga might come from a different type of fish than what they use in Taiwan, but flavor-wise they’re aiming for the same dark, salty, smokey, fishy happy zone. Since I knew my palate was probably getting a bit desensitized from the big flavors in the first two dishes, I decided I needed to ramp things up even more for the finale. I ditched the box grater and just used my pairing knife to shave and dice the roe so I could create even bigger chunks. While the spaghetti was boiling, I decided to go even bolder by frying up some capers. When the pasta was cooked, I drizzled it with olive oil, sprinkled on some truffle salt that Ricky and Kathy gave me as a gift, and tossed it with the capers and mullet roe. With all those good ingredients, I think you can imagine how great this tasted!
Mullet Roe spaghetti

There’s a reason pasta and bottarga are such a classic combo. The neutrality of the pasta adds just enough substance and texture to carry the flavor of the roe so that it can linger on your tongue longer with each forkful. In my rendition, the truffle aroma added an extra dizzying dimension while the fried capers brought a floral counterpoint that helped keep the intense flavors from becoming overwhelming, i.e. it made me want to eat more and more instead of just blowing out my palate in a few bites.

Thanks again to Rog for the surprise gift, and for it giving me the inspiration to get my lazy ass back in the kitchen to cook again!

Elm

It’s been a while since I’ve been impressed enough by a restaurant that I felt compelled to write again, but after several trips up to Connecticut to dine at Elm I have been sufficiently wowed. Located on a quaint downtown street in New Canaan, Elm has a modern but elegantly casual feel to it. My favorite spot to dine is at the counter seats in the back from which you get this view into the open kitchen:
Elm kitchen

It’s a real pleasure to watch the team at Elm work. The kitchen is led by chef/owner Brian Lewis (not in the picture above), who’s food I first encountered way back in 2009 when he was doing a pasta demo at a tasting event. Back then, he was representing Richard Gere’s restaurant, the Farmhouse at Bedford Post (another one of my absolute favorites) where he was the original chef. I was impressed by him then and even more so now. At Elm, he’s assembled a kitchen staff that really cares about what they do. And I know this because I have been there on multiple occasions when Chef Lewis had the night off and I still witnessed the highest level of care and attention to detail under the direction of sous chef Devin Broo. Every plate was wiped of fingerprints with tiny squares of napkin they keep at the ready just for that purpose, almost as meticulous as the way Momofuku Ko wipes down plates using drops of vodka. Seeing the Elm team work reminds me of Paul Newman’s line from The Hustler when he’s describing how any activity can be elevated to greatness, “if a guy knows. If he knows what he’s doing and why and if he can make it come off.” Everyone in that kitchen, including the dishwasher, seems to work with that sense of pride and purpose. The kitchen space itself is spacious and bright, and the team moves about it with a calm efficiency reminiscent of how Charlie Trotters’ kitchen used to hum.

From a kitchen that polished you’d expect the food to be world class, and it certainly is. The ever changing menu is of the farm to table variety but not in an obnoxious crunchier-than-thou sort of way. The printed menu won’t list the provenance of every ingredient on the plate like some restaurants do these days. The descriptions are straightforward, clean and elegant, just like the kitchen. Consider them confidently understated, because without fail when the dishes arrive before you, they are artfully plated masterpieces to behold, and they are even more pleasurable to eat. Take for example this dish of “Glazed Spring Vegetables”:
Elm Glazed Spring Vegetables

It is perhaps the quintessential Elm dish. It treats the incredible ingredients with greatest of care and respect, elevating and accenting them with a rich buttery nage and laced with a drizzle of honey. Every element on that plate was spectacular, especially those baby radishes which were ridiculously juicy. The richness of the dish speaks to Elm’s approach of making things delicious first and foremost. Yes it’s a farm to table restaurant, but they are cooking to satisfy a foodie’s palate, not a hippie’s consciousness. That’s my kind of sensibility.

With this approach there are no cultural boundaries to constrain them. So you may have Japanese flavors of yuzu and ginger mignonette over raw oysters for one app and follow that up with the Thai curry broth in these mussels:
Elm Thai Curry Mussels

And then jump over to France with this, possibly the most brilliantly conceived and executed presentation of foie gras I’ve ever tasted:
Elm Foie Gras

It’s a dish of seared foie with sherry lentil jus, spiced rhubarb, and the kicker- crushed bits of smoked macadamia nuts. Lentils are the perfect element to add substance to each bite of foie because they give you just enough of something to chew while being subtle enough in flavor not to interfere with the star of the show. The rhubarb of course brings the sweetness and acidity you need in any good foie dish. But the eye opener for me was the smoked macadamias. I never knew that foie gras could be elevated by the addition of smoke, but now I do and I will never be the same. It provides you with a hit of smoky pleasure and interest right up front as you take your bite, just before the wave of richness from the foie washes over you as it melts on your tongue. Just an awesome dish. Just an awesome restaurant.

New and Noteworthy: SakaMai

sakamai_eggs_cropped

The anticipation began when I learned that George Kao, who some of you may know from his workshops at the Japanese Culinary Center, was part of a team opening SakaMai, a new sake lounge in the Lower East Side. George is a guy whose palate I really respect, and in fact he was the one who first turned me onto Kajitsu which went on to become one of my favorite restaurants in NYC (until the chef departed for greener pastures earlier this year, but I digress). So as soon as I heard he was involved with SakaMai my expectations were elevated by several notches. And now, after having visited it for the first time I’m pleased to report it lives up to everything I was hoping it would be.

Apparently they’ve had about a week of a soft opening with the official grand opening scheduled for tonight, but since I had been checking OpenTable daily, I lucked into seeing that a bunch of seatings opened up for last night so I grabbed the reservation and called up my skinny friend who can eat a lot to be the perfect partner for properly attacking the menu. Now the downside of most soft openings is that the menu is usually limited and the service is uneven, but at SakaMai, perhaps since this was the final night of a week-long soft opening, I found that the menu had ample selections and the service was actually excellent by any standards.

When you first enter, even before you get to the hostess station there is a rather spacious area with a couple of tables and high stools which are every bit as comfortable as the seats in the main room. The decor is what you’d expect of a higher end sake lounge; think dim lighting and walls of stone/exposed brick with a modern feel. On this night, the hostess station was presided over by two uber-attractive people, I think their names were Yasu and Jess, who were dressed like classy fashionistas while greeting you with a respectful friendliness and sincerity I consider to be very Japanese. It was the first of what would be consistently excellent service across the board, right down to the guy bussing the tables. Beyond the hostess station is the main room which is basically a long single row of tables with comfortable bench seating along the wall side and chairs on the aisle side. But enough about the decor, I know you want to know about the food and bev.

We had a mild-mannered Maboroshi sake by the glass to begin the night. From there we moved on to two tasting flights of three sakes each. The first was three different daiginjo offerings from Dassai, the 23, 39, and 50. The numbers represent the percentage of the rice grain that is left after polishing before they use it to make sake. Typically the lower the number, the cleaner and more subtle the flavor. With these however, I found the 39 to be even fuller in flavor with a bigger finish than even the 50. It was my favorite of the trio. Of the major sake producers, I’ve always found Dassai to be one of the best. Whenever I open a sake menu and am confounded by the number of choices, Dassai is almost always my go-to because I enjoy everything I’ve tasted from them. But this was the first time I’ve ever been able to sample the 23, 39 and 50 all side by side. It’s a solid flight which should suit most everyone’s palates so I hope they keep it on the menu forever. Our second flight was of my favorite style of sake, “nama” or unpasteurized. These were nama-genshu, so they were higher in alcohol. I should point out that our waiter did a fine job of explaining details like that. Of that flight, two of my faves were on there- the Born and an offering from Kikusui (who those that know me well should recognize as the brand that produces the sake-in-a-can which I love so much). I love nama sakes and I hope in the future SakaMai will rotate in flights of seasonal ones so I can continue to explore them, just like I do at one of my other regular haunts, Wasan.

So what to eat with these amazing sakes? We had a wide assortment of small plates and was pleased by all of them. The skate wing chips were like a more elegant version of the spicy dried cuttlefish that I grew up loving. If you opt to drink beer instead of sake, I would say these chips should be your default choice. The trio of oysters were kumamotos and my favorite of the three was of course the one topped with creme fraiche and caviar, but the one with yuzu foam was quite nice as well. The dish of bone marrow with steak tartare gets a thumbs up too, but more so for the bone marrow than the tartare. The bone was split lengthwise, which in my opinion is the only right way to do it because of easier access to the fatty morsels of delight inside. The tartare while well-seasoned, just didn’t seem to have anything that would make you go wow, unlike most of the other things on the menu. One other dish, the pork buns, I thought were just ok too; decent fatty pork, but generally unspectacular especially in a city where you can find a lot of great baos. But what was spectacular was the charwan mushi (savory japanese egg custard). I’ve had a lot of great charwan mushi in my day, with probably my favorites being from Lan which no longer exists, and Dieci, which was opened by the Lan folks. But oftentimes the charwan mushi experience is augmented by things like truffle or mushroom slices adorning the top. That’s kind of like cheating with bacon or butter. Well at SakaMai, there’s no cheating, well not with garnishes anyway. The proof is in the pudding, so to speak. What you get is a little teacup sized serving of nothing other than the custard topped with its dashi gelee. But oh what a custard! Why? Because it is permeated by the unctuous flavor of foie gras. The chef has done it with a very balanced hand such that if you didn’t read the menu, you might not even realize that’s what’s in it. You would only realize it was mysteriously satisfying and over-the-top delicious. It’s the best dish on the menu in my opinion. Visually, though, the stunner was the dish called “Egg on Egg on Egg”, featuring uni and caviar over scrambled eggs, served in an uni shell. Super decadent and it tasted every bit as amazing as it looks. I wonder if they will possibly get the larger and slightly sweeter uni from Santa Barbara for this dish in the future. If they did, I would probably have to change my rankings and give this dish the nod over the charwan mushi, but it would be close.

We rounded out the night lingering over a bottle of the Dassai 39 and ordering a couple more dishes- the kampachi sashimi and the octopus, both nice offerings, but paled in the afterglow of my charwan mushi/uni/caviar eggstacy. I will definitely return and can see this becoming one of my regular weekend destinations. SakaMai officially opens tonight and I think they’re off to a terrific start. I thoroughly enjoyed my first visit and can’t wait to see what pleasures the full menu will have in store for us.

Birthday!

My big birthday weekend started with drinks on Friday night at FriendHouse (the new re-location of FriendHouse that is, in the spot formerly known as Hea). I love their lemon-gin mojitos with Asian plum salt on the rim. A bunch of my friends came out and a good time was had by all. Hing was his usual entertaining self, at one point schooling an uber-polite NYU student in the ways of the Dawg (i.e. being a jerk instead of calling people sir and saying thank you and please). Pure comedy, and loud comedy at that.

It was a fun but relatively mellow night since we needed to get some sleep before our trip to A.C. the next morning. And even though we got up by 8:30 on Saturday, apparently it wasn’t early enough to beat the traffic on the Garden State Parkway. I wonder who the genius was that decided it would be a good idea to do construction on 20 miles of the Parkway in the middle of summer. Fortunately for me, it was my bday and I didn’t have to drive. Kat was an absolute saint, cheerfully doing the whole drive while Ricky was passed out feeling nauseous from the after-effects of FriendHouse.

We finally arrived at our destination, Renault Winery in Egg Harbor. But we weren’t there for the wine, we were there for the golf! Kat had done some research and discovered this course, conveniently just 15 miles from The Borgata. It sounded cool, and it did not disappoint. Really beautiful despite some browned out patches which were to be expected given the heat and lack of rain in the past several weeks. A couple of the holes ran alongside and even through the vineyard! It was a fun course to play and very fair in terms of how penal it was to miss the fairway. While there weren’t many trees, there were thick patches of gnarly grasses which if you hit into, you pretty much have a 50/50 chance of finding and being able to play your way out. The best part in my opinion was the greens, many of which were large, and most of which were multi-tiered. It really forced you to look at the shape of the green before attempting your approach shot or chipping on. I also found the greens to roll perfectly true which made dealing with putting from tier to tier more fun than frustrating. I suppose it helped that I was with some of my closest friends and the weather was perfect, but all told, I’d say it was one of the most enjoyable golf experiences I’ve ever had.

After the round, we rushed right over to The Borgata where we had dinner reservations at Old Homestead. I know I’ve written about it before, but it’s worth restating- I still feel it is one of the best steakhouses around. The steak au poivre is always excellent, and I should know since I’ve probably had it twenty times by now. Twoin ordered the prime rib this time and that was also fantastic. While we’re doling out the superlatives, it should be mentioned that Twoin thought it was the best prime rib he’d ever had and I totally agree. It was about 2 inches thick and had to be about a foot wide, and perfectly medium rare. Juicy and fatty in a good way, with a deliciously salty gentle sear around the outer edge. Man, what a slab of goodness.

After dinner it was blackjack all night and all morning for me. Wild swings in bankroll, but nothing I’m not used to. After riding out a tremendously horrid streak of bad cards, I rode out the storm and managed to go to bed up a few hundred bucks. Then after a little nap, I went back to the tables in the morning to win a bit more. It’s nice to leave The Borgata a winner, especially when they refused to comp me a room on my birthday! But even if I didn’t win money I would still have felt like a winner, thanks to my friends that made the trip to celebrate my birthday. Especially a big thanks to Kat for organizing the whole weekend and for driving through that horrendous traffic jam. It was such a fun time and I can’t wait to play Renault Winery again. Who knew that turning another year older could be so enjoyable?

Kajitsu

Maybe it’s because I miss the great food in St. Barth so much, but since I got back I’ve been eating out like crazy. With treats like pork belly at Pulino’s or Kobe at BLT Steak, it’s been a dizzying couple weeks of rich and naughty foods that have left me feeling in need of a food detox. So what better way to right the ship than with a nice 8 course meal? There is a catch of course, in that the meal was at Kajitsu, a vegetarian restaurant. Yes, you read that right- I voluntarily went to a vegetarian restaurant! But with raves from two of the impeccable palates over at Dudes On Foods, including one review when Ferran Adria was in the house, I was pretty confident that I was going to enjoy myself despite the lack of meat.

I was seated at the bar where I would have a great front row seat to observe Chef Masato Nishihara apply his craft. If you’ve been to the dessert bar Chikalicious, the scene will feel familiar. You can tell that a lot of intricate preparation had been done well before service as you observe the trays and tupperware containers the chef pulls out of the lowboy refrigerator containing all kinds of savory gelees, pristine vegetables, and a thrilling variety of fascinating edible garnishes. Chef Nishihara assembles each dish with a deft touch and an eye for aesthetics. The whole concept behind Kajitsu is shojin cuisine, which I understand to be the culinary embodiment of Zen Buddhist ideals. So it really isn’t just about fresh seasonal ingredients. Things like the lighting, the scent of the restaurant and the beauty of the pottery all play a role in the dining experience. There’s definitely an element of culture integrated into every aspect, and that’s a big reason why a dinner at Kajitsu feels like so much more than just a meal.

The first course was this chilled white asparagus with cucumber, green yuzu and almonds:

Kajitsu White Asparagus

The flavor was a lot more delicate than the dish looks because that mound of green sauce over the asparagus is, I believe, grated Japanese cucumber. The first word that comes to mind is fresh. The mild herbaceous quality of the sauce made it seem so alive, and yet it didn’t overwhelm the subtle flavor of the asparagus. To add a more assertive flavor component, this candied green plum with plum gelee was served alongside:

Kajitsu Green Plum

The plum gelee is just like something you’d expect at Chikalicious. It was so bright in flavor but not overly sweet. The plum itself was softer in texture than I expected. Ok, it was actually mushy, but that just made it easier to squeeze the pit out. I really enjoyed the plum but found it kind of an unusual accompaniment to the asparagus because you couldn’t really eat them together. The plum for me was more of a palate cleanser.

Next was the soup course. Here is the red miso soup with grilled eggplaint:

Kajitsu Red Miso

While it was nearly 90 degrees in NY, this hot soup was still a very welcome course. The eggplant you see in the middle is actually a little bundle of eggplant pieces tied together with a thread of mitsuba. The miso broth was deep and earthy and no, it wasn’t too salty. It was a soul satisfying soup, the kind that you sip slowly as you serenely contemplate on life. Yeah, I think there was some sort of Zen thing starting to happen and Chef Nishihara’s food was the catalyst.

Next up, a mountain yam and azuki bean cake with grilled baby corn and a cup of parsley root soup:

Kajitsu bean cake, baby corn and parsley root soup

The cake was the texture of a cheesecake but had an extremely subtle savory flavor to it. It was definitely more of a delicate textural pleasure than a taste bud dazzler. The big flavor came from the grilled baby corn. The first taste sensation was the gentle toastiness from the grilling but as I continued chewing, the brilliant flavor of corn just burst through. Imagine that, corn that tastes like corn! It’s like I was just reminded of what the flavor of corn really is. Fantastic. The parsley root soup was also a wonder. Mainly I was wondering how the heck the broth could possibly taste that good without any animal product! It had an almost milky mouth feel to it which usually you only get from broths made from marrow bones. Whatever this chef is doing, it’s pretty special.

Next I was served the noodle course, a soba in chilled broth:

Kajitsu soba

Yes, those are fine slices of okra you see! There was a lot more going on in this dish than it appears. Those little reddish specks floating in the broth are super finely diced bits of miyoga, sort of a mild herbaceous oniony vegetable, one of my favorite Japanese ingredients. In addition, you can clearly see a shiso leaf and the oh so amazing tiny cubes of white soy gelee on top. I tasted a bit of the gelee on its own to see if it might be really salty, but of course it wasn’t. Nothing about any of the courses at Kajitsu is ever out of balance. What you can’t make out in the photo is that there was also jicama, shishito pepper, a hint of ginger and a paper thin slice of peeled lemon. The lemon was soft in texture and bright on the palate without being too assertively sour. It was a surprisingly awesome match with the soba. Just brilliant.

But to really have balance, you gotta have a little something fried to go with all this healthy stuff, don’t you? Of course you do, so here was Kajitsu’s tempura course:

Kajitsu tempura

The tempura veggies were porcini mushrooms and cabbage. As you can probably guess, they were perfect- crispy while being impossibly light and not at all greasy. With them are simply grilled shishito peppers and pattypan squash. The stuff on the wooden stick is a seasoned miso paste which has been lightly grilled. You’re supposed to scrape off a bit of the miso and eat it with the grilled turnip and nama-fu pieces you see behind the stick. I’m not exactly sure what the miso was seasoned with but I was getting almost floral and citrusy notes from it. Mysterious and delicious.

The next course looked kind of boring on the menu, but it turned out to be my favorite. More or less just a simple bowl of rice:

Kajitsu rice

Yes, it really is just rice with a few peas. For garnish there’s a little dish of dried wakame seaweed flakes which you can sprinkle over the top, plus you get a little dish of Japanese pickles. I find it hard to explain why this dish was my favorite, but it just was. The rice was moister than you’d expect and sticky enough to pick up in clumps with chopsticks. The peas were naturally perfectly cooked, tender but still with a satisfying crispness and a gentle sweetness. The wakame flakes added just enough salt to animate every mouthful. Nothing in each element would seem to wow you, but when eaten together, the textures and flavors are so fulfilling. And that’s a very interesting thing about this meal- even without meat, I felt completely satisfied. In fact this was the point in my meal where it dawned on me that I hadn’t even thought about meat the entire time. And to take it a step further, at that moment I viscerally understood why meat was not a part of this type of cuisine. I just can’t imagine any meat dish being this elegant and capturing this level of subtle, almost mystical refinement and spirituality. I think I was starting to get what Jose Andres meant in a recent 60 Minutes when he said that meat is overrated and that fruits and vegetables are what’s really sexy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a raging carnivore for life, but I feel like I have now seen a level of grace and sophistication from this meal that just wouldn’t be possible with any menu containing animal protein. It just seems that any plate with meat on it is going to appear clumsy and oafish in comparison to the kind of food that Kajitsu is serving. I know it sounds crazy, but that’s really what I was thinking as I was enjoying that magnificent bowl of rice.

To end the meal was a simple red bean jelly, two finely crafted Japanese candies and a cup of Schincha green tea:

Kajitsu dessert

Like most Asian desserts, the red bean jelly wasn’t too sweet. But for those of you who do like a sugar charge at the end of a meal, the candies by Kyoto Suetomi might do the trick. Very elegant and refined, just like the rest of the meal.

I should point out that this meal wasn’t cheap, at $70 for the 8 course menu (a 4 course menu is also available for $50), plus $34 if you opt for the sake pairings. So you’re probably thinking “$70 for vegetables?!” But come on, that works out to less than $9 per course! That’s more than reasonable for the quality and variety of ingredients and the incredible finesse and care that goes into each preparation.

It’s hard not being a little self-conscious as you take in an experience like this. The stuff is so obviously on another level you can’t help but question yourself. Do you like it because it really is great? Or is it that if you don’t like it then it reflects poorly on your level of taste and sophistication because you can’t appreciate it? This is what I imagine it would be like to go to the opera and actually enjoying it. That’s what was running through my mind as I started the meal, as I observed how meticulously every detail was executed. Not just the work going into the food, but the flawless yet unobtrusive service, the selection of plates, bowls and sake glasses, even the way the little slivers of paper used as coasters were folded in a very precise manner. Was I going to like this opera because I’m supposed to? Well, the true measure of the success of Kajitsu is that by somewhere around the third course, I was no longer the self-conscious observer; I was completely in the moment and fully engaged in the experience. And by the time I had that transcendent bowl of rice, I think I was pretty much in another world.

St. Barts, A Food Lover’s Paradise

I finally made my first trip to Saint-Barthélemy (aka St. Barts, aka St. Barths depending where you’re from) thanks to the occasion of Jeannie and Brian’s wedding. As far as destination weddings go, I don’t think you could have picked a better location. The scenery is beautiful, the people are welcoming, and best of all, the food is fantastic everywhere on the island.

The trip into St. Barths is thrilling in itself. The airport consists of a very short runway tucked behind a hill and ending at the beach. So all incoming planes have to basically come in low over the hill and cut the engines so they can descend quickly enough to catch the runway. Once on the runway the plane needs to stop right away in order to avoid ending up on the beach or in the sea. The pilot then has to pull an immediate u-turn to head back to the gate which you passed on the way down. It’s as crazy as it sounds, and that’s why pilots have to have a special certification to be allowed to land at that airport. Search Youtube and you’ll find some good videos of landings, both successful and not!

The great thing is that once you’ve landed, you’re in St. Barts! No long lines at the airport, no long drive to get where you’re going. The island is so small that once you hop in your rental car you are minutes from wherever you want to go- your hotel, the beach, and of course the restaurants. Oh the restaurants…

The thing about St. Barts is that it is a French territory so you are surrounded by great cuisine everywhere you turn. Here are a few of versions of foie gras I enjoyed:

Foie Gras at Eden Rock

The above was at Eden Rock, once of the pricier restaurants on the island, but we were only there for foie gras and drinks.

Foie Gras at Bonito

This was at Bonito, a new restaurant on St. Barts. I don’t remember exactly what the dumpling like thing at the bottom of the skewers were. Blame it on the fact that it was the sixth meal of the day for me so things were kind of a blur by that point. Also I was much less interested in that foie gras as this one was the highlight at Bonito:

Foie Gras with Pumpkin Ravioli at Bonito

It’s a seared foie gras over pumpkin ravioli. A brilliant combination as the pumpkin had just the right delicate level of sweetness, not as overbearing as the syrupy sauce you often find served with foie.

A recurring theme on menus all across St. Barts is the freshest of fish prepared simply, usually some sort of white fish like wahoo or mahi mahi, and often served in tartare or ceviche preparations. Maya’s is reknowned and beloved for specializing in just that sort of refined simplicity. Check out Maya’s ceviche and her asparagus salad:

Ceviche at Maya's

Asparagus Salad at Maya's

And here’s Wall House’s take on raw fish, with a nice little accent of gari, the pickled ginger you usually get with sushi. Makes so much sense as an accompaniment, I’m surprised we don’t see it more often.

Wall House tartare

And here’s the ceviche sampler at Bonito with some very interesting garnishes. That’s mango and watermelon on the left, pine nuts in position two, seaweed salad in the third slot, and popcorn and sweet potato on the right.

Bonito ceviches

Beautiful raw preparations weren’t limited to fish either. At La Route des Boucaniers we had this magnificent pair of raw beef dishes:

Carpaccio at La Route des Boucaniers

Steak tartare at La Route des Boucaniers

The quality of the beef was magnificent in both dishes, but the carpaccio could have used another salty component. The steak tartare did have that component in the form of capers and it worked beautifully. Definitely the best steak tartare I’ve ever had, it was well seasoned without overwhelming the flavor of the beef. Quite a generous portion too I might add, yet wolfing the whole thing down it never felt like a heavy dish. It was just perfect in both flavor and texture, it may have been my favorite plate of the entire trip.

Another must-visit eatery on the island is La Creperie which as you’d expect, specializes in crepes. They do both savory and sweet, but I opted for this gem featuring lemon, honey and almonds and a scoop of lemon sorbet. So good.

Lemon Twist at La Creperie

It’s not just the French food, but even things like burgers are great here. Just ask Jimmy Buffett who wrote Cheeseburger In Paradise after being inspired by the burger at the St. Barts institution called Le Select. I of course had to try one and naturally I got bacon on mine:

Le Select Bacon Cheeseburger

Ok, I know what you’re thinking, “where’s the beef?”, right? Well I’d agree, the patty could have been a little more substantial, but hey, it was only about 7€, probably my cheapest meal on the island (St. Barts is expensive, even with the Euro collapsing). It was a decent burger but I don’t know if it would have inspired me to write a song about it. Elsewhere on the island however, you can get this burger which will in fact make you want to break into song and dance:

Burger at La Route des Boucaniers

It’s a cheeseburger from La Route des Boucaniers. Just look at it. Simple, not gimmicked up in any way. Just a perfectly cooked patty of beef with cheese melted just right and a lightly toasty bun. Classic and delicious, which is a good way to describe much of the food on island.

Nowhere was this classicism more evident than in the desserts. Meringue used to be popular back in the hay day of French haute cuisine. These days, in New York anyway, you just won’t see classic French meringue desserts anymore because nobody wants their menu to appear outdated. But you know, these things are classics for a reason- because they’re goddamn delicious! Example number one, a Vacherin at La Route des Boucaniers:

Vacherin at La Route des Boucaniers

A vacherin is a baked meringue shell filled with whatever goodies you want. My favorites are like this one, filled with a berry compote, but they are also great when filled with mousse. La Route kind of unnecessarily gilds the lily by covering it all with whipped cream, but I’m not complaining.

But perhaps the ultimate throwback was this beautiful classic from The Wall House restaurant:

Oeufs A La Neige at Wall House

It’s the Floating Island, or perhaps better known by its more attractive French name, Oeufs a la Neige which means “snow eggs”. The meringue is soft and cloud-like, floating on a pool of creme anglaise. It’s a dish I don’t think I’ve even heard mentioned since the 80’s, but so satisfying and fun to eat it makes me wonder why we have written it off. All I know is it makes me happy that they proudly serve this sort of food in St. Barts. In fact, most everything about St. Barts makes me happy. It’s my kind of paradise, one that has foie gras and steak tartare. 🙂