Sunday, February 20, 2011

Izakaya: おいしいですね!

Sashimi with a shiso leaf & pickled plum

Becoming a chef often involves boldly going where you've never gone before, trying new flavors and old flavors in new combinations. This can mean traveling to far-off lands, chasing down unique or even bizarre restaurants and trying things just because you have no idea of what they'll taste like.

In the interest of exploration in the best tradition of Portuguese marinheiros, I went to The Open Door in Monterey Park. The food, izakaya, is a series of small plates. Something you might call Japanese tapas. So you can try all kinds of flavors and permutations in a single meal, and walk away not too much heavier than when you entered. Some of the weight is imported Japanese microbrew beers. Exploration should not, after all, be limited to food alone.

Just about everyone has probably had edamame. They sell them at Costco. Green soybeans in their pods that you heat and eat, typically salty, washed down with beer. Did you ever ask the question, "What would happen if you used truffle butter and sautéed them?". No? Neither did I. However, someone at the Open Door izakaya restaurant did. Musky, umami truffle flavor meets formerly mundane bean pods for a nice nibbler to fill in between courses.

Then there was whitefish, sliced so thin that it was almost fugu-transparent, fanned out on the plate, with a peppery ponzu sauce, garnished with a green shiso leaf and a pickled mini plum.

Thin sliced beef loin seared on the outside, again with that excellent ponzu, but this time with a spicy kabocha purée and a fine julienne of daikon.

Very fancy takoyaki, too. This is normally Japanese street food, resembling octopus aebelskivers. It's made in a cast iron pan with big dimples for the batter, and turned halfway through the cooking process to make succulent balls of octopus-filled batter. These guys take things a step further. Brush the plate with a soy based sauce. Plate the takoyaki. Drizzle with a cream sauce. Add shaved bonito over the top - a mountain of it. Nice presentation!

Then the plate of Asian mushrooms, all tossed with some zucchini for a quick pan fry. I don't even know what they all were. One type was just rectangles with a very firm, meaty taste.

The last plate was smack dab in the middle of the "what's that doing here?" Duck confit. This is a Japanese inspired izakaya place... not a French bistro. The temptation was too great. It arrived, crisped to perfection, on four crispy pillars of something that resembled crunchy churros, supporting it over a mound of kabocha squash purée. The purée and confit worked well together. The crispy fried things were a bit of a case of adding grease to grease.

I passed on the mentaiko french fries, if that's what they were. Julienned potatoes tossed with mentaiko and a few other things, if I understood the description. Mentai is fish roe spiced with chili, not what most people think of when asked, "what do you like with potatoes?"

Now, the chef's challenge begins: how to take the ingredients, flavors and preparations and combine them into something I create. What if the takoyaki had a bit of pimenton in the batter, maybe a green chimichurri type sauce... Could the duck confit be deconstructed so that the meat were rolled into the crispy skin to form a boneless sausage, with a gobo root through the center as a handle... What if the beef carpaccio were alternately layered on thin-sliced baked potatoes à la pommes Anna...? To the kitchen!

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