Saturday, May 31, 2008

Hawaii Leftovers

So this is my last post about my Hawaii vacation. It really turned out to be a food vacation. Since I was spending a lot of time with my mom, and really all my mom likes to do is eat, that's pretty much what we did every day.

This is just a roundup of all the other food experiences I had during my trip that I really didn't squeeze into my earlier posts but I still thought was worth mentioning. Aloha!

Mother's Day was the main reason for my trip and I posted earlier about the Mother's Day brunch. But for dinner, we went to my mom's favorite Chinese restaurant and probably one of the more popular Chinese restaurant in Honolulu for family dinner. Royal Garden is known for its dim sum and then its seafood dinners. The restaurant is in the Renaissance Hotel, once known as the Ala Moana Hotel. It's adjacent to the Ala Moana Shopping Center and is a bit difficult to find because it's on the same level as the hotel pool. Some of the food we had that night was the shrimp with honey walnuts (above left), which was perfectly done by Royal Garden. The shiny sweet sauce around the shrimp was a wonderful glaze and not gloppy mayonnaise that you sometimes see at other restaurants. Another regular dish we order that's a little special is the Seafood Bird Nest, which is stir-fry seafood in a bird nest created by deep-frying taro or potato strips. I love ordering this dish. Below is a tofu casserole (on the left), which is another favorite of my mom because the skills to create the tofu in this nice, soft tofu pocket requires a sophisticated chef. On the right is a special 8 treasures duck that's been braised. It's the kind of dish that needs to be ordered 24 hours in advance.

Doesn't this look like a scene from some store in Japan? It's actually in the food department of Shirokiya, which is one of the largest Japanese grocery/house wares store in Hawaii. It's been around for years since I was a kid, and it consistently offers everything you need to look for when looking for genuine Japanese food. Shirokya, at the Ala Moana Shopping Center, is also where you buy the mochicreams I blogged about this week. The food section of Shirokiya is also where you can buy some great bento boxes, which make a great packed lunch to take to the beach.

Spam musubi!!! Yep, you see it everywhere in Hawaii. I didn't eat any while I was there, especially since I can just make it myself if I ever get the urge. Still, I wanted to show you a picture of it so you won't think it's an urban legend that people in Hawaii love their Spam. :)

Here are some ramen noodles at Goma-Ichi. My mom and I came here for lunch one day. They have the best broth but I felt the ramen was a bit overcooked. Still, my mom loved the tender pork slices in her Char Siu Shoyu Ramen (left) and I loved the broth of my Tan Tan Ramen (right). This is a cute, small place with a 16-seat bar in the center and 4 tables that seat four on the side. It's conveniently located a couple of blocks north of the new Nordstrom. The only negative I have to say about Goma-Ichi is that I felt they were stingy with the ramen. My mom and I both left feeling a bit hungry, and we also ordered a side of gyoza. (BTW, the gyoza was fantastic! It had a nice thin skin with a nicely pan-fried edge. Mmmmm.)

Right before I went to the airport on the day I left, I went with my mom to Like Like Drive-Inn, which is like an institution in Hawaii. (BTW, it's pronounced LEE-kay LEE-kay.) It's an old-time diner that's famous for its saimin. I had the omelet with portuguese sausages and rice. It was all right. I think most people go for the local-style saimin. But after seven days of constant eating, some simple rice and omelet was all I needed.

Royal Garden Chinese Restaurant, 410 Atkinson Dr., Honolulu. PH: 808.942.7788
Shirokiya at the Ala Moana Shopping Center, 1450 Ala Moana Blvd., Honolulu. PH: 808.973.9111
Goma-Ichi, 631 Keeaumoku St., Honolulu. PH: 808.951.6666
Like Like Drive Inn, 745 Keeaumoku St., Honolulu. PH: 808.941.2515

Jamie's Back

Jamie Oliver's "Jamie At Home" series on the Food Network have new episodes and I'm watching the first new episode this morning. It's all about B-B-Q. What's funny is that he's cooking barbeque at what looks like a British country side, which doesn't really say BBQ to me but spring meadow. Anywho, the BBQ looks juicy although he just burned a bulb of onion. :) I didn't realize there would be new episodes of Jamie on Food Network, I just thought they were going to rerun the past episodes again and again like they usually do. So it's nice to see a "new season" of Jamie. I'm not going to do recaps of this new run, but will definitely be watching every Saturday morning.

Jamie at Home's new season airs every Saturday at 9:30 a.m. on the Food Network.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Travel Dish: Restaurant EPIC (Honolulu)

A Makeover That Hits the Mark … Mostly
1131 Nuuanu Ave., Honolulu
Between Chinatown and Downtown
Open lunch, Mon.–Fri., 11 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; dinner daily, 5–10 p.m. (till 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday)
PH: 808.587.7877
Major credit cards, reservations accepted

For the last dinner of my Hawaii vacation, I went with my mom, brother and niece to a restaurant that will probably come to symbolize a place for second chances.

Let me break it down. Restaurant EPIC opened in February 2007 near the Hotel Street district of Honolulu. This is an area of old downtown Honolulu that is known for its red-light district but over the years has become home to art galleries and a few buzz-worthy restaurants like Indigo. EPIC opened with some buzz as well because its opening chef, Anthony Vierra, came from the quaint and popular downtown lunch spot, Grand Café & Bakery.

Just one month after EPIC opened in its location on Nuuanu Avenue, it closed abruptly. Vierra returned to Grand Café with little explanation other than something to do with “divergent minds” over the menu with the owners. The gossip, according to my brother, was that Vierra wasn’t quite ready to run a full-fledge restaurant serving dinner and the food got mixed results.

After a few months of what was officially a “remodeling,” EPIC reopened in the summer with a new chef with a bit more kitchen creds—Chef David Hoffman who worked in the kitchen of Hawaiian culinary hero Roy Yamaguchi of Roy’s. Hoffman has brought his version of Yamaguchi’s once-groundbreaking Hawaiian fusion cuisine (local Hawaiian ingredients with Asian cooking influences) to EPIC. (EPIC, in fact, is an acronym for Euro-Pacific International Cuisine, and not a reference to the epic hopes of management.)

I’m one who believes in second chances in life, so I arrived for dinner with no preconceptions in my mind (which meant I avoided reading the Yelp reviews). The restaurant is right at the corner of Nuuanu and Pauahi, and its old town exteriors masks the grandiose interiors of gold and red décor. The restaurant name was everywhere, including big gold letterings on the main wall of the dining room.

We were seated in the bar area because I had made reservations at the last minute. But that was fine because we were near the window. The bar was filled with a combination of after-work, happy hour, pre-dinner patrons. EPIC’s menu has several options for appetizers and specialty drinks to keep people happy.

Much of the Hawaiian fusion comes in the appetizers and raw fish selection, with things like a poketini (ahi tuna poke). The entrées are split into two sections—makai and mauka. When visiting Hawaii, you have to get used to people giving directions like “makai side” or “mauka end.” Makai is Hawaiian for beachside and mauka means mountain. So on the Makai side of EPIC’s menu, you get the seafood selections and Mauka lists all the meat and poultry.

We started with the Heirloom Tomato Salad ($8), which isn’t really Hawaiian. I can get lots of beautiful heirloom tomatoes during the summer in the Bay Area. But I was intrigued by the description of pickled mango gelée served along with mozzarella and basil.

When it arrived, it was definitely a beautiful plate of fresh tomatoes and mozzarella. But I couldn’t find the mango gelée. What I did get was a lot of the li hing mui powder, a weird trend a few years ago where everything in Hawaii was sprinkled with the sweet and tart powder used to marinate preserved plums sold as candy. Everything got the li hing touch, which I wasn’t a fan of. Thankfully, the chef’s sprinkling of li hing on the tomato salad was a bit more measured.

Next came a plate of the Kalua Pork Spring Rolls ($8). This isn’t necessarily the most original concept of stuffing crunchy spring rolls with the Hawaiian standard of kalua pig (or slow-roasted shredded pork). But it was well done. The spring roll skin was thin, which makes it nice and crunchy when deep fried. The pork inside was moist, and everything was served with a tropical-looking pineapple chutney that had just a slight bit of heat from chili peppers. My niece loved it.

For our entrées, I ventured into the Makai area while the rest of my family headed Mauka. I got the EPIC Seafood Paella ($25) because I love paella and wanted to see how this chef created his Hawaiian version. When it arrived, it was colorful and filled with an assortment of local clams, crab, shrimp, rock fish and scallops, but it lacked authenticity. One, because it wasn’t in a paella pan, which I can overlook because it could have been cooked in one and served separately; two, and most importantly, it didn’t have the bits of crunchy rice from the bottom of the pan known as “socarrat.” So really, the rice felt more like risotto than paella.

While EPIC’s paella is rich with a variety of ingredients, it was slightly on the bland side, needing more Spanish spices like maybe pimentón (smoked paprika) or saffron.

Chef Hoffman seems to do better with seasoning for the meat dishes because all my family’s entrées tasted delicious when I tried them. My brother got the Cochon ($24), which is a French cut bone-in pork served with apple chutney and a cassoulet of Tuscan white beans, pancetta and haricot vert in a balsamic reduction.

My niece got the Grilled Rib Eye Steak ($28), which was a tender piece of meat with a nice char outside, served with truffled Yukon potato wedges and garnished with crispy onion strips. My brother said the rib eye tasted better than my mom’s Filet Mignon ($32), but I actually preferred the filet mignon which had a milder taste. But it was obvious that both meat dishes benefited from quality sourcing and a tempered hand in getting the right doneness. (Both were ordered medium rare.)

I do have to note that both my niece and mom’s meat dishes were serve pretty much like standard steakhouse dishes, lacking any Hawaiian finesse or fusion. But if you have a good piece of meat, why dress it up with a lot of unnecessary accessories?

We ended our dinner by sharing the crème brulee ($7) and the seasonal fruit tart ($7) with vanilla ice cream. The crème brulee, one of my favorite desserts, was nicely done with a thin caramelized top cracking into a creamy filling. The tart was less successful. While it had fresh fruits with a nice sauce, the tart itself wasn’t that flakey and seemed to lose its battle with the sauce.

The service was very friendly, with our waiter making us feel comfortable and enthusiastically answering our questions about the menu. He would also strike up conversations with us in between service, which I always think is nice so you feel more at home.

Even though I never ate at the original EPIC, what I tasted this time seems to indicate that it was a right move for them to close down and reassess. While the food could improve here and there, overall it was a pleasant and interesting dining experience well worth a second try.

Single guy rating: 3.5 stars (touches of Hawaii elegance)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Restaurant Epic on Urbanspoon

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Top Chef: Season 4, Episode 12

One Steak Short of the Finale

Previously: Lisa is mad at Dale over rice, Dale is screaming to get the food out, and Dale doesn’t like Lisa’s attitude at the judge’s table. But the judges turn on Dale and he’s sent packing.

The cheftestants are getting closer to winning all these prizes and in two episodes we find out who wins the title of … TOP CHEF.

Wow, the sunrise is extra golden this morning in Chicagoland. Maybe it’s because the Windy City knows the cheftestants will be packing it up soon and leaving, so they want the day to start off perfectly. Ah, Chicago, you big Midwest Metropolitan Town. You done well, even though you weren’t able to get Oprah as a guest judge.

Everyone’s already up and putting on their white chef’s jacket. No more early morning wake up calls. No more shirtless guys shaving. Let’s just get to the food!

Quickfire challenge. The cheftestants don’t arrive at the Top Chef Kitchen but instead are taken to a place called Allen Brothers. We hear from Richard that it’s a “nationally recognized meat purveyor.” They’re greeted by a woman who issues them the USDA-required attire—lab coats, unusually glowing turquoise gloves and the masculinity-killing hairnet. You can’t even tell which one is Richard because you can’t see his faux hawk covered up. Why does Spike look like he’s wearing his hairnet over his mouth?

The woman shows them a rack of meat that has this long-ass description. Something about American long bone rib eye dry aged Flintstones steak. Whatever, it’s just a big piece of meat. The cheftestants have 20 minutes to cut them into individual chops and then “French” them, which basically means to scrape down the meat off one end of the bone to create a lollipop effect.

They all look like they’re struggling with even holding up the rack of meat, except Spike who seems to get all Benihana on that meat, which I learn is a Tomahawk steak. I don’t really eat a lot of meat so this is the first time I’ve ever heard of a Tomahawk steak. I would have called it the Flintstones’ brontasaurus cut. Remember those? What’s funny is the butchers in the back are just going on with their own business; they could care less about these five chefs struggling with their knives and meat.

When time’s called, they pack up their meat and head back to the Top Chef Kitchen. There to greet them is Padma and guest judge, James Beard-winner Chef Rick Tramonto, co-owner of Tru Restaurant in Chicago. Their challenge isn’t about creativity or taste, but more about temperature and knife skills. Chef Tramonto orders up a Tomahawk steak from each of them at medium rare, in 30 minutes. Go!

Everyone has different techniques in cooking meat, but most of them are doing that technique I see a lot where they have the meat in a sauté pan filled with butter or sauce and they just keep flipping the sauce over and over on the meat with a spoon, like a constant basting. Lisa says cooking a steak medium rare is second nature to her and she can tell when it’s done by touch, but then she says the pressure is on so she’s starting to second guess herself. Wow, she cracks pretty easy under the pressure, doesn’t she?

Stephanie doesn’t fire up her meat too early and likes to let it rest for at least five minutes. At one point when she’s basting her steak, she splatters some hot butter on Lisa. I think they all have it in for Lisa, who later in this episode gets an unfavorable spot in front of a wood-burning oven. But I’m getting ahead of myself. All the meat looks really juicy and I could go for a nice Tomahawk right about now.

Padma lets Chef Rick cut into each meat and he doesn’t even take a bite! He’s just cutting it to see the redness inside and then just saying OK or not. Sometimes he’ll ask how they cooked it, but other than that this is the most boring judging of a quickfire challenge so far this season.

Chef Rick says the least successful was Stephanie, because the butchering of her meat wasn’t clean and it was undercooked. Richard’s meat also suffered from inconsistent butchering and undercook-ness.

For the rest, Chef Rick liked Lisa’s steak that was cooked well and he called Spike’s butchering skills “amazing.” He also liked the crust on Antonia’s steak (is anyone else’s mouth watering yet?) and the inside was cooked perfectly, but in the end Spike’s mad butchering skills gives him the win. But no immunity. He just gets some “important decision” in the elimination challenge.

Padma tells the cheftestants that they’re entrusting something really precious to the cheftestants. What could that be? Caviar? Truffles? Padma’s credibility as a chef? Turns out it’s the full reigns of Chef Tramonto’s new steakhouse, Tramonto’s Steak and Seafood. Granted, these are supposed to be the top five best chefs in the Top Chef Season 4, so I don’t think it’s such a big risk. But we get a few minutes of Chef Tramonto begging the cheftestants not to screw it up and ruin the fledgling reputation of his new place.

They each have to come up with an appetizer and an entrée that will be on that night’s menu. Then they’ll work dinner service, which happens to be fully booked. Sounds like Chef Tramonto got a sweet deal out of this challenge. Five chefs in the kitchen and publicity to pack your new restaurant for the night, not bad. Spike also gets the advantage of selecting his protein first for his dishes.

Back at the cheftestants’ apartment, it looks like they’re all having Tomahawk steaks for dinner. Spike talks about his master butchering skills and says he got it from his grandfather who was a butcher. Spike also thinks Stephanie will win Top Chef, and I agree. Even though she’s been shaky in the beginning, I think her restaurant experience is beginning to kick in. Of course, Spike wants Antonia to go home. I think he’s still bitter that she wouldn’t let her make butternut squash soup. (Spike, give it up already!)

In the kitchen, Richard does a product placement for Glad bags.

Commercials. Bridezillas are scary, and they can’t sing.

It’s night time and the cheftestants are escorted in their SUVs (really, do they need so many cars when there’s only five of them?) to Tramonto’s Steak and Seafood, which I have to say looks darn fancy. It’s those high-end steakhouses with handsome décor and ruby velour chairs. In the kitchen, everyone’s still admiring the big space with wood-burning oven when Antonia asks Spike when he’s going to pick his protein and he’s all like, what’s the rush bitch, and she’s like, the clock started ticking four minutes ago doofus. OK, those weren’t exact quotes, but it’s not like they’re friends.

Spike dashes into the walk-in coolers and goes for the Tomahawk (how original) and the bag of scallops because he already had in mind that he wanted to do something with scallops. I love scallops and they’re a classic pairing with meat, especially when nicely seared. Other cheftestants think the same way I do, but they all quickly point out that the bag of scallops are frozen and they’re suspicious about whether it’ll be of good quality. Everyone else takes turns going in to grab their ingredients, and given that Chef Tramonto probably has a well-stocked cooler, it wasn’t really a big of a challenge to find alternate ingredients.

Stephanie is talking to herself as she’s going over her ideas for the menu and shaving some mushrooms. She says she’s going to make sweetbreads, and if you’re from Hawaii like me I bet the first thing that came to your mind was King’s Bakery sweet bread, right? Oh, I miss that. It’s a Portuguese bread that’s sweet and almost cake like. I loved it growing up. But in most cooking circles, when they say sweetbreads, they’re talking about the leftover glands of an animal. Ugh, not the same thing. I’ve always avoided sweetbreads on menus because of that fact that they’re leftover meat parts, but after hearing Stephanie describe how they’re like chicken nuggets when fried properly, now it sounds interesting.

Lisa is trying to step up her game so she’s talking about making peanut butter mashed potatoes to go with her steak. BTW, they each stake a spot in the kitchen and Lisa happens to be in front of the wood-burning oven so she’s getting really hot and bothered. She’s extra feisty, especially with the exchange she just has with Antonia, who’s her usual smart-alec self.

Spike finally opens his scallops, and like everyone guessed, they’re pretty soaked in moisture because of all the defrosting and they’re starting to fall apart instead of staying firmly together. But instead of giving up on the scallops, he starts rolling out paper towels to try to absorb some of the water.

Chef Tom Colicchio comes in and checks in with everyone. He chats with Antonia about Spike’s scallops, talks to Stephanie about her winning Top Chef, takes some bacon from Richard and, predictably, makes a weird face over Lisa’s peanut butter mash.

He then talks to Spike and it’s all about the scallops. We get it. Frozen, bad. Spike, stupid. Advantage, gone.

Chef Tom tells the chefs that 60 guests will arrive in an hour, including three VIP guests. He also says that he’ll be acting as the “expeditor” for the kitchen. I never heard of this either, but an expeditor in the kitchen is the person who monitors the pacing of the dishes that are ordered and sent to each table. That sounds like a fun job, all you do is boss people around without sweating over the hot stove. BTW, I’ve been to a few restaurants that would have really benefited from having an “expeditor.”

Commercials. Wii is trying to get people to get fit with its new console where you pretend to be exercising or playing hula hoops. Umm, just go out and walk or swim. It’s cheaper.

In the kitchen, Lisa is telling people to get out of her way. Chef Tom gathers the cheftestants together and introduces the three VIP guests: Harold, Ilan, and Hung … the past three Top Chefs. They each give them advice: Harold says cook your own style, Hung says don’t worry about being the fan favorite (because he wasn’t), and Ilan says don’t shave anyone’s head tonight (the most uncomfortable segment to watch in Top Chef history, IMHO). BTW, Ilan, I’m sure you could have used some of your prize money to buy a nice coat instead of just wearing a T-shirt to a fancy steakhouse.

The three former Top Chefs join the main table with Padma, Gail and Chef Tramonto. All the other restaurant’s guests look over the menu from the five chefs and makes various selections, but the judges’ table orders a tasting menu of everything. So now the cheftestants have to cook for the rest of the restaurant but also prepare mini tasting dishes for the judges. For some reason this seems to throw them for a loop.

They start with the appetizers and here’s how it went down:

Lisa’s grilled and chilled prawns: Hung wants more sugar, and everyone loves the lemon, but Gail doesn’t like cold shrimp.

Richard’s hamachi with sweetbreads: Chef Rick loves the flavor and wants to steal it for his menu, and pretty much everyone is loving the dish.

Spike’s scallops with hearts of palm: Chef Rick hardly touches his plate, just playing with his food. Everyone doesn’t like the dehydrated scallops.

Stephanie’s sweetbreads with golden raisin and pine nuts: Harold’s only negative comment is that the pine nuts should have been toasted, but otherwise everyone loves this as well.

Antonia’s warm mushroom and artichoke salad with poached egg: Gail says it wasn’t the strongest dish but the egg was poached perfectly.

Now the entrees. (BTW, Tom looks really in his element as the expeditor. He looks like he’s having the most fun in this episode.)

Richard’s beef fillet: Everyone says wow at the presentation. Harold wonders if all the elements worked well together, and Padma’s all like, then put it together instead of this deconstructed shit. (Padma can get pretty passionate about her meat, as you can tell.)

Lisa’s New York strip steak with apple caramel sauce. Everyone’s nervous about the peanut butter, but Chef Rick digs the nuttiness. Ilan thinks the beef is under-seasoned.

Spike’s Tomahawk with sweet potato puree: Ilan thinks the meat is OK by itself and says at this stage of the game he wants his mind blown and sweet potato puree isn’t going to do it. Rick doesn’t say much again.

Stephanie’s beef tenderloin with wild mushrooms and apple sauce: Padma thinks it’s gorgeous. It seems to be a judge favorite.

Antonia’s bone-in rib eye with fennel and cippolini: Ilan loves the fattiness of the meat, but it’s very rich.

The night’s over and the cheftestants arrive in the stew room for one last time. They bust out the wine in plastic cups, and Padma arrives to ask all of them to join the judges.

Padma starts off by asking Richard how he thinks he did, and he’s about to get into it until his mind tells him to stop because this is how cheftestants typically hang themselves, so he turns the tables and ask how she thinks he did. Well played King Richard. Chef Tramonto says his hamachi-sweetbread appetizer was his favorite, and Gail says his main course was undercooked and inconsistent.

For Stephanie, Tom says she had a lot on the line but she never showed any pressure in the kitchen except right this moment in front of the judges. To which she replies: “because you guys are freaking me out.” Chef Tramonto says he liked how her sweetbreads were cooked (sweetbreads are like a sure-fire appetizer it seems).

Gail tells Lisa that she liked the lemon (I missed what exactly she did with the lemon, but the combination of lemon and shrimp isn’t so groundbreaking) but wished that the shrimp was warm. She says butter on cold shrimp made the overall dish seem congealed. For the main course, Chef Tramonto says he really wanted to hate it, but after he ate it he thought it was interesting. But just interesting. He thought if she had better technique, it would have been extraordinary. And this sums up our girl Lisa.

All they had to say for Antonia was that of all the dishes, hers looked the most like something on a steakhouse menu.

And finally, Spike the Faker. Gail says the meat was cooked well. Then it’s all about the scallops. Tom says to get this far and use frozen scallops shows a lack of judgment. Chef Tramonto says when you work at a restaurant and you get poor quality product, then you change your plans. Then Spike does the foot-in-the-mouth routine by talking back to the “guest” judge and says, well Mr. Tramonto, if the scallops were of such poor quality, what were they doing in your restaurant’s cooler? Nooooo he did-nt. Chef Tramonto says he’ll take that shot if Spike the Faker lives up to his using a poor product.

Spike realizes what just happens and tries his best to back peddle but they’re all walking out and all he can do is some massive kissing up by going up to Chef Tramonto and shaking his hand saying “it was an honor.” In the stew room, Spike worries that Chef Tramonto takes a Tomahawk and chops Spike out of the game.

The judges deliberate some more and you can tell from the descriptions of the food that Stephanie is the surefire frontrunner going into the finals. Everyone’s just loving what she cooked up. They all say something nice about Richard and Antonia, too, but really it’s a Stephanie-fest.

So that just leaves Spike and Lisa on the chopping block. Tom says both of them have issues. Chef Tramonto says he likes Spike’s spunk (I guess the last-minute kiss up did work) but he wanted more. Gail says both their dishes were equally bad. I say send both of them home.

Commercials. I’m digging that new Coldplay song, exclusively on iTunes.

Judgment. All five cheftestants return and they hold hands like they’re going to be crowned Miss America. Chef Tramonto says the person who stuck out is (no surprise) Stephanie, and he gives her his latest cookbook as she eagerly lets him know that she already has his first few. Tom also reminds her that this means she’ll be in the finale, and that should be enough but Padma also gives Stephanie an entire suite of cooking appliances from GE just like they have in the Top Chef Kitchen. Or did she say she’s getting the exact same ones from the Top Chef Kitchen? Either way, I hope Stephanie has a big kitchen because those are some big-ass appliances.

Tom tells Richard that his appetizer was the favorite appetizer and he’s going to Puerto Rico for the finale. Antonia’s entrée was the favorite entrée and she’s Puerto Rico-bound as well. So far this is going exactly per the script. The three cheftestants are excused and they whoop it up in the stew room with Richard falling all over Stephanie at one point. Hope his wife isn’t watching.

That leaves Angry Lisa and Spike the Faker. At this point I could care less who advances. Wow, Lisa is really working her angry face. Tom goes down memory lane of how many times each of them has been in the bottom. Tom basically tells Lisa she has to show her passion more and Spike has to make better judgment. Then Padma sends Spike packing, and he’s not surprised. Disappointed, yeah. Surprised, I don’t think so. Unless he’s faking it.

This means Lisa makes the final four and gets a Puerto Rico trip out of it. Now I’m a little worried that she might do well because this might be the kick in the pants she needed to step it up.

Spike, meanwhile, is packing up his knives in some weird wooden box with his name burned onto the side. He’s not using the normal black cloth case that other chefs use. So Spike takes his box of knives and goes home, not playing this silly game any more.

The final four say a few more words about the finale. Lisa says it’s a clean slate for her and she’ll shock the judges, Antonia pats herself on the back, and Richard says he now knows how the game is played. Really? It took you this long?

Next week: They’re on a sandy beach of Puerto Rico, San Juan is exploding in color and dance, and it looks like Lisa has a new haircut.

Top Chef airs Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. (9 p.m. Central) on Bravo TV. Check out videos and multiple blogs at the Top Chef Web site. Photos courtesy of Bravo TV.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Travel Tastes: Mochicream (Honolulu)

Like a Box of Chocolates Without a Scorecard

There’s no denying the Japanese influence on Hawaii. Growing up here, Japanese-Americans were the largest ethnic group in the state. And Hawaii’s No. 1 industry—tourism—continues to rely on visitors from Japan. So it’s no surprise that many trends from Japan hit the shores of Hawaii before they get to the continental United States (what we locals refer to as “the mainland”).

Earlier this year, Food & Wine came out with a list of foods to taste in 2008. One of the things mentioned were mochicream, made from the traditional Japanese rice cakes but injected with a creamy filling. Not since the explosion of mochi ice cream in the 1990s has such a mochi treat created such buzz.

I searched for these in San Francisco’s Japantown and nobody heard of this, although I could find regular mochi in an assortment of flavors like mango and chocolate. Mochi, for the uninitiated, is a chewy, sticky rice treat shaped into balls and made into various colors, but mostly white. It’s traditional for the New Year but popular like candy the rest of the time.

As far as I can tell, Hawaii is the only place in the United States where you can find the aforementioned mochicream. (If you know anywhere else to find them on the mainland, let us know in the comments section!) So during my recent vacation, I visited Shirokiya at the Ala Moana Shopping Center to check out this mysterious new taste for 2008.

Shirokiya is one of the largest department stores in Hawaii that’s specifically focused on Japanese goods. From house wares to specialty Japanese foods (fresh and packaged), you’ll find it at Shirokiya. On the first floor across from its bakery, they’ve set up a spot for mochicream, selling it under glass like jewelry.

First off, they all look soooo pretty. The varying pastel shades were like a canvas of springtime. There are also many flavors to choose from, and you can easily mix and match to choose a box of mochicream. The cost is a premium for the tiny mochi balls: $1.50 each for straightforward flavors, $1.60 each for special yogurt fillings and $1.80 each for the ultra fancy truffle creams.

I got a box of six and the flavors I selected were Green Tea, Sakura (Japanese cherry), Caramel, Melon, Peach and Double Mango (this was one of the $1.80 ones). The woman behind the counter says the mochicream can sit out for two hours at room temperature, but any longer they should be refrigerated because of the cream filling.

I should also note that I had heard mixed reactions from my sister and niece who had already tried the mochicream. Still, I brought my box home, cut them into pieces and forced my family to do a taste test with me.

All the mochicream have a wonderful, soft exterior that was the right consistency of fresh mochi. And like I said, they were all very pretty. But the distinguishing factor is the filling, which can often be a sweet (or too sweet) cream.

My niece and I liked the peach flavor, which wasn’t overly sweet like how many mochicream flavors can be. But we felt the melon flavor fell into that category, almost like achingly sweet candy. The sakura flavor was very subtle, almost bland, and the double mango was just OK.

The worst was the green tea, with the exterior coated with powdered macha. (None of us could finish our bites.) It had a nasty flavor that didn’t blend well with the mochi. But my favorite was the caramel, which reminded me of eating a light Chantilly cake.

I’m sure there are other mochicream flavors that might be enjoyable, just like how there are probably some like the green tea flavor that might turn you away from trying another mochi treat ever again. Unless you try it often, mochicream is like a box of chocolates. Some are surprisingly good while others you just want to secretly sneak back into the box. (As for me, I rather stick with mochi ice cream.)

Shirokiya at the Ala Moana Shopping Center, 1450 Ala Moana Blvd., Honolulu. PH: 808.973.9111. Web site

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Travel Dish: Shokudo Japanese Restaurant & Bar (Honolulu)

I’m in the home stretch of my posts from my recent vacation in Honolulu. Gosh, I didn’t realize how much I ate during this trip until I started blogging about it. But don’t worry, this vacation slide show is definitely coming to an end. The following is one of four final posts that should wrap up my Hawaii vacation posts this week.

Fun and Wacky Dishes with Friends or Family
1585 Kapiolani Blvd., Honolulu
Ground floor of Ala Moana Pacific Center near Ala Moana Shopping Center
Open Sun.–Thu., 11:30 a.m.–1 a.m.; Fri.–Sat., 11:30 a.m.–2 a.m.
PH: 808.941.3701
Reservations recommended, major credit cards accepted
Validated parking behind the restaurant

Most of my vacation was spent with my mom and family, but I saved one Friday night for a mini reunion with some high school friends. I told them I wanted to go to someplace new and fun and that’s how we ended up at Shokudo Japanese Restaurant a few yards down from the new Nordstrom parking structure on Kapiolani Boulevard.

Shokudo has actually been open for more than two years, but it was new to me (and my friend Margaret who suggested the place). Its name means “dining room” and shouldn’t be confused with “sudoku,” which is the Japanese mind puzzles. (For some reason, I had “Sudoku” on my mind and I kept telling my family that’s where I was going that night. They were completely confused.)

When I arrived, the restaurant looked like a ramen noodle shop with its bright colors and somewhat tacky letterings. Sitting outside was my friend Leslie, who got there early because her optometry office is just a few steps away. (BTW, if you’re looking for an optometrist in Honolulu, you should check out my friend Leslie. She’s really nice and her new place is centrally located on Kapiolani Boulevard near Ala Moana and, of course, Shokudo. Tell her Chef Ben sent you!)

We went in to claim our table at this bustling place and ordered some drinks and a couple of pupus (Hawaiian for appetizers) while we waited for the rest of the gang. Leslie says she comes here often with her young kids, and I can see why. The place is loud, so kids could scream and no one would bother. Since this was a Friday night, however, I saw mostly young people at the bar ready to kick off the weekend with some specialty drinks. I got the specialty cucumber mojito, and the drinks totally remind me of a place like T.G.I.Friday’s where everything is colorful and crazy. (One of my friends later ordered something called “Lava Flow.”)

The place was splashed in red, including this huge red-cloth lantern in the center of the dining room. The servers were all young and dressed in black. They were all very friendly and fun to chat with.

Leslie and I ordered the Seafood Dynamite ($9.95) because I remembered how fun it was when I had it at Nihon Whisky Lounge in San Francisco. Leslie also ordered the Tofu Salad ($8.95) because that’s her favorite. By the time we placed our orders, the rest of my friends arrived: Margaret, Bertha and Gordon. Let the party begin!

Shokudo is a place where the menu has photographs of the food, so it’s definitely not like eating at someplace like Nobu. But the prices are more reasonable, and my friends ended up ordering a lot of food. Here’s a look at everything that came that night:

First up was the Seafood Dynamite. This didn’t come flaming like it did at Nihon in San Francisco and the taste didn’t compare either. I like the version at Nihon better. Shokudo’s Seafood Dynamite, served with pieces of bread, were OK but without any distinguishing flavors.

The Tofu Salad is probably really healthy for you but it was a bit boring. It was like they just cut up some greens and put the tofu on top, then dressed it up a bit. While it tasted all right, I didn’t exactly love it.

Hamachi Carpacchio ($12.95). This was one of the really beautiful dishes that came out that night. The hamachi (yellowtail fish) was pounded flat like carpacchio, giving it a super tender texture and elegant taste. Again, the arrangement on the plate took advantage of the beautiful coloring of the raw hamachi fish.

Mochi Cheese Gratin ($6.95). This is one of Leslie’s favorite and I had a lot of reservations about it. Basically it’s mochi, which is the steamed Japanese sticky rice, combined with cheese baked into a gratin. In my mind I just thought it would be a big plate of goo. But when it arrived, I took my first bite and was totally transformed into a supporter of this dish. The chef was smart to balance the cheese and mochi with the saltiness of the thinly sliced seaweed on top. The seaweed combined with the mochi and cheese created a wonderful umami flavor. I loved it. (Not recommended for old people who may choke, though!)

Chicken Karaage with Spicy Tartar Sauce ($8.95). I told the gang that I wasn’t into fried foods, but they could order one dish if they wanted to. So of course they went for the chicken karaage, which is the traditional Japanese-style fried chicken. The plate looked really big but I can’t vouch for the taste because there were so many other dishes that I passed on trying it.

Oh, they sneaked in another fried dish. This is a big plate of fried calamari. Pretty standard stuff. Again, didn't try it. I'm not into grease.

We had two orders of sushi rolls. One was the Tempura Roll ($10.95) and the other was the Spicy Tuna Roll ($9.95). Both were done really nicely. The tempura roll didn’t really have a strong greasy flavor that you sometimes get from the fried tempura, and the tuna roll was nice and fresh. (BTW, this is the kind of wacky place that serves sushi pizza.)

We got two kinds of ishiyaki dishes. Ishiyaki is the cast-iron rice dishes that get their influence from Korean cuisine. The dish comes to the table in a hot cast-iron bowl, and the server asks if she can mix it for you. Of course, I’m always in for dinner and a show so we had her mix up the Ishiyaki Unagi ($9.95) that we ordered. The barbeque flavor of the unagi (broiled eel) contrasted nicely with the slightly burned rice. We also got the Ishiyaki Garlic Shrimp ($11.95), which was also good but I liked the unagi better. (For some reason, I didn’t get a shot of the shrimp ishiyaki, I think because I was too busy eating the unagi rice.)

Old-fashioned Yakisoba Noodles ($8.95). This was our final dish and it’s supposed to be yakisoba noodles, which are the pan-fried noodles. But in this picture you can hardly tell they’re noodles because they garnished it with a wee bit too much bonito flakes. Some Japanese restaurants like to garnish with bonito flakes, which are shavings of the dried bonito that’s made with shrimp and other seaweed flavorings and used for broth, because when the thin shavings are placed on top of something hot, the heat makes the shavings do a little dance. You just have to take my word for it (or go to a Japanese restaurant where they serve a dish with bonito garnish and see for yourself).

Shokudo’s diverse menu will certainly make anyone satisfied. And despite the fact that it looks and acts like a T.G.I.Friday’s (the crew comes out to sing if it’s your birthday), the food is surprisingly good. It’s creative, fresh, hearty dishes that’s part comfort food, part crazy creations. Definitely a fun place to spend with friends while reliving your childhood days.

Single guy rating: 3.25 stars (wacky good)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Shokudo on Urbanspoon

Drunken dessert: Cherries Jubilee
My friends and I were full from all the food at Shokudo, but we still wanted dessert. We decided to go someplace else, but for some reason we all ended up at Gordon’s house and we forced him to make cherries jubilee for us. We were all slightly drunk (or maybe it was mostly me) so this is what happens when you make cherries jubilee while under the influence. I, for one, was just glad I didn’t have to cook in the kitchen while on vacation. Enjoy!