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.

Running

Brooklyn Half Marathon

It’s been quite a while since I’ve blogged! Mainly it’s because so many of my posts were food related and food blogging had just become so overdone. There’s a lot less motivation to write about stuff when everybody and their grandmothers, literally, are writing about the same thing and often doing it poorly. Not a crowd I really want to be identified with if you know what I mean. Besides, I’m always more juiced by activities that still have a sense of subculture about them. 9-ball, cooking, BJJ and poker all were obsessions of mine but each during periods before they became overexposed mainstream clich├ęs. Don’t get me wrong, they all still hold some interest for me, and likewise I’m sure I’ll still write about food from time to time, but only when the mood strikes me. It’ll just be fewer and farther between. Basically, I just hope to never end up on picsofaznstakingpicsoffood.tumblr.com!

So what have I been up to recently? Running! It’s another pastime that is on the upswing but thankfully hasn’t reached critical mass yet. Even though the Brooklyn Half Marathon last week had 16,000 entrants, there was still a sense of community between runners, a feeling that you’re sharing an experience that the rest of the world just doesn’t get. Running seems like a perfect hobby for me. It’s challenging, there’s a measurable way to gauge progress, there are equipment choices I can spend hours deliberating and there’s a vast amount of super interesting things to learn.

I just started running at the end of February, but like with most activities, the greatest amount of progress happens during the early learning stages. When I started, I couldn’t run more than a few blocks and I hated it. Two months later I was able to complete the BK Half, but ok, I still hated it. Hated the actual running/suffering that is. But actually finishing brought a feeling of absolute elation. It’s a lot like how I trained BJJ actually. I didn’t enjoy the actual rolling like others did because for me the focus was always inward- fighting the ever impending onset of fatigue. But the satisfaction of working through that exhaustion to pull off a technique and nail a submission was unparalleled. Chasing that feeling was what kept me motivated and that’s the same thing I feel with running right now.

I’m not a fast runner, as I ran the BK Half with an average pace of 9:57 per mile. According to the NY Road Runners’ stats for the race, that puts me below average for my age group. And btw, big props to NYRR for being kick-ass when it comes to organizing races. It’s so impressive how they can coordinate logistics for races every week with such efficiency. They usually even have the finishing times and stats posted on their website by the time I get home from each race! They also partner with Brightroom Event Photography so that there are usually a few pictures of you taken along the course. It’s not really worth it to buy the pictures because they charge a whopping $25 per photo, but it’s still nice to check out the thumbnails up on their site after each race. Not that I look very good as a runner. My posture and technique is still horribly awkward but I’m trying to improve. It also doesn’t help that I have more of a wrestler’s build than that of a runner. I’d like to think I have a powerful looking trunk, but really I just have a big ass. I got a chance to see my running form in a Brightroom video clip from the Brooklyn Half and it made me think of Predator lumbering through the forest. Clearly I have a lot to work on!

My training for the Brooklyn Half was not very structured. I just ran whenever I wasn’t busy, the weather was decent and my legs weren’t sore. That amounted to about 3 days a week. I was roughly trying to follow a 10 week training schedule I found on the web, but I ended up missing days left and right, so I just settled for trying to do the long run for each week plus a couple of 4 mile days in between. It was going really well up to about week 7 and I even managed an 11 mile training run without getting totally gassed. Unfortunately the last two weeks before the race we had lots of rain and my weekly mileage went waaay down. As a result, I felt I had peaked too soon and entered the race quite a bit undertrained. It’s interesting, looking at my training log I see that I only did a total of 26 hours of running from the day I picked up the hobby to the day of the BK Half. But it doesn’t matter because even though my time wasn’t fast, I managed to finish the race and that was my only goal.

In addition to the joy of finishing a race, one of the things I love best about running is that there are so many cool things that I can research and shop for. So while running doesn’t actually require anything more than a pair of sneakers, that hasn’t prevented me from spending all kinds of money on miscellaneous gear. Heart rate monitor, moisture wicking apparel, foam rollers, compression sleeves, energy gels, nutritional supplements, running books on my Kindle, and the list goes on. I actually just got another pair of sneakers today too, the Saucony Kinvara 3. What can I say, it’s just too much fun to shop for this stuff! And more than anything, it’s just really enjoyable to have a new activity to immerse myself in.

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?

Simon Says…Cry At My Movie

Simon Yam at the NYAFF

Simon Yam was in town yesterday introducing his film Echoes of The Rainbow at the NY Asian Film Festival. The guy is a legend, a true icon of Hong Kong cinema. He’s been in the game for over 30 years and played every kind of character but is probably best known for his badass cop and gangster roles. So this movie was a slight departure for him, playing a poor shoemaker struggling to provide for his wife and two sons in 1960’s Hong Kong. In his intro, Simon told us about his own childhood when his father would sometimes hit him seemingly for no good reason, and he couldn’t understand his father’s love until he was much older. This echoes the part of the movie where his character takes a hand to the younger son, and because of that scene and so many others that were really personal to him, he felt that out of all the movies he’s ever done, this one was the closest to his heart. He said to break out the tissues because we’d need them by the end of the film. And yes, he was right.

But it turns out, as strong as Simon Yam’s performance is, the one who really makes the movie is Buzz Chung, the child actor who plays “Big Ears”, the mischievous younger son who walks around with a fish bowl over his head pretending to be an astronaut when he’s not busy misbehaving. Whether he’s making you laugh, making you well up with tears, or just looking adorable going about his business, he absolutely steals every scene he’s in. I think that every great movie you see, you leave the theater with certain images that linger in your mind. Those are the images that will forever spring to mind whenever you think of the film. And if the movie was really affecting, as this one was, recalling those images will instantly trigger emotions in you. In this film, as gorgeous as the cinematography was, I find that all the images that have stuck with me in that way are vignettes of the expressive little Buzz Chung. Perhaps the most memorable for me was the scene of Big Ears running home after school only to find the family shoe store closed. He may have been too young to really understand why, but he knew instantly that something was very wrong, and his look of abject fear and desperation captured the direness of the situation in a very powerful way.

I admit I may have been particularly moved by this film because I see a bit of myself in the Big Ears character. Though I don’t think I was ever that naughty, my family always called me kwai doy which is Toisanese for mischievous boy, so maybe I was, I dunno. And I definitely saw a little bit of my mom in scenes when Big Ears’ mom would say things like “I just wish he’d behave” with a heavy sigh, but also with a little bit of a smirk. I didn’t really understand or appreciate it as a kid, but growing up in a Chinese family, and maybe especially because it was a Toisanese family, I was being instilled with the idea that having struggles are part of what make life rich. And the smirk comes from knowing that dealing with a son that’s a little bit of a rascal is a relatively good kind of struggle to have. It’s actually one of the themes of the movie- that life is supposed to be half good, half bad. And my own takeaway from it is that if you can embrace the bad, well, then it’s all good. And for me, this movie was definitely all good.

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.