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Jim loves tonkatsu. So much, we have it in our weeknight dinner rotation. When our friend mentioned a restaurant in Honolulu that specialized in tonkatsu, we had to try it. We had a large group of family members join us at the restaurant. We ordered a wide variety of dishes from their menu, however for this posting, I just want to focus on the tonkatsu. We ordered two different kinds: “regular” tonkatsu and black pork tonkatsu.

For those unfamiliar with black pork, its considered comparable to the Kobe beef from the Wagyu cow. Black pork comes from the Berkshire pig, bred in Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan.  This pork is prized for its juciness, tenderness. The meat is light pink in color and heavily marbled. The high fat content lends its self well to high- temperature cooking, making it perfect for frying the best tonkatsu. The black pork tonkatsu at Ginza Bairin was incredibly juicy and tender. It has a very mild subtle flavor. The regular tonkatsu showed up after the black pork. While still good, compared to what you can get at a typical supermarket and make at home, the regular pork was definitely tougher in texture and less juicy. I wish we had received the regular tonkatsu first.

If we ever find ourselves in Honolulu, we will definitely come back….but only for the black pork tonkatsu!

Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin

255 Beachwalk  Honolulu, HI 96815

(808) 926-8082

Scarpetta – NYC, NY

I have wanted to eat at Scarpetta in NYC ever since I saw Scott Conant on an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations (Techniques episode). His recipe for red sauce over fresh spaghetti was featured on the show. It was so elegant, so maddeningly simple, I needed to try it in person. We booked a late Sunday night reservation with a few friends and proceeded to order nearly the entire menu. Most of it we ate family style….except the spaghetti. That I ordered one just for myself.

 

PRIMI PIATTI

Raw YellowTail – When it comes to raw fish, I generally avoid it if I am not in a sushi restaurant. Even at really great restaurants, it still tastes very fishy to me. The raw yellowtail at Scarpetta was excellent with no fishy aftertaste. The olive oil that it was paired with only highlighted the freshness of the fish; pickled red onion provided a nice crunchy counterpoint to the silkiness of the fish.

Creamy Polenta with fricasse of truffled mushrooms - I normally don’t order polenta. It’s a consistency and texture thing for me.  To me, polenta is tasteless and textureless. I don’t mind fried polenta that looks like french fries, but the creamy kind. No, Thanks. I’ll pass. One of my tablemates politely insisted that we try it as she judges her Italian restaurants by how they prepare their polenta.  One taste of polenta at Scarpetta explained that I have only ever had the bad or mediocre preparations of polenta. It had a creamy texture with no grittiness. There was a subtle flavor that was punctuated by the fricasse of truffled mushrooms that crowned the center of the dish. Great for a crisp fall / winter side dish. I could see this paring well with something like…..

Braised Short Rib with vegetable and farro risotto - Yum. So tender, you don’t need a knife to cut it. That’s how short rib should be done. The vegetable and farro risotto was an interesting accompaniment.  Farro are wheat grains in whole form. Its cooked until tender, with a certain amount of firmness, lending itself well to a risotto style preparation. Scarpetta’s rendition was tasty, although I wish I had saved a little of the polenta to pair with the short rib sauce.

 

PASTA

Scarpetta’s Signature Spaghetti - Plum tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, crushed red pepper, butter, Parmagiano-Reggiano cheese, basil. Six simple ingredients combined to make one killer dish. This was the dish that I came for. We each got our own portion as I refused to share my portion. The sauce reflects the freshness of the ingredients. It also had a velvety feel to it. I’m guessing that the added butter created this texture. Speaking with the sous chef, he said the most difficult thing about the dish is replicating the same flavor experience for every single diner that orders the dish.  I guess that means I should be able to make this sauce at home. But I know it won’t be the same.

Roasted Beet Ravioli - From my childhood, roasted beets were those red, jello like vegetables that came from a can. As I’ve explored the food scene more and more, I’ve come to love this much maligned vegetable. Roasted beets has become one of my favorite dishes. (But I’ll never, ever eat beets from a can.) My preference is either plain roasted or topped with extra virgin olive oil and fresh goat cheese. It never occurred to me to use it as a filler for ravioli. Scarpetta uses the beets without any other additives in their roasted beet ravioli dish. The result is a luscious savory morsel with a hint of sweetness from the beet. Yum.

Duck Foie Gras Ravioli with marsala reduction -  Foie Gras. There’s a ban on anything foie gras related in California. Something about the cruel and inhumane practice that creates this food product. I can’t say that I’m a huge fan of foie gras, but once in a while, if it’s on a tasting menu, I’ll eat it. This small silken luxury, wrapped in fresh pasta dough was simply amazing. We shared one plate for the table; the tasting was enough for me. However, several of my tablemates admitted they could have finished the entire plate by themselves. So much for the poor goose…..

Ricotta Ravolini with white truffles – If the foie gras ravioli wasn’t decadent enough, we were then presented with the ricotta raviolini with white truffle shavings. The kitchen was very generous with the shavings on top. Good thing, because the raviolini itself wouldn’t have been anything interesting to write about if not for the delicate truffle shavings.

 

Secondi Piatti

After the amazing rounds of pasta, we were onto the entrees. The lardo wrapped halibut was very well cooked. Crispy on the outside, moist and flaky on the inside. It seemed a little salty to me, but the rest of my tablemates didn’t feel the same way. The ash crusted venison  was a departure from the norm for us. I’ve had venison when I was younger. I can’t say that I’m a huge fan of it. It’s very lean and sometimes gamey, depending on how well its prepared. If i’m going to have a red meat alternative, I think I would stick with buffalo or ostrich, rather than Rudolph. This venison was very well cooked and didn’t have a strong gamey taste. The ash created a very light crust with a unique flavor. Combined with the venison, it made for an interesting taste and texture. I had one piece and left the rest for the carnivores at the table.

 

With nearly all Italian restaurants, I always feel like I should stop after the pasta course. The secondi piatti at Scarpetta are very, very good, but their pasta overshadows them. Next time I’ll just stick to ordering everything off of the pasta menu. I’ll definitely be coming back here.

 

Scarpetta NYC

355 West 14th Street

New York, NY 10014

http://www.scottconant.com/restaurants/scarpetta/new-york

Little Owl is a cozy neighborhood establishment. The seating area is a little cramped, but it only adds to the charm of the restaurant. The restaurant doesn’t have a waiting area, but they’ve erected this 2 seat “bleacher” thing where you can wait and enjoy a glass of wine. It’s a little odd as it is nearly 5+ feet above the floor. It gives the seated guests a bird’s eye view of the entire dining room. However, their feet are right a head level for the table closest to the seating area.  Enough about the quirky waiting area. Let’s get onto the food.

 

We started with a lobster salad: good fresh lobster, but the tomatoes in the salad were a mealy and mushy. It detracted from the dish. For the main course, we shared a braised lamb shank with gnocchi and porgy with lobster risotto. The braised lamb shank was flavorful and falling off the bone. I almost couldn’t tell that it was lamb. It didn’t have any of the gamey taste that often comes with lamb. I did find, however, that it was a little salty for my taste. The gnocchi tempered the saltiness of the meat. Our other entree was a full fish porgy with lobster risotto. Having porgy reminded me of my mom’s home cooking. She knew how to cook them perfectly with the crispy skin on the outside and flaky moist meat. Little Owl’s porgy didn’t disappoint. The fish was fresh and very tasty. The lobster risotto was al dente with a subtle lobster flavor. Punctuated by chunks of lobster, it was a great accompaniment to the porgy.

 

We didn’t order dessert as the portion sizes were fairly generous. I would definitely recommend Little Owl and would encourage getting reservations. Warm friendly neighborhood atmosphere coupled with food made with love. Perfect.

 

little owl

90 bedford street

(corner of bedford and grove)
212.741.4695

http://www.thelittleowlnyc.com/

We snuck in to Luzzo’s for an early dinner / late afternoon snack. One of my friends recommended it to me when she heard we were going to be in NYC. Luzzo’s is known for their coal oven fired pizza, Neapolitan style. I haven’t refined my “pizza palate” enough to distinguish between a coal fired pizza versus a wood fired pizza. My rookie mentality said that since a coal fired oven maintains a higher heat, the pizza should appear faster at my table. Taste wise, I wasn’t expecting to taste anything materially different in the pizza.

We ordered a large Salsiccia (red sauce, mozzarella, sausage, and basil.) There were a bunch of other pizzas I wanted to try, but I had heard that their sauce was incredible. The pizza was very good. The sauce was tangy and well seasoned; a great balance to the rest of the ingredients. The mozzarella was extremely fresh and had the perfect texture. I was really happy that the sausage was flavorful without being too salty. The basil….well there was only one large basil leaf on the pizza. I was a little disappointed by that. For the most part the pizza was very well cooked. The first two slices were absolutely perfect: crispy crust, enough charring to provide texture and flavor without the bitterness of burnt crust. But the third slice, suffered from a little sogginess as the pizza cooled. My friend, the Brooklyn biased pizza cynic even agreed that overall, the pizza was pretty good.

Next time, I would definitely go back and try different pizzas. That is, unless I decide to try a different NY pizza location. Another somewhat odd thing is that Luzzo’s only accepts cash and American Express. Most merchants accept MC / Visa and not AmEx, so it struck me as a little odd.

Luzzo’s
211-213 First Avenue (Between 12th and 13th)
New York, NY
http://www.luzzospizza.com

After brunch, we had a few hours to burn before our flight so we wandered down the Chelsea High Line over to the Chelsea Market. 

 

The High Line is a park built on a former freight rail line. The rail line sits elevated above the Manhattan’s West Side. It’s a green oasis filled with places to sit and contemplate the contemporary art on the side of the buildings. The High Line is part green serenity and part peeping Tom (you can see into the residential buildings next to the High Line if the shades aren’t closed).  Hopping off of the High Line put us within a block of the Chelsea Market.  Chelsea Market is a smorgasbord of amazing food locations and cute boutique shops. We went specifically in search of two small boutiques: People’s Pops and Doughnuttery.

 

As NYC was slowly broiling / steaming in a heat wave, People’s Pops sounded like the perfect treat. I had seen a Food TV show highlighting People’s Pops for their popsicles. They focused on using fresh, natural ingredients and creative flavors. The show also highlighted the special process they use to freeze their product, resulting in smaller, finer grain ice crystals. This makes the mouth feel of the popsicle much smoother.  I asked for the Empire Apple / Lavender pop; Jim opted for the Peach / Vanilla pop. The sales person asked me if I was SURE if I wanted the Empire Apple, saying it was his least favorite flavor combination. Given his reaction, I chickened out and went for a standard Strawberry Lime. I wish that I had trusted my own gut. The Strawberry Lime pop was very good: strong, bright fresh strawberry flavor with a soft hint of lime. Having just bought a Zoku Pop maker at home, it was probably something that I could have re-created at home. The Empire Apple / Lavender combination still haunts me today. Jim’s Peach / Vanilla blend was much more of what I expected: unique flavor capturing the height of a fruit’s ripeness. Yummy. If I go back, I will try the more exotic flavors that I can’t make at home. 

Next to the People’s Pops is a doughnut shop, Doughnuttery, that our friend recommended. They make tiny doughnuts covered in a variety of powered flavors. The doughnuts are made in this contraption that would make Willy Wonka proud, then tossed with your selected flavor. We chose CACAOBOY: Cacao nibs, Chocolate Cookies, Mesquite and PARIS TIME: Lavender, Pistachio, Vanilla. (I had to get my lavender flavor in somewhere!!) The Cacaoboy was just the right hint of chocolate without being too overpowering. Likewise the Paris Time had a lovely light floral taste accented with a clear pistachio flavor. Definitely want to come back here sometime to try the other flavors. 

If you go: 

http://www.thehighline.org/

http://www.chelseamarket.com/

People’s Pops

http://www.peoplespops.com/

Doughnuttery

Chelsea Market

425 West 15th Street

New York, NY 10011​

(212) 633-4359

http://www.doughnuttery.com/

 

We drove to Key West early one morning to spend the day. Arriving just in time for brunch, we started our Key West adventure at Blue Heaven. This place has a really cool outdoor seating area. There’s an outdoor bar that was packed at 10:15 am on a Tuesday. A lone guitarist sang the blues accompanied by crowing roosters and the clatter of dishes and silverware. There was even an outdoor shower provided for those who just came in from the beach, with a sign that read “$1 outdoor shower, $2 to watch”.

We sat down amid the other tourists and ordered a round of early morning drinks. I had a spicy bloody mary; he had a grapefruit mimosa. Perusing the food, I ordered a stack of blueberry pancakes and he ordered a lobster bacon tomato omelet. The spicy blood mary (non-virgin this time) was great. It came with olives and a pickle spear and had just the right balance of alcohol and spiciness. The grapefruit mimosa was light and refreshing on a hot humid Florida morning. The blueberry pancakes were light, fluffy and generously punctuated with giant fresh blueberries.

The lobster bacon tomato omelet was a big disappointment. It sounded fantastic but in reality, the omelet hinged on the quality of the lobster. Even though we were right near the water, the lobster felt like it was cooked in California and flown across the country. Its rubbery texture really detracted from the rest of the omelet.

Overally, the ambiance was great, the service was pretty good, and the food was ok. I’d definitely go back just for the vibe and to try something different.

BLUE HEAVEN Restaurant
729 Thomas St.
Key West, Florida 33040
305-296-8666

http://www.blueheavenkw.com/

We were looking for something a little more relaxed for lunch. We found the Hungry Tarpon, a fish shack by the side of the road complete with its own little eclectic outdoor market. Sitting at the bar, you face the small kitchen that continuously puts out finished plates. On the vent hood, they have an collection of funny bumper stickers. Conversation between us died as we spent most of the lunch reading all of the bumper stickers.

The Bluewater Sandwich- Seared Ahi Tuna on a kaiser roll with wasabi mayo, lettuce and tomato
The sandwich was pretty good. The fish seemed fresh, but I have to admit that the best part was the wasabi mayo. It provided a great flavor kick to an otherwise bland sandwich.

Mahi-Mahi Fish Tacos
– grilled Mahi-Mahi with tartar sauce, shredded cabbage, pico de gallo
The tacos were ok. The mahi-mahi didn’t feel as fresh as the ahi tuna, but it was still tasty.

Overall, it was a “fish shack” so we weren’t expecting much. It was still better than one of the other places we had been, but I’ve had better.

Hungry Tarpon
77522 Overseas Highway
Islamorada, FL 33036
(305) 664-0535
http://www.hungrytarpon.com‎

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