Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Purple Pig in Chicago

Porky Goodness and More
500 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago
River North
PH: 312.464.1744
Open daily from 11:30 a.m.
No reservations, major credit cards accepted


The conference I attended didn't include meals, which meant we were on our own in figuring out where to eat and get back in time for the next session. Luckily, I spotted The Purple Pig near our hotel on our first day and remembered reading that this restaurant was named one of the top 10 new restaurants by Bon Appetit last year.

My co-workers and I went for lunch, and after a 30 minute wait, we were seated at one of the high communal tables. The Purple Pig had a whimsical feel with a cheat sheet explaining ingredients tacked on lamp shades above the table and quotes on wine from famous people written on the wall.

The menu is extensive, with a variety of dishes that has a Mediterranean slant. Our server said the plates were small and meant to share, so we ordered a few plates and started to pig out.

When you visit a place called The Purple Pig, you have to order the Pig Platter ($29). And when it arrived, it literally was a pig platter, a wooden plank with a carved pig's head.

The Purple Pig makes all its charcuterie, and there was a nice variety on the platter although I don't know what they were since there wasn't a guide and the server who dropped it off didn't give us the run down. I know there was a prosciutto and a few salumi, and maybe a version of mortadella? Doesn't matter because they were all good, with subtle differences in taste and intensity.

Among the small plates that arrived was this Salt-Roasted Beets with whipped goat cheese and pistachio vinaigrette ($6). I'm a fan of beets, and really enjoyed how the deep flavors of the beets were balanced with the creamy whipped goat cheese and the contrasting vinaigrette. This was one of our favorite plates.

One dish that gave off a strong Mediterranean feel was this Olive Oil-poached Tuna with Greek lima beans ($7). The tuna chunks were so tender, and so were the huge lima beans. They were a perfect combination.

The menu also has a section called "Smears," which are spreads on croistinis. We tried the Fava Bean, Pea and Ricotta Salata smear ($6), which had a beautiful bright green color topped with the ricotta salata. The actually smear was light in flavor, and not as bold as the color.

Here's the Charred Cauliflower with toasted breadcrumbs ($6). You might not be able to tell since the cauliflower is covered by the breadcrumbs (and some cornichons), but the cauliflower was actually lime green. I don't know if it's actually cauliflower or the romesco version that I sometimes see in the spring markets? Either way it was crunchy and tasty, with a slight grilled flavor from the charring.

While most of the dishes we ate were served room temperature, I felt we needed more of a hot dish so I ordered something from the Ala Palancha section, which is the Spanish hot platters. We got the sepia, another nod to my Barcelona memories when I would eat grilled sepia (cuttlefish) almost every day.

The Purple Pig's version was cut in slices, different from the whole sepia I got in Spain. But they were cooked perfectly with a nice grilling to bring out the umami flavoring of the sepia.

We were able to have this amazing lunch and get back in time for our session, and while we did a good job of not stuffing ourselves, we definitely left feeling satisfied. If I lived in Chicago, I would put The Purple Pig on my regular rotation just because the menu changes often and there are so many different and innovative dishes to try. Call me a pig; I don't care when I'm eating here.

Single guy rating: 4.25 stars (Lots to munch on)

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

The Purple Pig on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Chicago Dog Part II: Redemption

I just got back from a long weekend trip to Chicago, where I attended a design conference. While I was there, I kept thinking about my failed attempt last year to eat a classic Chicago dog, so I knew my mission was to find and eat one.

I was even determined to spend the moolah to hire a taxi to arrive at some of the popular gourmet hot dog shacks in the outskirts of town, but when I asked the hotel concierge which place would be easier to get to, her response was "do you want to eat where the tourists go or where the locals go?"

I felt like such a tourist, wanting to go to the Food Network featured spots and stand in line for more than an hour for a hot dog. Finally, my lazy ass convinced me to go to a longtime spot that wasn't too far from my hotel -- Portillo's.

Portillo is actually in a part of Northside Chicago that does seem touristy with the largest McDonald's across the street along with eateries like Hard Rock Cafe and Rainforest Cafe. When I entered the festive-looking Portillo's, it was like I entered a ride in Disneyland with the dim lights, bright neon signs and city dwellers' facade.

Portillo's sells a lot more than just hot dogs, but I was on a mission. I stood at the stand for sausages and asked someone who worked there what was the Chicago dog. "You're out of town, huh?" she said, noting that there's nothing called a Chicago dog, like how you don't get Chinese food in China.

Basically, anything made with vienna beef is a Chicago dog, but it's also the condiments that go on top. I ordered the Portillo's beef hot dog ($2.45), which was topped with creamy mustard, relish, chopped onions, red tomatoes, kosher dill pickle spear and what's called "sports peppers."

I waited to pick up my order and then sat down to dig in. Even though the Chicago dog doesn't have ketchup, I didn't miss it because of the tomatoes. I didn't think the vienna dog was any different that hot dogs I might get at the baseball park, but it's really all the condiments lather on topped that was genius.

I couldn't eat the dog with the large pickle spear, so I just took that off and ate it as I ate the dog. The bun was a bit mushy and not that special, and the tomato slices were a bit messy to eat. When it came to the "sports peppers," they were tiny hot peppers that were super spicy. I ended up only eating one of them.

After I accomplished my goal of eating a Chicago dog on this trip, I rewarded myself with a small bowl of frozen custard, sold at a nearby counter. I've never had frozen custard, and thought they'd all be yellow like custard, but it actually comes in different flavors. At Portillo's, they sell chocolate and vanilla and have an assortment of specialty sundaes, but I just got a small vanilla with Oreo cookie crumbles.

Frozen custard was really creamy and thick, and I really enjoyed it. The Oreo cookies were a bit stale, but I didn't care. It was a nice way to wash down my dog.

And just to show you that I really went all out with the Chicago traditions on this trip, my co-workers and I went to Lou Malnati's for its deep dish pizza the night before. The deep dish pizza was loaded with cheese and fresh tomatoes that weren't tart, sprinkled with house-made sausages. What was amazing was the crust, some kind of twice-baked crust that held up nicely but was easy to bite into. Most of my co-workers could only eat one slice and save another slice for breakfast the next day.

Don't worry, I ate at a lot more Chicago spots and will be posting about them later this week. But for now, I can say that I'm no longer a Chicago dog virgin.

Portillo's, 100 W. Ontario St., Chicago (and various locations). PH: 312.587.8910.

Portillo's Hot Dogs (Chicago) on Urbanspoon

Lou Malnati's, 439 N. Wells St., Chicago (and various locations). PH: 312.828.9800,

Lou Malnati's Pizzeria (River North) on Urbanspoon

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Criolla Kitchen in San Francisco

Southern Home Cooking in the Castro
2295 Market St. (at 16th), San Francisco
The Castro
PH: 415.552.5811
Open daily from 6 p.m.; weekend brunch from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Major credit cards accepted; no reservations

This weekend is Pride in San Francisco, but I’ll be out of town and will miss it for the first time in some years. But since there’ll be lots of people roaming town, I thought I’d feature a restaurant that’ll probably get a lot of business in the Castro.

Criolla Kitchen is a new restaurant that opened in the prime location of Market and 16th, once the home for what I considered an institution, the Bagdad Café. It was a longtime greasy spoon that was popular for the late-night dining and the people watching. I’m not really clear what happened to make Bagdad Café close, but Criolla Kitchen has some big shoes to fill in the community for that spot.

I visited Criolla Kitchen on a Sunday with my friend Ken. The space got a fresh look, but much of the layout and open-air feel of Bagdad Café was retained. Because Criolla Kitchen doesn’t take reservations and the “what’s new” crowd has been keeping this spot busy, we got there just as the doors opened at 6 p.m. to get a table.

The chef in the kitchen of Criolla Kitchen is Randy Lewis, who’s not a stranger to the area because he helmed the kitchen during the heydays of Mecca in lower Market. But at Criolla, Chew Lewis has created a menu featuring Southern-style cooking, primarily the food of New Orleans.

I also love the idea of Southern cooking, but I always forget that there’s very little I can eat because of the tendencies for things to be deep-fried, which some of you know by now I’m not a big fan of. Criolla’s menu does have fried chicken and standards like po boys and fried catfish.

They also have a whole section of slow-braised BBQ, which I do enjoy. Unfortunately, our waiter told us they didn’t have any BBQ items. That was kind of odd considering the restaurant just opened, but apparently they don’t make BBQ every night. So it’s kind of hit and miss if BBQ is serving on the night you show up.

So what did we eat?

Well, to start, I got half a dozen of charbroiled oysters ($9.90) served with crusty bread. I like the idea of grilled oysters, so I imagined this would be the same. The oysters smelled heavenly coming out, and looked quite plump. It did seem a waste, though, that they were presented on a platter of dried beans, which fit the theme of the menu but made me wondered what they did with the beans after I slobbered over them (you can’t really eat them since they’re still dried). The bread, also, was oddly like plain ole’ white bread even though it did have a flaky crust.

Ken tried a salad made with something called a mirliton ($5.90), a vegetable that’s shaped like a pear, apparently. The merliton was shaved thinly and then mixed with avocado and a lemon-cumin vinaigrette. I tried the mirliton and it was crunchy like a pear. Ken enjoyed the light salad.

For our entrees, Ken ordered from the Rice and Beans section, which lists several different items served with rice and beans. Being a vegetarian who eats seafood, he got the rice and beans with the garlic shrimp ($14.90). His platter came out with the shrimp on a skewer, with some greens along with his rice and beans. He said the shrimp had a nice grilled flavor and that the rice and beans were nicely cooked.

I also got shrimp, specifically the Gulf Shrimp Criolla and Creamy Ridgecut Grits ($14.90). I loved everything about the dish, especially the sauce that’s called Lewis’ “Holy Trinity” sauce. It was spicy with a nice tang that really had the perfect Creole flavors.

Side note: We had a great server who was friendly and came from the South so really was passionate about the menu. But one thing I noticed was there were a lot of servers for the place. As we ate, many of them were just standing around kind of just watching the customers eat.

Despite the lack of BBQ this night and the sprinkling of fried foods, I still was intrigued by Criolla Kitchen and its Southern cooking in the Castro. Its comfort food that’s fitting for the spot, which has always served as a gathering place for the neighborhood.

Single guy rating: 3.25 stars (Down home eating)

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

Criolla Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Cooking Daikon Cake with My Mom

My weekend back home in Hawaii was quick and my schedule was tight, but I begged my Mom to take time to show me how to make one of my favorite dim sum dishes called loh bak gou, or daikon cakes. These are the white, creamy gelatin like slices filled with bits of mushrooms and sausages. At the restaurants, they’ll usually serve them up pan-fried, with the crispy edge.

But when my Mom made loh bak gou at home, she would steam it and we would eat it piping hot from the pan, with all that fresh flavors.

The main ingredient of the loh bak gou is the daikon, which is the Japanese word for the white Asian radish (which kind of looks like a large white turnip). Most English speakers might recognize the Japanese word daikon even though this Asian white radish is popular in China, Korea and lots of other Asian cultures, too.

My Mom was very particular about what type of daikon to use. I never realized there were different varieties, but apparently each variety is popular with each culture. For example, the Japanese daikon is typically long and slender, like a big root. The Korean daikon is stubby and typically has shades of light green, like a mint blush. The Chinese version is stubby like the Korean, but pure white with no green coloring. My Mom said this variety often found in Chinatown is the best to use because they cook up without a bitter taste as the other varieties, which she says are best for soups.

It’s probably a good idea to get all the ingredients for this dish from Chinatown. (See full recipe below.) This is a real authentic Chinese recipe calling for certain ingredients you’ll only find in Chinatown, including the dried shrimp and the Chinese-style bacon, called lap yuk. The lap yuk is what my Mom used in the video below (where she makes her first special guest appearance in my cooking videos), but when we were small, she’d use lap cheong, the Chinese sausages, which I think a lot of restaurants use today.

The loh bak gou is pretty easy to make, but watching my Mom I could see a lot of the measurements are based on how things look, whether it needed more rice flour or more water, it all depends. In the end, it turned out like how I remembered. Now I can make it for myself at home, and you can too! Enjoy!

Daikon Cake Recipe

Copyright 2011 by Cooking With The Single Guy

4 lb. Chinese daikon (about 4 to 5), peeled, ends removed, grated
1 lb. rice flour (regular, not glutinous rice flour)
2 T wheat flour

2 cups dried shiitake mushrooms, rehydrated and diced to small bits
2 cups dried shrimp, soaked for about 10 minutes to soften and then diced to bits (retain water used to soak the shrimp)
2 cups Chinese style bacon (lap yuk) or Chinese sausage (lap cheong), diced to small bits
1 cup spring onion (aka green onion) or cilantro, finely diced
1 T fish sauce or oyster sauce
1 can (14.5 oz.) chicken broth
2 T chicken bouillon, powder form
1 T salt
3 T Canola or vegetable oil

After you grate your daikon (you can also use a food processor), place it in a pot with about 3/4 cup of water and cook over medium high heat for about five minutes until translucent. (If water dries up, add a bit more to make sure the daikon doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot.) When done, set aside to let cool and start prepping the filling. (There may still be water in the pot, and that’s fine. Don’t pour it out!)

In a sauté pan, warm 1 tablespoon of oil over medium heat and stir-fry all the ingredients for the filling: shiitake mushrooms, dried shrimp, and Chinese bacon or sausage. Cook for about two minutes to blend flavors together, then add oyster sauce or fish sauce. Set aside while you mix the flour mixture.

In the pot of daikon, add the rice flour and wheat flour, mixing thoroughly, then add 3/4 of the filling (reserve some for garnish), along with the chicken broth, chicken bouillon, 2 tablespoon of oil, one tablespoon of salt and the reserve water from the dried shrimp. The mixture should have the consistency of pudding, but not super thick. If it seems watery, add a bit more of the wheat flour. If it looks too thick, add some oil.

Pour the mixture into a 12-inch cake pan and place in a steamer large enough to fit it. (You might have leftover mixture. Just refrigerate and steam the leftover at another time.) You can create a steamer by using a wok with a stand and water or a large stock pot. After placing the pan on top the stand in the steamer, fill with enough water until the water level covers the bottom of the pan, up about 1/4 inch from the bottom. Cover and bring water to boil and steam for 40-45 minutes. Check the steamer periodically to make sure there’s always water. If the water is boiling too rapidly, turn down the heat because you don’t want water splashing into your daikon cake.

Check to see if the daikon cake is done by sticking a wooden chopstick down the center. If it comes out clean, it’s ready. Sprinkle the reserve filling and green onion all over the top of the cake, padding it down into the cake with a flat wooden spoon. Remove from steamer and let cool for a few minutes before cutting and serving.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

TIP: My Mom says the best daikon to use for this recipe is the short stubby daikon radish found in Chinatown. It might be labeled Chinese daikon. Don’t use the daikon with greenish tint or the long slender daikon.

PLUMPING MUSHROOMS: Shiitake mushrooms are sold dried in Chinatown, and to rehydrate them, simply bring a small pot of water to a boil and then add the mushrooms and cook for a few minutes until the mushrooms plump up. I sometimes had a dash of soy sauce to give the mushrooms a bit more flavor. Pour the water out and then soak briefly in cold water. You do this to help you in the next step: squeeze out the water in the mushrooms with your hand. (See, if you did this when the hot water, it'll be tough to handle.) Then the mushrooms are ready to use.

FRY IT UP: Refrigerate any leftover daikon cakes, and the best way to serve it up again is to lightly pan fry it with some oil in a pan or skillet. This way you get the crispy edge like the dim sum restaurants. When the daikon cake is freshly made, it’ll be tougher to pan fry because it’ll break easily. But after it’s been refrigerated, it’ll help stiffen it a bit to make it easier to handle.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Bomboloni is Back!

I’ve had a troubled relationship with the bomboloni. I fell in love with it first here when I discovered it at Boriana’s Corner. Then our relationship was strained when Boriana changed its supplier and the bomboloni wasn’t the same anymore.

Then we had to say goodbye when Boriana’s Corner closed at the Ferry Building because of increasing lease rent, and the bomboloni was no more.

But to my surprise yesterday while strolling the Ferry Building, I saw a stand outside the Village Market selling these beautifully rotund Italian treats! It was like an ex just came back into town but didn’t call or text, and I was all like “when did you get back?”

Turns out, Village Market realized how popular the bomboloni was at Boriana’s Corner, so it connected with the previous supplier and made arrangements to sell the bomboloni again from its storefront. Apparently they’ve been doing this the past three weekends. On Saturdays the bombolonis are available inside the store, but on Sundays they’re front and center at a makeshift stand.

The woman who was manning the stand wasn’t very helpful in explaining what was happening. In fact, she even tried to pass the bombolonis off as beignets because she said that was easier to say, but these bombolonis are no way like the crispy beignets of New Orleans.

Bombolonis are like jelly donuts, but there’s something about the way this bakery makes it (again, I don’t know the name of the supplier because the woman was pretty clueless) that gives them a beautiful round shape like balloons. They’re always filled, and my favorite the custard was still there. But instead of the popular Nutella (they really should bring that back), Village Market was selling a Pistachio cream and strawberry jam.

I bought the custard, of course, and the strawberry jam. I’ll have to save the pistachio cream for another day. (They sell for $2.50 each.) The custard was so satisfying, even though sometimes this bakery Village Market contracts with can sometimes brown the exterior a bit too much so that they look darker than what I remember. Still, the nice round shape and plentiful filling was so enjoyable that I’m such a happy camper to see the return of the bomboloni at the Ferry Building. The strawberry jam was very rich and tasted like homemade jam, fresh from the season’s best and a lot to lick your lips with.

Bomboloni, thanks for coming back into my life. I missed you!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Bun Mee Vietnamese Sandwich Eatery in San Francisco

Dressing Up the Classic Vietnamese Street Food
2015 Fillmore St., San Francisco
Pacific Heights neighborhood
PH: 415.800.7696
Open daily 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
No reservations, major credit cards accepted

One of my favorite lunch options is the banh mi, the Vietnamese sandwich made with meat and served with pickled vegetables all in a crusty French roll. And one of the great things about these things, often sold on the streets in Vietnam, is that you can find them often for less than $3 around the Bay Area.

So will they be as exciting when they're, let's say, from $5.95 to $7.95? That was the question when I visited the fairly new Bun Mee eatery in the ritzy Pacific Heights area.

To be helpful, the owners of this cute and classy casual dining spot named the place after how banh mi should be pronounced. And of course, the menu lists about nine different types of banh mi, some with unusual twists to the typical sandwich with names like "Sloppy Bun" (a type of Sloppy Joe version), "Smokey Eggplant," and "Juicy Steak."

On my first visit, I ordered the Belly Bun ($6.25), a banh mi with braised pork belly and embellished with salted radish relish and shaved onions, along with the traditional garnishes of pickled carrot, daikon, cucumber, jalapenos, and cilantro. With my sandwich, I ordered a side salad portion of the Mango sesame salad ($3.25)

I sat at the counter along the back, where you get a front row seat of the workers putting together sandwich. I was right by the guy handling the deep-frying station as he prepared sweet potato fries.

As I waited, I sipped on my Strawberry Lychee Agua Fresca ($2.50), which was refreshing but a little on the sweet side, probably because of the lychee.

When my plate arrived, everything looked fresh and colorful. The salad was primarily Napa cabbage shreds with just a few pieces of fresh mango. It was light and healthy, but some how didn't blow me away like when I'd eat a green papaya salad and the dressing is just the nice mix of flavors.

My pork belly banh mi was like a typical banh mi I'd get in Chinatown except you can barely see the pork belly in the photo since it's topped with so many of the fancy ingredients. Still, the pork belly inside was very tender and so easy to eat.

I returned another time because I wanted to try one of their two rice bowls on the menu, which is the other major items other than the banh mi. There's only a Caramel Citrus Rice Bowl ($11.95) and a Saigon Peanut Rice Bowl (also $11.95), and I got the citrus bowl just because I love the idea of caramel and citrus. You have a choice of pork, grilled chicken, tofu, grilled steak or prawns to go with your bowl, and I went with chicken.

Before my rice bowl, I ordered Bun Mee's Green Papaya Salad ($3.50), the classic Vietnamese salad made with shredded unripen papaya. This tangy salad is one of my favorites, and Bun Mee's version was a nice serving size with the added vermicelli noodles and topped with crispy shallots. I liked how all the ingredients were fresh, but somehow I felt the dressing was a little too much.

My rice bowl arrived and it was a colorful array of ingredients such as avocado, grapefruit and orange segments, and pickled papaya and daikon sprouts. I thought my chicken would be like how the Vietnamese make caramel fish, with the nice thick sauce, but instead it was just grilled chicken, which was good but nothing amazing. Even though the bowl had all of my favorite ingredients like avocado and citrus, for some reason all the ingredients didn't seem to blend well. Maybe it was because the lime vinaigrette sauce didn't seem to tie everything together and I really didn't get why it was called a caramel bowl.

Bun Mee is an upscale version of the banh mi shops in Chinatown or the Tenderloin, and you pay for it. I enjoy the creative options and I appreciate the fresh ingredients, but somehow it seems like it's missing something to bring it all home. Still, it's a place I would drop in for a nice quality lunch in the neighborhood, but it won't drag me away from my favorite banh mi shops elsewhere.

Single guy rating: 2.75 stars (Gourmet sandwiches)

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

Bun Mee on Urbanspoon

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Smitten Ice Cream in San Francisco

The weather in the Bay Area has finally warmed up, just in time for the start of summer next week. And when the weather gets hot, everyone cools off with ice cream. The latest entry to artisan ice cream in San Francisco is Smitten Ice Cream in Hayes Valley.

I actually visited Smitten a few weeks ago, so the flavors I’m going to talk about may not be there if you visit now because Smitten makes its ice cream with locally sourced seasonal ingredients, although it does have a couple of standard everyday flavors.

When I first approached Smitten with my friend Ken, who lives nearby, I was surprised to find that it was pretty much a fancified shack or kiosk. For some reason I thought it might be a small shop on the tiny Linden Street alleyway, but it was really a shack.

I loved the chalkboard sign with the whimsical graphic illustrations of the ingredients, showcasing how the ice cream is made with natural ingredients. But the main twist to Smitten is that the ice cream is made to order using liquid nitrogen.

This isn’t my first taste of liquid nitrogen ice cream. Remember when I visited here in Chicago? So Smitten is pretty much the same idea, except it’s only been doing it since 2009 and they don’t let you create your own flavor. You have to order what they list on the menu.

The menu is also pretty limited. When I visited, there were only four flavors: vanilla and TCHO chocolate (considered the standards), and two seasonal flavors of salted caramel and rhubard. (I think right now they’re offering a summer herb flavor instead of the rhubard.)

Another thing about the made-to-order concept is that different flavors set at different times because of what’s inside; like the salted caramel takes a bit more time because of the salt. Because of this, you’re not allowed to mix flavors if you want to order a double scoop. So how did I get past this? I ordered one scoop each of two different flavors.

Ken was still full from our brunch, so he just ordered the kid’s size of the TCHO, which he thought was great and creamy. BTW, you can watch them create the ice cream, although it was a bit hard to see because of the screen they used to shade themselves from the sun. It takes about 5 to 10 minutes to get your ice cream.

My rhubard flavor came out first, and it had an odd texture and was a bit tart. Initially I thought it was too tart, but it was one of those flavors that I grew to enjoy. By the time I was done with my single scoop of rhubard, my salted caramel was ready.

The salted caramel was a bit melted on the edges, but it had a nice creamy texture although the caramel flavor wasn’t as strong. I liked it better than the rhubard, but I wouldn’t call it the best ice cream in town.

Smitten Ice Cream offers some solid flavors but is it any better just because it was made on the spot? I’ve had richer, creamier ice cream that was made earlier in the day and still tasted fresh. So the liquid nitrogen is a fun twist, but it doesn’t necessarily add anything special to the ice cream that’s eventually served up.

But the emerging foodie neighborhood of Hayes Valley was calling out for an ice cream shop, so Smitten Ice Cream has nicely filled the void.

Smitten Ice Cream, 432 Octavia St. (at Linden), San Francisco. Open daily from noon to 9 p.m. (till 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday).

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Morimoto Waikiki in Honolulu

A Tamer Iron Chef Menu
1775 Ala Moana Blvd. (inside the Waikiki Edition Hotel), Honolulu
Ala Moana/Waikiki neighborhoods
PH: 808.943.5900
Open daily, 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Reservations, major credit cards accepted


So here’s my last post from my recent trip to Hawaii, and I saved the best for last as I feature my lunch with my Mom and sister at the elegant Morimoto Waikiki, which as you can guess by the name is the Hawaiian outpost of Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto.

Morimoto Waikiki opened more than a year ago in the Waikiki Edition Hotel, which I knew growing up as the Ilikai Hotel. (The Ilikai still exists but apparently it split and the main part is still called the Ilikai and the other half is known as the Edition.) Even though it has Waikiki in its name, the restaurant is actually at the beginning of Waikiki, closer to the Ala Moana Shopping Center than the tourist center of Waikiki Beach.

Walking into the restaurant is like walking into an ocean spa. The cooling color scheme and contemporary décor gives off a minimalist feel, with splashes of color from two huge colorful images of orchids. At the reception area, you’re greeted with souvenirs for sale, including T-shirts and Morimoto’s cookbooks.

Even though my sister made reservations, the spacious dining room was barely filled for a Saturday. We settled in at our table, and I admired the translucent blue chopsticks at the table.

One of our servers greeted us and explained some of the specials on the menu. But basically he recommended 80 percent of the items on the lunch menu, which to me sounds like a lot to eat for lunch. So we went with our own choices, and there were a lot to choose from, from lunch bento sets to sushi.

I ordered as a starter for my Mom the kakuni, which is the 10-hour pork belly ($16). There were a lot of things that hinted at Chinese cooking, including a rice congee base. My Mom said the pork belly was very tender, and she liked the glaze although she did feel it leaned toward the sweet side.

My sister ordered the hamachi tartar ($22), which she’s had before and wanted me to see the presentation. Basically if you look at the background of the photo, the pinkish slate is actually the hamachi that’s been grounded and spread on the board. You eat it with a scraper, taking off as much as you want. In the front are a variety of condiments, including wasabi, Maui onions, nori paste, sour cream and what looked like rice cracker balls.

I ordered the sashimi Caesar salad ($16) because I needed my greens. The presentation was beautiful with the full leaves of the baby romaine glistening in the creamy dressing and topped with a quail egg. The sashimi (or raw fish slices) were the restaurant’s special sustainable toro tuna, which is farm-raised in Japan. The toro was thick and fatty, and encrusted with black sesame.

Side note: Although the service is friendly, it’s not very intuitive. Only chopsticks are at the table, but I really don’t understand how you’re expected to eat some of the dishes with just chopsticks. For example, I had to ask for a spoon for my Mom to eat the rice congee (a porridge) at the base of her pork belly and I had to ask for a knife to cut my romaine lettuce because they were too big to put in my mouth in one bite.

For our entrees, my Mom got one of the lunch sets, featuring the braised black cod ($22). The elements of the lunch set were pretty basic, including a bowl of miso soup, a side salad, and rice. My Mom said the fish was cooked perfectly and she again liked the glaze, although maybe a bit on the sweet side. (Apparently umami at Morimoto leans toward the sweet.)

My sister got an array of sushi, which came in a beautiful cobalt blue rotund tray that provided a nice contrast to the sushi.

I couldn’t decide what to get for my entrée, but Morimoto had a play on the Hawaiian local favorite called “loco moco,” which is a bowl of rice piled on with a hamburger patty and brown gravy and topped with a fried egg. It’s the surfer’s stamina lunch.

Morimoto’s version is called “loco moto” ($18) and is made with wagyu beef instead of hamburger. I decided to try it to see Morimoto’s creative take on the loco moco, but the only real difference is that he presented the dish’s ingredients in almost a yin-yang design with a sunny side up egg at the center. There wasn’t anything else added to it to take the loco moco to an Iron Chef level.

Still, the wagyu beef slices were tender and delicious, and this was a filling plate of food. The red pickled ginger also helped cut into the heavy beef.

Everything we ate was delicious and elegant, but nothing experimental or super creative you’d expect from an Iron Chef. Morimoto Waikiki is still a beautiful room and during the day the breezy feel and sunshine from the patio give you that island feel with some quality food. It’s definitely raised the bar for fine dining in Honolulu.

Single guy rating: 4.25 stars (High-end Japanese cuisine)

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

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