Culinary Code Cracked: Harvard Square Gets Good Dining!

It took a long time, but, finally, my neighborhood of Harvard Square where I can walk to have something to eat, has restaurants worth visiting.  Night Market opened in the past few months.   Santouka opened a few weeks ago.

Night Market is a pan-Asian restaurant with a counter in a cellar setting with a small, focused menu of small plates which emphasize vegetables paired with chicken, beef, pork, or tofu.  Many items are Thai-inspired, some are Taiwanese, a couple are Japanese.

Santouka is the 32nd outpost of a ramen franchise that opened in Hokkaido almost twenty years ago.  Thick, milky colored pork broths, great noodles that are outsourced, and a room where jazz plays and the North American staff greet you in Japanese.  You might as well be in Tokyo except for the prices.  In Tokyo a bowl of ramen at Santouka, tax and service included, is $9.  Here it’s $15.

Both new restaurants share an appreciation and understanding of flavors, textures, serving sizes, atmosphere, and presentations that are associated with several Asian countries.

You can be sure that their approach will catch on here and throughout the city.

In five years you’ll see the dinosaurs of restaurants die out.  Bye-bye burgers, offal, $15-18 appetizers of vegetables with fancy sauces, stuff fried in duck fat, so many ingredients on a plate that you know the chef must be a genius, pork or veal fourteen ways, and the chef’s interpretation of what he or she thinks is French food.

Asia.  Think Asia.  Focused plates with a few perfect or near perfect ingredients that draw on tradition and create new versions.  The idea is to please the guest.  What a concept.


The Italian Genius

OK, so Chinese comes close.  Very close.  If you’re cooking at home and know what the Hell you’re doing.  But Italian cooking is proof positive that there are laws hidden in nature about the power of food and the ease of cooking it if you look around and pay close attention.

Cooking Italian is genuinely a sensual experience.  I don’t mean that in a Nigella way or some miserable person’s discovery that the okra is better than the sex.  I mean that when you cook Italian food, as is true with any cooking, you need to use your senses.  The difference between the sensuality of Italian cooking and, say, French, is that there are an immediacy and improvisation to it.

You smell that the onions are done.  You touch the pasta to see if it’s done.  You hear the water about to boil.  Etc.

Take last night.  Seven minutes start to finish.  Except for boiling the water and waiting for the pasta.  That took about 22 minutes–but I’m reading while the water boils and the pasta cooks.  (A collection of poorly translated early stories of Kawabata.  Got to finish that so I can get back to “Act One” by Moss Hart.)

Anyway, where was I?  Right, the dinner.

OK, take a cast iron frying pan.  Add about four tablespoons of good olive oil. Put the heat on low.  Add about 1/4 teaspoon of dried, crushed chili peppers.  Slice 1/2 an onion.  Slice two garlic cloves.  Turn the heat up as high it can go.  Add the onion and garlic.  Stir until gold in color.  Take a decent sausage.  Squeeze it out of the casing.  Add to the pan.  Stir and press down until it breaks up and turns brown.  Turn off the heat.  Add about 1/2 cup of Pomi chopped tomatoes.  Turn the heat on low.  When the pasta is done, add it.  Serve hot with grated parmigiano.

Total cost for two?  About $2.50.  Italy.  I’m telling you.


Well, I don’t have to tell you what day it is tomorrow, you already know.  But in case your neighbors or office mates are living in their own worlds, please let them know that it’s Hionmatsuri.  Exactly.  Girl’s Day in Japan.  Every March 3rd.  Write it down.

Time to reflect on a girl’s happiness and past, her future prospects, maybe…maybe even her role in society when she becomes an adult.  Who knows?  It could happen.

According to Wikipedia, “The customary drink for the festival is shirozake, a sake made from fermented rice. A colored hina-arare, bite-sized crackers flavored with sugar or soy sauce depending on the region, and hishimochi, a diamond-shaped colored rice cake, are served.  Chirashizushi (sushi rice flavored with sugar, vinegar, topped with raw fish and a variety of ingredients) is often eaten. A salt-based soup called ushiojiru containing clams still in the shell is also served. Clam shells in food are deemed the symbol of a united and peaceful couple, because a pair of clam shells fits perfectly, and no pair but the original pair can do so.”


Simple Pleasures in Food

I’m finishing up my piece on craft beer brewing in Japan, how from prefecture to prefecture, styles vary, alcohol content varies, and while some of the beers are an homage to German beer or I.P.A’s, others have a deep, quirky originality about them.  They are essentially like so much production in Japan: An uneasy mix of mimicry, precision, and woeful creativity.

Woeful because it’s a struggle culturally to diverge from what’s seen as the consensus.  Which makes the creativity that does emerge at last shocking and spectacular.

Meanwhile, closer to home, I enjoyed a pizza from Santarpio’s last night.  This East Boston restaurant ranks among the top ten in my book.  I’ve never been inside the dining room–I go to the back where the guys scoop sauce from a small, burned pot onto the perfect dough and then add toppings and then hide the toppings underneath mozzarella.  Into an oven the size of the wall, and soon we’re talking perfect pies.

Mine was supposed to be half anchovy, half sausage.  Where were the anchovies?  If you think I’m calling them up to complain that they forgot to add them, you have got to be kidding.  Maybe I couldn’t find or taste them, OK?  You got a problem with that?  Look, I’m busy, tell your mother.


How To Lose Weight

I’m not saying there’s nothing to eat in Boston.  There’s plenty.  Got a hankering for burgers, pizza, wings, fried food that’s bastardized from an array of Asian cuisines?  You are all set.  Eager for pig’s ears, fried rabbit, tails, squid, and the cheapest fish this side of tilapia?  Pull up a chair.  Celebrating?  Why, dinner for two at mislabeled “French,” “Italian,” or “Japanese” joints can run you easily and routinely no less than $300 per couple.

Whew.  Glad I got that off my chest.

Seriously.  Ask around in the hospitality industry both in the city and elsewhere and they’ll tell you the same thing.

Take last night.  Please.

It’s 7 P.M. I’m hungry.  Long day dodging piles of snow and plows.  Looks like there’s nothing in the house to eat.  I check out delivery sites on the web.  The best bets are Soul Fire (Allston) and Felipe’s (Harvard Square).  Both are actually terrific restaurants.  But, gee, I don’t know, do you feel like having pork ribs, delicious though they are, or tacos, flavorful as can be?

So then we do we go out?  Night Market is wonderful.  And so is Giulia.  But that wonderful on a night when the temp is under 20F?

The spa diet is on hand: I find two waygu-style burgers in the freezer I’d ordered in December from DeBragga.  There is a bag of baby Yukon’s in the fridge.  A sliver of Emmental.  And miracle of miracles!  The last two sesame seed buns from Martin’s!

Now that’s something to eat.

Culture Shock? Culture integration?

Contradictions aren’t really contradictions, there’s no science or nature to suggest that events which seem to be at odds with one another are really at odds.  It could very well be that it’s the anecdotal experience or perception which makes for discordance.  In other words: Things actually fit together.  There is affiliation between what appear to be opposites.

Pragmatically, we’re talking about:

A thin slice of fried tofu I brought back from my friend Mika’s favorite tofu “factory,” in Kyoto–the factory is a hole-in-a-wall beside the Kamo river.  She recommended I place it on a hot skillet to crisp it.  She was right.  Served up with a tiny dish of soy and powdered spices, including powdered yuzu, and sake from Niigata.  In front of a blazing fire.

A large fresh mozzarella pie, half sausage, with a cold Lagunitas “Little Sumpin,'” so strong and bitter I could only finish half a glass.

And, finally, dried Blenheim’s with chocolate squares from Japan chased by a sip of Nikka Yoichi 15 year old–has to be the best whisky I have ever tasted.

Am I in Japan?  New England?  Italy?  Home?  Visiting?


Back in the USA

The eleven hour flight on ANA from Narita to JFK flew by.  It felt more like eight or nine hours.

As the carrier is Japanese, most passengers were as well, which meant that it was quiet enough to sleep a lot of the way.  The seats reclined in Economy, the attendants were pleasant, and with spice I carried with me from Japan, the food was fine.  I read Kawabata and edited my new book.  I fell into a deep sleep about thirty minutes before landing.

I’m now in the US Airways lounge in transit to Boston.  The flight is in two hours.  The noise everywhere is louder than the past two days.  In the lounge are apples, oranges, coffee, tea, water, and two kinds of bagels, raisin and plain.

People speak loudly into cell phones without regard for others around them: “Hey, Bruce.  That thing.  That thing last week.  One of the values must be low somewhere. It’s no problem, but I just thought someone should see about it.  OK, not a problem.  I just thought someone should look into it, etc.”

This feels like eleven hours.

Ja matta, Japan!

On the final morning of this latest whirlwind visit, I’m thinking of when I will return and hope that it is no later than June.  Then perhaps it will be time to visit farmers in Hokkaido and Noto Peninsula and friends here in Tokyo and other prefectures.

But before I return for the 16th visit, isn’t it time to improve upon my Japanese?  I can order a meal, negotiate a sale, ask directions, and feel the comfort which precedes listening to a foreign language.  Time to build on these rudiments.

Yesterday I shopped for gifts and an “eki-ben” for the plane ride home.  Settled on yakitori for the latter: Momo negima, tsukene, kawa.

Later that same day met up with Yumi and she was kind enough to be my interpreter for an extremely informative meeting with the managing director of Japan’s Professional Cheese Association.  Wait and see if the Japanese cheese industry doesn’t grow and surpass expectations.

That night the GM of a well known hotel invited me to a private dinner.

Soon it will be back to reality.  But at least I will have the 15 year old Nikka I bought yesterday to help inspire recollections.

The Fog Over Tokyo

The city is obscured this morning, but not so hidden as to be unseen.  The day ahead is promising.  I am meeting with a person to talk about hotels.  I am meeting with the head of Japan’s Cheese Association: What do you suppose we will talk about?  Could it be cheese?

I arrived back in the city late yesterday afternoon and returned to the same room where I started this trip.  The afternoon was spent editing; the evening was with friends Rie and Robb at Pirouette in Toranomon Hills.

Toranomon Hills is modern complex of offices, shops, and retail that opened last year.

The restaurant is French in style with Japanese ingredients and preparation, and it is very good.  Think marinated beef cheeks in miso and then slow braised for hours.  But above all it was vegetables that were important: The young chef, a charming guy, grew up on a farm and it shows in his menu.  Really delicious food.

Tokyo is always surprising as well as familiar.  Quite like the city physically now due to the fog.

Sado Island & Back To Tokyo

I took the high speed boat early yesterday morning from Niigata City to Sado Island, about eighty miles off the coast and in the Sea of Japan, accompanied by my friend T.   We had a day planned of visits to agricultural producers and people involved in food.

The boat took an hour.  Our seats were assigned.  It was quiet the whole way.  Passengers slept or read.

The day included a visit to a dairy plant where milk, cheese, and yoghurt are produced.  The products were first rate.  We tried milk that had a nutty taste.  The yoghurt was thick and sweet.  The two cheeses were mozzarella style and Gouda style: Young and delicious and tough to tell apart from their European inspiration.

We met an older baker and his wife in their sixties.  Both were delighted with life and the wife curtsied and made jokes while the husband couldn’t stop smiling.  The wife would not stop feeding us, and what we had was better than anything baked I’ve had in a long time.  The style was French in terms of crust and interior and salt and butter.  And there were Japanese touches like a baguette layered with stewed burdock and a light sesame paste.

Lunch was at a wonderful, large, hidden restaurant near a rice field where the kitchen served sashimi, noodles, tempura, and…pizza.  The udon was delicious.  In season briefly is buri: This yellowtail couldn’t be fresher.  The pizza had mozzarella from the dairy plant.  Have you ever eaten pizza with chopsticks?  Well, I have.

From there it was a stop at my friend Rumiko’s sake brewery MANOTSURU: I’ve known her nine years, and it’s always a pleasure to see her.  Her sake is stellar.  Afterwards, we went to the brewer who sells his sake to NOBU.  Stunning.

We took the two and a half hour ferry back to Niigata.  Passengers can choose between seats and tatami rooms.  We chose the latter.  Can you imagine the pleasure of napping on a futon with a clean wool blanket as you ride on the Sea of Japan?