Sunday, April 6, 2014

Dessert | Sprinkles Cupcake ATM (NYC)

On Saturday, Jess and I found our way to the latest queuein' craze in New York City: the Sprinkles Cupcake ATM. Currently residing right next to the NYC flagship location, the Cupcake ATM opened two weeks ago, and we both definitely were fascinated not only by its novelty, but also about how it worked. I mean, c'mon! How can you not be curious about it?

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By the time we got there on Saturday afternoon around 4 PM, there was already a line past the entrance of Sprinkles Cupcakes, but in the grand scheme of things (for a NYC line, that is), it wasn't bad at all.

Lo' and behold -- the Cupcake ATM in the flesh:


We made sure not to read too much about it so that when it came to be our turn, we'd be magically surprised. For all we knew, there was someone behind the contraption, manning the ATM orders. Boy did we underestimate the Cupcake ATM! You can see lit-up shelves lined with individually boxed cupcakes behind the translucent storefront, which incidentally holds up to 760 treats (cupcakes, cookies, etc.). The machine is continuously restocked throughout the day and evening with baked goods no more than several hours old and close to 20 flavors at a time. The best part? Just like a financial institution's ATM, the Cupcake ATM is open 24 hours, seven days a week!


After waiting about 20-25 minutes (and contemplating this month's flavors), it was finally our turn! The screen asks you to press it to begin, and it prompts you to select a cupcake flavor. I believe you can select up to four cupcakes per transaction (as the first iteration of the machine in Beverly Hills was upgraded from one to four at a time). After you select your desired flavor(s), credit card payment is requested, and then the magic begins.

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The Cupcake ATM screen shows an internal camera of the ATM at work -- essentially the robotic requisition of your desired cupcake(s). So cool, right?! Wait, there's more!


Once the Cupcake ATM has done its handy work (a minute or so), the dispenser door opens up, and voilà -- a literal cupcake withdrawal!


Me with the ridiculously cute Cupcake ATM!

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Jess withdrew the last dark chocolate (Belgian dark chocolate cake with bittersweet chocolate frosting), which is always a go-to for us. She also got a second flavor -- coconut (Madagascar bourbon vanilla cake with coconut cream cheese frosting).


As for me, I withdrew two flavors of the month -- Cuban coffee (pictured above: Belgian light chocolate cake with powerful coffee frosting and notes of cinnamon and cocoa) and lemon meringue (graham cracker-lined fragrant lemon cake filled with lemon curd topped with toasted meringue) as well as triple cinnamon (lightly spiced buttermilk cake with cinnamon cream cheese frosting dusted with cinnamon sugar), which is now my new favorite.

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Until next time...

Findings: While many people may remain skeptical about the Sprinkles Cupcake ATM, I think the idea is ingenious, and the execution embodies this ingenuity in its streamlined and awe-striking design. Talk about satisfying the late-night munchies with a moist and perfectly sweet treat from Sprinkles at any hour of the night! And like you may pay a convenience fee at a monetary ATM, there is a 75-cent premium added to the bakery's per-cupcake price for all cupcakes withdrawn from the Cupcake ATM -- which makes total sense given the extra packaging and added convenience. The novelty of the Cupcake ATM reignites a familiar excitement to a city where the cupcake has come and gone in the last decade. Highly recommended to impress out-of-towners (or even for someone who needs to renew his or her faith in the gratification received from enjoying a dessert as simple as a cupcake, especially one dispensed from an ATM for cupcakes)! I would say it's definitely something to try once yourself -- you'll be glad you did. Otherwise, you can't go wrong with the flagship bakery (see reviews here and here) right next door.

Price point: $4.25 for each ATM-withdrawn cupcake (originally $3.50 from bakery)

--April 5, 2014

Sprinkles Cupcake ATM
780 Lexington Avenue
New York, NY 10065
http://www.sprinkles.com/locations/new-york/new-york/cupcake-atm

Friday, March 14, 2014

Toasts | in memoriam of Baba, iii

ANOTHER YEAR GONE BY: IN MEMORIAM

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First slice of my homemade malted chocolate pecan pie.

With another year gone by, here I've baked another pecan pie on Pi(e) Day for my father, my 爸爸 (Baba), keeping my own vow to honor the memory of him and his passing on this day with the celebratory consumption of a (pecan) pie, a play on words that still rings with me today. I can't seem to find the right words to express my emotions today as my heart is especially heavier than it has ever been in the past. So I wish to wholly express my grief, my release, my loss, and my memories with this labor of love -- baking a pecan pie from scratch. It is undoubtedly a personal testament to patience and discipline, two humble virtues my father held in a very high regard. Wherever he may be, I hope he is proud of the woman I've become and the person I wish and strive to be, as I'm proud to say I'm his one and only daughter. Miss you and love you always, 爸爸.

Me with my parents at my cousin's wedding, July 1994.


IN THE KITCHEN: FOUR & TWENTY BLACKBIRDS' "MALTED CHOCOLATE PECAN PIE"

I'm a huge fan of this fantastic bakery in Brooklyn (my personal favorite is the salted caramel apple pie), so when its two sibling owners, Emily and Melissa Elsen, released their cookbook last year, I immediately made sure to get my hands on a copy. It is a fantastic cookbook on mastering the art and techniques of pie making and includes the recipe for the malted chocolate pecan pie that I decided to take a stab at for this dedication.

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It was a six-hour operation (not including the crust's overnight preparation), and while the pie isn't a perfect picture, boy was it delicious (especially a la mode with vanilla bean ice cream). Here's to you 爸爸, thank you for all that you taught me, for always supporting me, and for being the bravest man I've ever known.

Please enjoy a slice of pie (or tart!) today in memory of my father on Pi(e) Day! :) Thank you for letting me share this special dedication on this day. Happy Pi(e) Day!


 P. S. I've included the recipe below for those interested! :)

Emily & Melissa Elsen: The Four and Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book, 2013

"All-Butter Crust" with "Partial Prebaking" (pp. 207, 68)
Single-Crust Pie

INGREDIENTS:
The Crust
1¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
½  teaspoon kosher salt
1½ teaspoons granulated sugar
¼ pound (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch pieces
½ cup cold water
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
½ cup ice

The Egg White Glaze (for Partial Prebaking)
1 egg white (Note: Save egg yolk for the pie filling!)
1 teaspoon water

ADDITIONAL TOOLS:
pastry blender
bench scraper (or spatula)
pie pan (preferably glass)
pastry brush
whisk
pie weights (or beans)
rimmed baking sheet

RECIPE:
Prepping the Dough
Stir the flour, salt, and sugar together in a large bowl. Add the butter pieces and coat the flour mixture using a bench scraper or spatula. With a pastry blender, cut the butter into the flour mixture, working quickly until mostly pea-sized pieces of butter remain. a fewer larger pieces are okay; be careful not to overblend).

Combine the water, cider vinegar, and ice in a large measuring cup or small bowl. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of the ice water mixture over the flour mixture, and mix it and cut it in with a bench scraper or spatula until it is fully incorporated. Add more of the ice water mixture, 1 to 2 tablespoons at a time, using the bench scraper or your hands (or both) to mix until the dough comes together in a ball, with some dry bits remaining. 

Squeeze and pinch with your fingertips to bring all the dough together, sprinkling dry bits with more small drops of the ice water mixture, if necessary, to combine. Shape the dough into a flat disc, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, preferably overnight, to give the crust time to mellow. Wrapped tightly, the dough can be refrigerated for 3 days or frozen for 1 month.

Partially Prebaking the Dough
Have your crust rolled, crimped, and rested in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. When it's fully chilled, use a fork to price all over the bottom and sides, 15 to 20 times. This step, called docking, helps eliminates the air bubbles that can form when the dough is exposed to heat and also prevents the crust from shrinking. Place the crust in the freezer.


"Malted Chocolate Pecan Pie" (p. 188)
9-inch, Single-Crust Dessert Pie

Excerpt: Barley malts are an unexpected ingredient for pie making. We add barley malt syrup to our pecan pie along with some dark chocolate... Our neighbor Brooklyn Homebrew is a great online source for it. We use their Briess Traditional Dark Liquid Malt Extract.

INGREDIENTS:
All-Butter Crust for a 9-inch single-crust pie, partially prebaked

The Filling
1½ cups pecan pieces (Excerpt: We like to use chopped pecans rather than whole; it creates a better balance of nuts to crust and filling. It's also easier to cut and easier to eat.)
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, melted
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate (55% cacao)
1 cup packed light brown sugar
¼ cup barley malt syrup
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ cup sour cream
3 large eggs
1 large egg yolk

ADDITIONAL TOOLS:
rimmed baking sheets
sauce pan, medium
wire rack
whisk

RECIPE:
Prepping the Filling
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. To toast the pecans, spread them in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet and place in the oven for 6 to 8 minutes, or until the nuts are fragrant, stirring occasionally. Set aside to cool.

Bring an inch of water to a simmer in a medium saucepan. Combine the butter and chocolate in a heatproof bowl large enough to rest on the rim of the saucepan, above the water. Melt the butter and chocolate over this double boiler, whisking occasionally until smooth. Remove from the heat. Add the brown sugar, barley malt syrup, salt, cinnamon, and ginger, and stir well. Mix in the sour cream, then the eggs and egg yolk one at a time, stirring briskly after each addition. Stir in the cooled toasted pecan pieces.

Place the prebaked pie shell on a rimmed baking sheet and pour int he filling. Bake on the middle rack of the oven for 52 to 57 minutes, rotating 180 degrees when the edges start to set, about 35 minutes through baking. The pie is finished when the edges are set and puffed slightly and the center is slightly firm to the touch but still has some wobble (like gelatin). Be careful not to overbake or the custard can separate; the filling will continue to cook and set after the pie is removed from the oven.

Allow to cool completely on a wire rack, 2 to 3 hours. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature. The pie will keep refrigerated for 3 days or at room temperature for 2 days.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Chef's Tasting | Sushi Nakazawa

A couple weeks ago, Marcus took me to Sushi Nakazawa as an early celebration for my birthday. Chef Daiksuke Nakazawa, the shy and humble chef who had appeared in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, had been in pursuit of making the perfect tamago for Chef Jiro Ono at his famed restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, in Japan. So when I first heard that Chef Nakazawa would be opening his very own sushi restaurant here in New York City this past fall (with partner/owner Alessandro Borgognone), I knew we had to make it there for a meal here as soon as we could fit it in. With that being said, we were so incredibly psyched to finally meet Chef Nakazawa and experience his apprenticed mastery of sushi-making that garnered from his eleven years with Chef Ono.

Sushi Nakazawa
 We planned the dinner as precisely as we could (i.e., 30 days in advance) via OpenTable. Tables are released nightly at 12:01 AM for both the sushi bar and the dining room. As these reservations get snatched up quite quickly, I recommend logging into OpenTable about fifteen minutes before, preparing all the desired reservation settings ahead of time so all you have to do is press "Find a Table" at midnight. All the advice I can offer aside from this is to be quick and DO NOT hesitate. If you can, the dining experience at the sushi bar is -- hands down -- the way to go. Interacting directly across from Chef Nakazawa and his team is so much fun and also makes for notable dining theatre. Please note, though, there are only ten seats at the sushi bar, and the restaurant does three seatings per evening.

sushi bar at Sushi Nakazawa
The décor of Sushi Nakazawa's sushi bar is simple and minimalist -- a greyscale combination of a white countertop, a black speckled marble platter for sushi presentation, and the remaining fixtures a tasteful mix of blacks, greys, and whites.

fresh housemade ginger
Each diner gets his/her own ramekin of fresh housemade ginger. Very biting and refreshing!

sushi chefs at work
Shortly after we were seated, the sushi chefs made their way to their stations and speedily began preparing for the omakase ahead.

Chef Daisuke Nakazawa
Chef Nakazawa got things started quickly, preparing the first pieces of sushi for us.

Sushi Nakazawa "proudly serves one of the most in-depth sake collections in NYC with a focus on each element of the omakase menu." Sommelier Rick Zouad has curated this list, "focusing on all prefectures of Japan featuring some of the most elite sakes and best microbrews available." Along with by-the-glass options, the restaurant also offers two sake pairings with the omakase: a basic pairing of five different sakes for $40, and the premium pairing of seven different sakes for $80.

Joto sake
The first sake was Joto Junmai (if I recall correctly), which was to be paired with the first two pieces of sushi, both of which were from the salmon family. The sake had a very fruity taste to it (mainly pear fruit) and was slightly chilled.

cherry salmon
The first piece of the omakase was cherry salmon from Hokkaido with a sprinkling of sea salt. It was a bit meaty, but not in the traditionally expected way, making it the perfect first nosh. It went beautifully with the sake, as the temperature of the fish and sake blended very nicely to enhance each other's flavors.

smoked chum salmon
Next up was the hay-smoked chum salmon from Hokkaido. It had that texture of cured salmon (it was smoked, after all) as well as a gorgeous smoky flavor to it. The ridges of the salmon made for a nice bite, and this also went really well with the sake -- the smokiness really brought out even more from the sake.

The second sake was Kaori Junmai Ginjo, which was lighter and less aggressive than the last sake. With touch of white pepper on the palate, this sake was to be enjoyed with the next five pieces.

(live) sea scallop / hotate
This was hotate (scallop) with yuzu peper and a sake sauce from Maine. This piece was very memorable in that it was still live when Chef Nakazawa served it to us -- he even asked us to give it a little poke to see that it could still move. While that may have seemed unsettling to the timid of diners, I was unbelievably excited to try live hotate for the first time. It was peppery and tiley -- a texture that was less "blobby" than most scallops I've had previously. Having it served live truly does make a difference. The hints of white pepper from the Kaori sake played well against the yuzu pepper in the scallop.

giant clam (geoduck) / mirugai
This next piece was mirugai ("giant clam" or geoduck) from Washington state. Lightly torched, the mirugai was thinly sliced and had a delightfully snappy texture to it. Mirugai is always a treat for me, and this ocassion at Nakazawa was even more so. The barely blackened exterior from the blowtorch gave it that extra dimension of je ne sais quoi that sets this apart from your typical mirugai sushi experience, plus the hint of white pepper from the Kaori sake complemented this flavor profile well.

silver pompfret
The following piece was a variety of fish that I've never heard of before (and thus, have never had either) -- silver pomfret from Japan with black pepper flakes. It was a combination of light and savory with a denser punch from the black pepper flakes and the Kaori sake.

black gnomefish
Another variety I got to try for the first time was the black gnomefish with lemon seasoning. It was a really fun combination of crackly, smoky, and zesty -- another solid complement with the Kaori. Definitely one of my favorites in the omakase.

fluke / hirame
The last piece paired with the Kaori was the hirame (fluke) with yuzu. The yuzu added some pretty citrus notes, making a solid piece of fluke. Hirame isn't necessarily my favorite when it comes to sushi, but it was probably the best prepartion of fluke that I've ever had.

The third sake in the pairing was the Kurosawa Junmai Kimoto for the next five pieces. This sake is meant to be more granular and velvety than the previous sakes to take on the oiliness of the next pieces of fish (especially with the shellfish) and really bring out the latent umami flavors.

horse mackerel / aji
The first mackerel in Chef Nakazawa's omakase was the aji (horse mackerel) with ginger. You know mackerel is prepared to perfection and really damn good when it doesn't taste like mackerel. Yeah, yeah -- it definitely sounds like a senseless tautology, but it's totally, 100% true. When it doesn't taste any bit fishy, you know the sushi chef really knows his stuff -- and Chef Nakazawa really, really knows his stuff. The aji was a nice introduction to the coming flight of mackerel, as it had just a touch of oiliness, and was a stellar pairing with the Kurosawa Junmai (which cut right through the oils and enhanced its umami experience).

gizzard shad / konoshiro
The second mackerel was konoshiro (gizzard shad), which had a more intense oiliness to it compared to the aji. It was very wise to serve the mackerel pieces in a progressive order, from light to heavy, this way the sushi bar patrons can gradually sink their teeth into this bold family of fish. Mackerel isn't necessarily a variety of fish that I crave (like uni, hamachi, or salmon), but I do appreciate it when it is showcased in a beautiful way like it was here to show the contrasting repertoires of fish in the world of sushi. Since the konoshiro was heavier than the aji, it went even better with the sake pairing.

pickled (aged) mackerel / kohada
The last of the mackerel was the kohada (mackerel) from Fuji, Japan that had been pickled and aged for seven days. The kohada had a smoother and tamed oiliness to it than the preceding pieces, most likely as a direct result from its aging process. The mackerel is no doubt something to ooh and ahh about at Sushi Nakazawa.

(live) tiger shrimp
This next piece was a pretty lively one -- quite literally, too. Chef Nakzawa placed ama-ebi (tiger shrimp) from Florida on the counter, and instantly, it started to move and jump around a little. It was still alive!

(live) tiger shrimp
After that brief show of dancing ama-ebi, Chef Nakazawa bid farewell to the shrimp with a simple, tongue-in-cheek "Sayonara, Shrimp!" and quickly snapped its head to prep to serve it as pretty much live sushi.

(live) tiger shrimp
Here it came -- the ama-ebi served (pretty much) live. Before, I had had my fair share of sweet shrimp and ebi, but never had I experienced it served that fresh. It is worth noting that the shrimp indeed tasted sweeter than any raw shrimp I had enjoyed previously. Filed away as one of the most surreal eating experiences, eating live ama-ebi was such a thrill (perhaps it was just knowing that the ama-ebi was just alive seconds before serving). Either way, doesn't matter -- it was crazy good, end of story.

(poached) tiger prawn / kuruma-ebi
To follow the ama-ebi was just kurumaebi (tiger prawn) of the Madagascar rouge variety. This was prepared similarly to the ama-ebi, only with a couple extra steps. During the first half of the omakase before the ebi, I watched the apprentice sushi chefs preparing the kurumaebi in a manner both precise and seamless for the dining room patrons in true Jiro Ono style -- the prawns are killed merely minutes before (just like the ama-ebi) and immediately flash-boiled. I also just found out from reading A Life Worth Eating's review of Sukiyabashi Jiro that the kurumaebi "is sliced in such a way that the flavor and juices of the head are incorporated with the meat, and so the head itself is not necessary." The result was tiger prawn exquisitely cooked to perfection. It had that magical texture, balancing between barely touched and lightly cooked (descriptors inspired by Chef Eric Ripert), with none of that unfavorable mealiness you get sometimes with shrimp. One of the most impressive dishes that evening (though to be fair, I was really impressed with nearly everything), a true testament to the care and discipline that goes into the art of sushi making at Sushi Nakazawa.

The fourth sake pairing was Seikyo Omachi Namazake which was to be paired with the next five pieces of sushi. This sake has a hint of clove flavor and was selected to be enjoyed with meatier fish as it has more structure to cut through these fattier and more savory cuts.

wild yellowtail / hamachi
The first of the fattier sorts of fish was hamachi (wild yellowtail). It had a delightful marbledness to its texture, one that melted the same way as toro (fatty tuna) would, which is something I haven't really experienced with hamachi so that was a really fun surprise. I loved this piece so much that I ordered it once more at the end of the omakase.

My camera decided to stop working at the most inopportune time, when Chef Nakazawa served hay-smoked bonito from Japan (you can find a shot of it here from Time Out New York's review). The bonito had a peppery-ginger flavor to it along with its light smokiness where the texture was part structured, and part savory (i.e., melty). Many dimensions of umami here, making it one of the most delicious pieces in the omakase.

lean bluefin tuna / akami
Just as he did with the mackerel, Chef Nakazawa began the next flight of tuna with the leanest of cuts -- akami (lean bluefin tuna) from Boston. I typically find akami to be bland in taste/flavor and boring in texture -- there usually isn't much going on. However, the bona fide sushi chef knows exactly how to coax the hidden flavors from this lean cut of tuna, and Chef Nakazawa is truly an honest-to-goodness wizard of these sorts. While the akami here was very meaty, it also had a soft tenderness to it -- pretty close to the kind of tenderness experienced with the fattier cuts of chu-toro and o-toro, without marbleization to help bring that out (meaning it all comes from the preparation of the fish alone). If the akami at Sushi Nakazawa doesn't turn the tuna skeptic onto Team Tuna, then for him/her it will forever be a lost cause.

soy-marinated medium fatty bluefin tuna / chu-toro
Next came chu-toro (medium fatty tuna) marinated in soy sauce, which you can tell from just looking at it that it was going to be amazingly good.  I didn't pass up a chance for an encore of this. Chef Nakazawa hit that culinary sweet spot with just the right amount of soy marinade, tucked sweetly in the small crevices of tuna fat.

fatty bluefin tuna / otoro
And the epitome of all that is good in the world of sushi, here was served o-toro (fatty bluefin tuna) with a marbledness that glistened with the most captivating luster. Quite (well, almost) literally the sopressata of the sea, kindred spirits in appearance and fattiness, the o-toro was a divine spectacle to witness firsthand. It not only had that rich, melty quality to it (as you would expect in the fattiest of tunas), but it also boasted a refined texture, one that is deliberate and precise for the purpose of bringing the ultimate mouthwatering rumination.

Murai Nigori Genshu (unfiltered) sake
The last sake pairing was one that had to be photographed because of its unique opaque quality. This sake, Murai Family Nigori Genshu, is just as interesting as it appears as it emphasizes the umami flavors and textures of the remaining four pieces of sushi in the omakase. It has subtle hints of coconut and boasts a sweet, creamy finish. Probably my favorite sake from the entire flight of five -- need to track this down and get a few bottles to enjoy at home!

Santa Barbara sea urchin / uni
First to be paired with the Murai Nigori Genshu was the uni (sea urchin roe) from California. Uni from California consistently has that subtle brine to it along with a rich, buttery texture, which I always look forward to when I have an evening out to take in New York City's sophisticated sushi scene. You would imagine my surprise when I encountered a twist to my regular favorite -- the sake pairing brought forth a tropical element that was both playful and unexpected. The quality of the uni is simply exquisite, right in line with the quality establishment that is Sushi Nakazawa. Can't imagine what live uni would taste like here if regular uni is like this!

soy-marinated chum salmon roe / ikura
After the uni wasthe soy-marinated chum ikura (chum salmon roe), surrounded by the perfect strip of nori, one that was well-toasted with a quiet, delicate crunch. These briny orbs bursted right into the warm rice for the wonderful combination of salty and richness. Really well done!

sea eel / anago
The last fish of the omakase was the anago (sea eel), and it was the best anago that I've ever had. It was just the right amount of kabayaki glazed on top (a very light coating) and had a sweet toastedness to it. It was a very lean cut of the eel, which really brought out the true flavors of it without any distractions of the overly fatty and oily ones you see regularly.

tamago
Last but not least was the famed tamago (sweet, fluffy egg custard) -- the recipe that Chef Nakzawa had made over 200 times before he finally received a nod from Chef Ono during his time at Sukiyabashi Jiro. This tamago was unlike anything I had ever tasted before. It wasn't at all like the steamed egg deal that you would usually find in your everyday sushi joint. It was more of a dessert in sushi form, one that had a brilliant dichotomy of sweet and savory, dancing between a fluffy sponge cake and a dense pound cake -- incredible culinary ingenuity at work, for sure! What's also interesting is that Chef Nakazawa is deeply meticulous in that he "cuts the tamago in two pieces forwomen so bites aren't as cumbersome." It was truly surreal to try Chef Nakazawa's signature dish firsthand -- to witness the result from disciplined perseverance to achieve the ultimate version of something. You won't truly understand what I'm talking about here until you try the tamago for yourself!

After the tamago, Chef Nakazawa asked the ten patrons at the sushi bar if there was anything else they wanted. Marcus and I couldn't resist having another piece of chu-toro to savor. I also had another hamachi, while Marcus had another hay-smoked salmon.

yuzu sorbet with pomegranate and raspberry
Before the official end of the meal, we were served some green tea and a palate cleanser -- yuzu sorbet with pomegranate and raspberry. Tangy and citrusy, the sorbet ended our meal in a pleasant and refreshing way.

Findings: I am happy to report that hype surrounding Sushi Nakazawa is not one of myth or disappointment -- instead, it is everything you would imagine it would be and more. A dining experience here is both relaxed and magical. You get to hang out for an evening with a chef who is not only unbelievably talented but one who is adorably entertaining and has a contagiously upbeat spirit. Watching him work his wizardry on gorgeous varieties of fish is such a treat -- his muscle memory in sushi-making brings out the best and brightest flavors is simply astounding, especially his "Goldilocks balance" with just the right touch of wasabi in between the fish and rice.

Unlike many of the upscale sushi bars in this city, the ambiance at Chef Daisuke Nakazawa's eponymous restaurant is relaxed and comfortable with modern Zen touches abound. In fact, the dining style is what Chef Nakazawa refers to his style as New York-mae --  "not quite as traditional as his training in Japan, but it’s not entirely Americanized either." If this is what the future of New York City sushi looks like, then I definitely want to stay on board. I've had the pleasure of visiting many of the city's top places (including Sushi Yasuda, Sushi Dojo, Ichimura at Brushstroke, Sushi Azabu, Jewel Bako, Sushi of Gari, and 15 East), and while most are pretty damn good, they pale in comparison to the birthday dinner I had at Sushi Nakazawa, which was bar none the best sushi dining experience I've ever had (though, if I had to pit another place to be close to this, it'd be Ichimura). So if you have a chance to come here, there's no need to think about it -- please do!

A big thank you to Marcus for such an unforgettable birthday dinner -- love you! :)

Price point: $150 for a 20-course chef's omakase, $40 for sake pairing of 5 varieties.

--February 21, 2014

Sushi Nakazawa
23 Commerce Street
New York, NY 10014
http://www.sushinakazawa.com

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Dinner | Soto

Firstly, I would like to apologize my absence over the last 3-4 months. I got caught up with the bean counting part of my life, and I hope to make a more regular return to Four Tines in 2014. I definitely had really great expectations of how the year would finish on the blog, but I ended up spreading myself too thin, burning out before the year was over. I apologize for this unexpected radio silence, so I hope that I can focus on quality (over quantity) from here on out. In the last year, I've found my favorite niches in this grand city and have become the regular patron of a handful of places -- something I thought I could never commit to doing because of the sheer variety and choices New York City has to offer. A lot has changed for me, so I hope to regain my voice again and share with you my adventures in eating -- however few/many and far between. Thanks for all of your support -- it really means so much! :)

◈  ◈ ◈

Last Friday, I found myself in the West Village with Lisa, once again to celebrate our upcoming birthdays this month -- another year gone by. We had celebrated at Atera last year, so we thought to return to our alternating tradition of New American and Japanese. Soto had been on our list for the longest time, making it a fitting choice of venue for us this year.

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The restaurant resides right on Sixth Avenue, but even then, its exterior is pretty unassuming. I nearly passed it at the first go. Like a well-kept secret in the middle of the neighborhood's hustle-bustle, Soto is hidden away behind these windowed walls with smaller cut rectangles speckled throughout. 

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Once inside, the restaurant is serene and pretty quiet -- just the occasional echoes of service plating and soft chatter. It is a temple for Japanese cuisine. 

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The menu is dated, which implies it is updated daily. There are about fifteen or so items on each side (two pages, front and back), so there were quite a lot of dishes from which to choose. And in case you were wondering if there was ever a restaurant offers an emporium of sea urchin on its menu, Soto is that very spot. There are nearly ten dishes that contain it alone. That's a whole lotta uni -- you can bet your bottom dollar that we got on board with that right away. Let the uni feasting begin!

Our waitress guided us through the menu, suggesting that we sorder about twelve dishes in total from the menu -- roughly four from each page of the menu if you're not getting any sushi/sashimi (we decided to focus on the menu dishes rather than the sushi selection as there were many original creations to explore). We could only really decide on eight definite dishes ourselves, with the remaining three selected with help.

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We started with sharing the miso soup -- lobster and uni broth, sliced fresh ginger shoot, and chives. It had those clean yet profound flavors that you would expect from a solid miso soup, yet there was a really interesting twist with the added savories of plump lobster meat and creamy uni as well as a flavor highlight from the freshly sliced ginger. I highly recommend starting out your dinner with this -- very fun as it paints your palate for what's to come.

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Next came that aoyagi clam cocktail with sliced live sea clam marinated in truffle-ginger soy sauce with fresh ginger shoots. We had no idea what "cocktail" meant until it arrived in this frosted martini glass. While presentation was quite exquisite, the execution of flavors was not so much. The ginger soy sauce was pretty bland, and there was an overload of fresh ginger shoots which were so pungent that it took away from the live sea clam slices. A sad and disappointing dish for us. ;[

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This next dish made up for the previous mishap. We were very curious about the ankimo -- steamed monkfish liver with ponzu and scallion -- one of our favorite Japanese dishes. I've only had it a couple times before (incidentally, my first time ever trying it was with Lisa at Ichimura at Brushstroke), and just with those experiences alone, I can tell that it must be difficult to prepare it well, as much of the flavor comes from the quality of liver. I am happy to report that the ankimo at Soto is fantastic -- savory and creamy all at once with the perfect balance struck with ponzu and scallion. The rounded cuts in the back and the square-ish cuts in the front each had slightly different textures, the square-ish being a bit softer and more buttery. Almost quite literally the foie gras of the sea, this is a dish that cannot be missed.

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Also from the small plates section was uni and yuba -- black soy bean milk skin with the restaurant's finest uni and served with shiitake broth and shredded nori. Look at those golden lobes of uni roe, glistening atop the silky heap of yuba in a flavorful broth. This was a very delicate dish, one that had a lighthearted interplay between rich, savory minerality (the uni) with the clean, silken feathers (the yuba) swimming in a broth that captured the beautiful essence of the shiitake. You wouldn't think this unusual combination would work, but it magically does.

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From the sushi bar, we opted for the octopus carpaccio -- steamed octopus with citrus, sea salt, sesame oil, yuzu-kimizu, and salmon roe -- garnished with pickled cucumber. I love all preparations of octopus, but always remain skeptical when it is served raw, where it becomes a slippery slope to get it at its optimal texture (i.e., not chewy or slimy). I'm not sure how Soto gets it right, but this carpaccio not only is a gorgeously plated dish, but one that shows off the octopus with a favorable texture, an excellent preparation, and a spot-on pairing of ingredients. You need to have a little bit of everything in each bite -- a slice of octopus carpaccio with the yuzu-kimizu, an orb of salmon row, and a slice of pickled cucumber -- making for a playful composition of flavors

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In alternating order, our waitress brought out our first dish from the kitchen -- braised black cod (i.e., soy broth braised sable fish) with Japanese vegetables (i.e., satoimo, turnip, and shimeji mushroom). Can't ever go wrong with ordering black cod, and that also applies here at Soto. It is a very savory variety of fish -- one that melts onto your palate with its smooth flakes of meat. The cod also was nicely marinated, as the filet captured the soy broth quite graciously. Not a bad dish to have alongside the uni-heavy menu! ;)

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Another dish from the sushi bar was the tuna tartare with chopped big eye tuna, pine nuts, Asian pear, cucumber, scallion, sesame seed, and shredded nori in a spicy sesame sauce. For me, this was probably the most vibrant and playful dish of the evening (even more so than the octopus carpaccio), if merely because of the deep magenta colored tuna mixed with the greens of chopped cucumber and scallions and the pop of the cream-colored, shredded Asian pear. This may have seemed like your typically Americanized tuna tartare dish, but I thought the addition of pine nuts and Asian pear made it really unique. It had fun textures (refreshing crunch from the pear and a nuttiness from the pine nuts) and interesting flavors blending together (again, the sweetness of the pear with the more savory nature of the remaining ingredients). It was a brightly painted dish in many aspects, and if you're a tuna lover, this is right up your alley.

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Returning back to the sushi bar menu, next came the uni ika sugomori zukuri -- Soto's finest sea urchin wrapped in a thinly sliced squid with shiso, quail egg, and tosa soy reduction. There was SO much going on with this dish -- we had to take a few moments to brace ourselves with how to properly proceed eating it. It totally looked like a bird's nest, with the shredded nori as the nest and the quail egg yolk emulating the unhatched egg.

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So we just decided to say, Screw it, and we just tossed it all together -- it was gonna taste however it was gonna taste no matter what. What a gorgeous mess, right?! Hahaha, oh man. Anyway, this course certainly made for a memorable one, as the strings of squid were like udon noodles and the uni and everything else were like the sauce. It reminded me of a combination of dishes I've had at Yuji Ramen (i.e., the broth-less uni miso ramen) and Sakagura (i.e., the abundance of shiso in the uni soba). For me, it was the remarkable texture of all the ingredients that made me fall in love with dish. Lisa just said it was her favorite -- done and done.

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Another dish from the kitchen, the shiso agedashi -- deep-fried shiso wrapped scallop and fluke served in dashi broth -- was something recommended by our waitress. The scallop and fluke were well-battered (it had that golden, loose crunch) and had a great dashi broth, but other than that, it wasn't necessarily anything else noteworthy to add. It's a great basic dish, but there are other items on the menu that are probably worth exploring if you're looking for something more out-of-the-ordinary.

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Geez, Soto really nails it with the plating -- here's yet another awe-striking sight, another one from the kitchen: layers of steamed Maine lobster with uni mousse in lotus wrap, daikon radish, and caviar, all under dashi broth. The uni mousse had us pretty curious, and sure enough, it gave the steamed lobster an alternative dressing (as opposed to the typical melted butter) to go with the Japanese touches of lotus wrap and thinly sliced pickled cucumber. The briny-ness from the caviar added another dimension to the clean flavors of the lobster and the creamy butter of the uni mousse. Overall, a well-curated dish.

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The last dinner course for the evening was another recommended by our waitress (one that I am glad we didn't miss out on!) -- lightly broiled New Zealand langoustine under shiitake sauce and covered in thinly sliced shiitakes. I've never seen a langoustine in its shell before, so guess I can finally cross that off my list! The presentation here is undoubtedly captivating, and upon diving into the broiled langoustine forks first, it was so perfect -- easily the most savory dish of the evening (suggesting the dinner's course progression from refreshing to savory). The meat was at the ideal temperature (lightly cooked) with the lightest coat of a delicious cream over which the thinnest mushroom slices were layered. It all came together as a beautiful synergy of rich flavors, surprising me how this could easily be my favorite at Soto (and thereby making this one of the can't-misses).

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Lisa and I could never end an evening at a Japanese restaurant without dessert of some sort (usually just a couple scoops of green tea ice cream) so the shared platter of assorted mochi ice cream (left to right: strawberry, green tea, red bean, vanilla, and mango) really hit the spot.

Findings: If there's something true about Soto, it would be that it takes the cake for having the most uni offered on a dinner menu (as the main ingredient or an accompaniment) AND that these dishes are outside of the typical offerings of just uni sushi/sashimi or uni pasta/ramen. If sea urchin is something you love and dream of, then you have come to the right place -- Soto will totally satiate any and all cravings. Along with the creative uni-inspired items, Soto is also quite imaginative in its plating and presentation -- we were thoroughly impressed with the beauty and precision of all our courses.

So with that in mind, while we loved the majority of the things we ordered (a little over half, give or take), we were also underwhelmed by the other courses which made us question the restaurant's two-Michelin star rating. Bearing cost in mind (it is pretty hefty at roughly about $100 per person, before gratuity), I'm not sure how confident in recommending a trip here, given the ratio of wows and mehs that we balanced that night as well as the vast offerings on the menu that we didn't have room to try. With Soto, you should definitely go with recommendations (like the ones I gave above) from seasoned diners so you can be sure to hit all of the can't-misses.

All in all, I'm going to err on the side of favorability and say that if you're looking for a culinary adventure in the realm of Japanese creativity, then Soto will be that place for you. Lisa and I didn't have a chance to tackle the sushi/sashimi by-piece/omakase available (a whole separate beast, in my opinion), so I would definitely be willing to return to check that out. In the mean time, please enjoy the photographs that documented our birthday celebration at Soto!

Price point: $9-18 for each small plate, $16-26 for each dish from the sushi bar, $14-28 for each dish from the kitchen.

--February 7, 2014

Soto
357 6th Avenue
New York, NY 10014

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