Asian Food


Every time I come to Seattle, I come to Japonessa, a sleek and cheerful downtown sushi restaurant with a twist.  I am never disappointed, as Japonessa does a lot of things right.

Eel Cucumber Sushi and Salad

Eel Cucumber Sushi and Salad

No matter how busy the restaurant gets – and it gets plenty busy so be sure to make a reservation – I’ve always been greeted promptly and in a friendly way, and seated quickly.  I’ve never waited long to be asked if I’d like to get things started off with a drink, and a follow-up food order follows soon thereafter.  Which leads us to the food…

The food is an interesting mix of traditional Japanese sushi, sashimi, and some izakaya dishes (karaage, for example), as well as some dishes with a Mexican twist (thus, presumably, the restaurant’s full name: “Japonessa Sushi Cocina”).  Unlike some restaurants’ Franken-hybrids, the savvy cooks at Japonessa have found a nice balance between the kick and boldness of Mexican and other Central/South American cuisine, and more traditional Japanese cuisine.

One successful Japa-Mex marriage was the ginger chicken with a crown of tortilla chips.  There was the power of the ginger, the softness of the chicken, the smoothness of the sauce, and the crunchiness of the chips.  The eel cucumber sushi was also lovely, offering a bold and initial jolt of flavour which melted away into a clean after-taste.

The cocktails were also lovely, and there is something for every palate and dish selection.

This is a solid restaurant with consistently good service, dishes, cocktails, and products.  It’s also incredible value when you take advantage of their happy hour deals (which I shamelessly do without reservation).  I know I’ll be back.
Japonessa Sushi Cocina on Urbanspoon

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This post is one of my early ones (from ages ago) and most popular ones, but I’ve always hated that it was full of typos (I’m a typo machine).  As such, and to satisfy myself that I’ve done this amazing recipe justice, I’ve decided to re-post it, as well as the explanation of the name.

Fish-Fragrant Pork SliversThe recipe below is my take on the one from a book called Sichuan Cookery by Fuchsia Dunlop, an authority on Chinese cooking in the West. I can honestly say that the result is fabulous – as is the cultural and culinary explanations that precede every recipe in her excellent book – however I found her writing to be imprecise and the instructions sloppy. The key to cooking this recipe (and most Chinese dishes, I imagine) is mise-en-place; you need to have your little bowls of seasoning and ingredients waiting to be tossed into the wok or frying pan (I use the latter).

So, where does the name come from?  According to Fuchia Dunlop’s book:

The so-called fish-fragrant is one of Sichuan’s most famous culinary creations, and it epitomizes the Sichauanese love for audacious combinations of flavour.  It is salty, sweet, sour, and spicy…  This delicious combination of flavours is thought to have originated in traditional Sichuanese fish cooking, which would explain why other ingredients prepared in teh same way would have instantly recalled the taste of fish, hence the name.  Some food experts, like the famous chef Xiao Jianming of Piaoxiang Restaurant in Chengdu, say the flavours conjure up the actual taste of tiny crucian carp (ji yu), which are widely eaten in Sichuan…  The term may also be connected with the fact that whole crucian carp, which are particularly delicious, are sometimes actually added to vats of pickling chillies to improve their taste.

Here’s what you need for this recipe (serves 3):

INGREDIENTS (BROKEN DOWN INTO HANDY BOWLS)

75ml of cooking oil (groundnut or peanut oil, or corn oil)

Pork
300g of lean pork, cut into thin 3mm x 3mm x 3cm slivers (“julienne” them)

Marinade
¼ teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon of light soy sauce
1 tablespoon of cold water
1 tablespoon of potato flour (potato starch is a decent substitute)
1 teaspoon of Shaoxing wine (if you don’t have any, use sherry)

Sauce
1½ teaspoons of white sugar
1½ teaspoons of Chinkiang or black Chinese vinegar (balsamic vinegar will do)
¾ teaspoons of light soy sauce
½ teaspoons of salt
¾ teaspoon of potato flour (again, potato starch will do in a pinch)
3 tablespoons of stock (chicken) or water

Bowl 1
2 tablespoons of chilli paste

Bowl 2
2 teaspoons of finely chopped garlic
2 teaspoons of finely chopped ginger

Bowl 3
75g of bamboo shoots
1 handful of cloud-ear mushrooms

Bowl 4
1 spring onion, chopped

INSTRUCTIONS

Ok…get to work. First, chop up your meat, make the marinade, and then combine the two. Make sure to thoroughly coat your meat and let your it marinade for at least 30 minutes. If you have a rice cooker (if you don’t, buy one!) you can start making the rice.

Next, take your cloud-ear mushrooms (which will likely be dehydrated) and soak them in very hot water for 30 minutes. While the mushroom are hydrating, boil some more salted water and blanch the bamboo shoots for about a minute or so. Rinse them in cold water and then julienne them in slices similar in size to the pork.

Now, get to work preparing the contents of the other bowls, which should be self explanatory. Once the mushroom are ready, chop off any hard, nubby bits, and then slice them into strips the size of the pork and bamboo shots.

You should now be locked and loaded – which is good because the next step will be fast and furious. Season your wok (if you don’t your meat will stick) and heat up the 75ml of oil over high heat.

Once the oil is nice and hot, throw in your marinating meat and cook until the pieces are white on all sides (about 1-2 minutes). Then, keeping your wok over the heat, push your meat to one side of the wok and tilt the wok at about 30° so that the oil pools opposite the meat. Put your chilli paste into the oil (but not the meat). Mix up your paste/oil mix until well incorporated in the oil (about 30 seconds) and try not to let any meat drop into it.

Next, add the garlic and ginger in the chilli-oil mix until you can smell them.

This is the home stretch. Level your wok and rest it on the heating element. Throw in the bamboo shoots and cloud-ear mushrooms, and fry for 30 seconds. Stir in the sauce and mix quickly, then toss in the spring onions. Mix for about 10-20 seconds and serve immediately.

My second foray into the world of Dine Out Vancouver was to Miku, the aburi sushi-focused restaurant in downtown Vancouver.

Upon entering the restaurant – especially at night – one is struck by the warm atmosphere and sense of space.  The lighting is lovely and tasteful, and though there are a ton of tables, you never get the claustrophobic sense that they’re crammed together.  Even the cooks, who work behind the long counter, have ample room for them to ply their craft in full view of an appreciative public.

It is the style of sushi that really sets Miku apart from other sushi places.  A place with expertise in aburi (or “roasted”) sushi is a pretty sweet find.  Grilling the delicious variety of fish on the nigiri adds a great, smoky depth of flavour.  The quality and preparation of the rice is also expertly done by Miku’s skilled chefs.

Aka Miso Pork

Miku’s Dine Out Vancouver menu was very generous.  The appetizers (Tofu and Tomato Caprese, Nori Tempura Battered Crispy Ebi, Aka Miso Pork and Aburi Soy Daikon) were well thought out, providing a medley of tastes, texture, and temperatures.  The Aka Miso Pork stood out for me.  I thought it was wonderful the way that the sweetness of the succulent pork paired with the earthy sweetness of the red miso and slightly bitter daikon found at the bottom of this mound of joy.  The micro greens were a great touch, too.

10 Nigiri Main Course

The main course, which consisted of a number of 10 nigiri, was also plentiful.  Though each nigiri was expertly constructed, I was left to feel that there were simply too much going on in the case of one or two of them.  What might have been an attempt at creating various “layers” of flavour arguably ended up conflating them on a few occasions.

The final course (green tea éclair, orange vanilla sauce and yuzu orange sorbet) was original.  The yuzu orange sorbet was a great way to clean the palate after the meal, but the green tea éclair was not a success.

All along the meal, the food was admirably complimented by the sweet muscat wine, the surprisingly licorice-like sake, and sour-sweet nigori umeshu of the dinner alcohol “flight”.  Though it’s a $25 extra, this little booze parade is worth it.

As far as the service goes, I have to say that I spent the entire meal feeling that there was something “off”.  Maybe our waitress was having a bad night (goodness knows I had enough of those when I was in the service industry), or maybe it was the strange way the staff added the honorific “san” at the end of each others names (presumably to give it a more authentic Japanese feel?).  That said, the staff was working hard, zipping around the dining area and making sure that our tea cups were always full.  Kudos to them for their attention to detail.

I’m glad I came to Miku, but as of right now if I’m not sure I’ll be back any time soon.  Then again, just thinking of aburi sushi is making my mouth water…

Miku Restaurant on Urbanspoon

It is said that the small entrances of Japanese teahouses forced travelers and samurai to remove their heavy bags and swords in order to enter, thus allowing them to symbolically jettison there outer selves and better relax into the building’s serene atmosphere.  Momiji in Seattle, Washington also provides such an oasis from the city courtesy of its interior Japanese garden, warm design, and delicious Japanese food.

Momiji's Garden

When we arrived, we were immediately greeted and ushered to the back of the restaurant, which houses a seating area with a wonderful garden in the middle (pictured on the left).  As night falls, and as you feast on the healthy selection of food, night falls and the garden glows peacefully in the background.

While perusing the menu, we enjoyed cocktails.  My wife had the delicious Dhampir (Ikkomon, orange, lemon, brown sugar-vanilla syrup) and I had a shochu (I love me my imo shochu).  After a while we thought we should just go hog wild and order a little bit of everything.

First to arrive was the oyster shooter.  It was  great start to the meal, and cleansed our palates.  Next, we ordered some some sashimi and sushi.  The fish was top quality and the sushi on offer was beautifully crafted and intelligently conceived.  There were no heavy sauces or surplus ingredients.  The rice, I note, was also beautifully seasoned, leaving us with the feeling that the chef knew exactly what he was doing.

Parallel Sushi HighwaysAs we ate, the other side dishes arrived, including some lovely gyoza, and a very nice and fragrant chawan mushi.  The pace of the service was just right, and we felt well taken care of by our waiter and waitress, who zipped around the dining room attending to the many, full tables.  When the bill arrived, I found the total to be very reasonable.

Momiji is a very special place.  We’ve all been to countless restaurants, most forgotten and others forgettable, but this is one that will live with me for quite some time.  In fact, we hadn’t even left for the night when we started to talk about coming to Seattle again to come back to Momiji.

Momiji on Urbanspoon

You could be forgiven for walking right past Sushi Zero One and missing it completely.  Its storefront is nondescript.  Its interior isn’t particularly attractive.  But then there’s the food, which is a different matter all together.

I visited Sushi Zero One a few weeks ago after hearing it had a good reputation for solid sushi.  Unlike many reviews I have read, I wasn’t particularly put off by the unimpressive interior.  The restaurant is unpretentious and, in my opinion, should be seen more as a take out place rather than a sit down restaurant.  I used to work at a similar place in Montreal – Sushi Volant back when it was run by the beloved “Tobi-san”.  Despite its interior, Sushi Volant had a well deserved reputation for serving up some of the best (if not the best) sushi in Montreal.  So it was with a nostalgic, wistful understanding that I approached Zushi Zero One.

Delicious sushi (please ignore the dixie plate...)

We ordered a sushi combo and chirashi sushi.  The sushi combo was unceremoniously served on a paper plate (pictured on the right) which frankly detracted from the entire experience, but the quality of the ingredients more than made up for it.  The fish was very fresh and tasty.  The rice was also wonderfully seasoned and texturally pleasant.  The selection was also something to behold for a combination of food that clocks in just over $10.  Ordinarily, I find it difficult to eat nothing but sushi for dinner (I crave greater variety) but this was different.

Ikura jewels in chirashi sushi

The chirashi don was similarly successful.  The rice was just as lovely as in the sushi, but this dish featured delicious salmon roe (ikura) that exploded in your mouth.  The generous slices of fish and other seafood that adorned the chirashi sushi smelled of the sea and was buttery.  I also appreciated the daikon leaves/sprouts that added a hint of pepper to the dish.  Though it is by no means high cuisine, this dish satisfies and is relatively good value at about $10 before taxes.

Though this is not a place you would go to eat at for a first date, it is potentially one you’d get takeout from for a third date (if you know what I mean…).  It’s also the best sushi I’ve had in downtown Vancouver to date.

Zero One Sushi on Urbanspoon

Tucked away on Broadway near the corner of Cambie is a busy little cafe that serves up simple, delicious food: the Marulilu Cafe.

I went to Marulilu for lunch a few weeks ago. Despite showing up at about 1:30’ish, the cafe was packed and alive with the laughs and conversations of a weekend afternoon. Luckily, a stray table had just been left open, and my wife and I pounced on it before perusing the menu.

A coffee jelly latte chillaxing with its cousin, the macha latte.

Marulilu’s menu is classic Japanese cafe. Loads of delicious breakfast goodies, light lunch fares (salads, rice burgers, etc.) and more traditional Japanese comfort food like katsudon, oyakodon, and okonomiyaki. There is also a lengthy list of drinks on offer, including Marulilu’s yummy macha lattes and coffee jelly drinks. The selection of drinks alone (especially if, as wife is, you have a weakness for coffee jelly) are worth a trip here.

We ordered a few drinks (featured in this first photo), and I ordered a rice burger set. The set comes with a duo of rice burger patties, the first adorned with sukiyaki sauce and the second kimchi sauce. It also came with a salad (seasoned with a surprisingly good salad dressing) and a miso soup. The staff was very friendly and all smiles.

It is here, however, that I pause to comment on the weakest link in the Marulilu experience: Its ordering system. I’ve read a review or two that has complained about this. Essentially, you go to the counter, order, and then have a seat. Though in theory it is not a problem, few people were aware of this, and the line up of those who were snaked awkwardly around the tables in the restaurant, adding a layer of claustrophobia to what was a cozy atmosphere.** But I digress with my picky comment…back to the food.

The Rice Burger Set - Kimchi and Sukiyaki

The presentation of my lunch set was very cute (reminiscent of MOS Burger) and the portion size was ideal for lunch. The rice burger patties were just how I like them, crispy and crunchy on the outside, and moist and warm on the inside. The different sauces were also delicious. The miso soup was nothing to write home about, but its inclusion in my lunch combo was welcome, and its earthy flavour counterbalanced the sweet and spicy of the burgers, and the sweet and acid of the salad.

Before leaving, as we relaxed with our drinks, the staff promptly came by to take away the empty dishes to give us more space. It was a nice touch and shows that despite being busy as bees, the servers somehow still manage to be attentive to the customers.

Overall, Marulilu was a very nice experience. It is very much a “what you see is what you get” cafe – unpretentious and friendly with good food. The restaurant is also relatively good value, and the food will leave you satiated and satisfied. If you’re in the neighbourhood, or even if you’re not, I ‘d suggest heading over to Marulilu for a pleasant meal or a leisurely break.

Marulilu Cafe on Urbanspoon

[** This unfortunate situation may be related to the bizarre layout of the restaurant. The kitchen/counter  juts out and takes out a massive amount of unnecessary space, and the bathroom is enormous. One can’t help but wonder why this is, and why the issue hasn’t been remedied.]

Who knew that charcoal ramen would taste good, let alone make sense? I guess the mastermind behind Motomachi Shokudo (“Motomachi”) on Denman Street in Vancouver. The delicious bowl of noodles, and the entire experience, was top shelf and makes me want to head back soon.

Like many great places, Motomachi is unassuming from the exterior, and is not adorned with a perpetual long line of people snaking out of its front door like its Denman cousin, Kintaro Ramen. The restaurant is relatively narrow, with seating for less than 20 (including the spots at the counter), so its a pretty intimate experience. Motomachi’s design, and the speedy and friendly service, also adds to the restaurant’s amiable feel.

After a quick review of the menu, I was immediately drawn to the “charcoal ramen” on offer. I’d never heard of such a thing, and I was initially skeptical of its black broth. The little blurb (you can read a version of it in the photo on this blog) exalting the benefits of charcoal tipped the scales, however. I threw caution to the wind and decided to order a bowl, some gyoza, and a beer.

Motomachi Shokudo's charcoal ramen (and an order of gyoza hiding behind the bowl).

The kitchen was very quick in getting the ramen to me, and I was pleasantly surprised. Though you can definitely taste the charcoal’s influence in the dish, you don’t feel like you’re eating handfuls of ash. In fact, it’s fair to say that the charcoal actually provided a nice, bold contrast to the broth and the sweetness and umami of its other constituent parts.

Oh…and as you can tell from the photo, there were many a constituent part to this generous dish. Below the egg, seaweed, and vegetables, there were also a stack of pork slices that filled me right up. Though plentiful, I found the pork to be slightly dry/overcooked. It did not bother me, however, because one can remedy this minor criticism by combining a each pork slice with a sip of broth.

As for the gyoza, it was pretty much your standard gyoza deal (NB: In the interest of full disclosure, I am a horrible gyoza snob). I suspect that they had spent some time in a freezer, but then you don’t go to a ramen place for gourmet gyoza.

As for the price of my meal: My ramen was a little under $10 before taxes, making it a little bit pricey for a bowl of noodles, but good value given the mountain of goodness contained in the hefty ramen bowl.

Overall, I would definitely recommend Motomachi. Its an easy-going place with a nice atmosphere, good service, an interesting menu, and good food. What more can you ask for?

Motomachi Shokudo 元町食堂 on Urbanspoon

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