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North Szechwan Spicy Cold Bean-Starch Noodles
Menu name: “North Szechwan Spicy Cold Bean-Starch Noodles” (chuan bei liang fen). The “noodles” were much like Japanese harusame (mung-bean noodles), but thicker and softer.

Despite the name of the place, forget Hong Kong, think Chengdu and Chongqing. For the past two years, Carlos and I have been eating deeply at home from Fuschia Dunlop’s cookbook, Land of Plenty: Authentic Sichuan Recipes Personally Gathered in the Chinese Province of Sichuan. The long, hot, numb buzz of Sichuan pepper and the hearty and deep flavors of Sichuan food moves me deeply: a long overdue visit to Hong Kong Palace in Falls Church was rewarded by a deeply delicious meal.

After a marriage-testing four passes on Route 7 across Seven Corners intersection, we finally called and let them guide us in: “We’re across from Sears.” We sit, I’m all blog-bling with my notebook and my dented and scratched Fuji FinePix. I open to the notes I copied from Tyler Cowen’s blog and Washingtonian.com. I ask the waitress to recommend something from the specials board.

The board is tantalizingly handwritten in Chinese characters. Being a major kanji dork, I try to read the writing anyway, thinking I might see something Japanese-ish, but I get only “[unintelligible] fish” or “[something-something] tofu.” I give up. She asks if we like spicy food, we say yes, and she tells us to order the “Stuffed Pepper Chicken.” So we do.

Chengdu Zhong Spring Dumpling
Menu name: “Chengdu Zhong Spring Dumpling” (boiled pork dumplings with spicy chili and sesame oil sauce)

But first we have some slippery bean-starch noodles with sauce of fermented black beans, green onion, sichuan pepper, and sesame seeds. Then some boiled pork dumplings with a chili oil sauce. I’m already grinning and moaning.

A more authoritative person appears at our tableside (perhaps the owner?) and asks, “May I ask who told you about us?” When I say, “Tyler Cowen’s blog,” she laughs and gestures to the far corner of the room, “Yesterday, he was here with a big table of guests. Just returned from a foreign country and came to eat here right away.” OMG, I’m a Tyler Cowen groupie. Just missed him.

Stuffed pepper chicken
From the specials board July 25th (not on the menu): Stuffed pepper chicken. The chilies were stuffed with sesame seed paste and then fried. Gah, awesome.

Crispy fried chicken pieces with garlic and ginger chunks, whole sichuan peppers, hot red peppers, green onions, and peanuts—like the best kung pao chicken ever, but then they add fried medium hot red peppers stuffed with whole sesame seeds and a sesame paste (the pepper and stuffing is crispy and nutty and hot). The earthy sesame nuttiness against the chicken and hot-and-numbing spices is incredible (praise the Zanthoxylum simulans). They sprinkle cilantro over the whole thing; my cilantro-impaired husband will decline the garnish next time. I thought it superfluous myself, but tasty.

I asked the waitress to show me the characters for “Stuffed Pepper Chicken” and as I wrote them down she leaned over me, cooing, “Oh, you can do Chinese.” Not exactly. The Chinese characters [口口香脆鸡] have literal meanings of something like “mouth mouth fragrant [tsuki radical and the kanji for “dangerous”] chicken” (kou kou xiang cui ji). I don’t know how they combine into units of meaning. I look later in my Japanese kanji dictionary for the full “dangerous” hanzi. No dice. I find the character only in Fuschia Dunlop’s cookbook as cui [脆], “a certain quality of crispiness, a texture that offers resistance to the teeth, but finally yields, cleanly, with a pleasant snappy feeling.” That is the texture of the fried chicken, yes, but the name of the dish doesn’t seem to mention those outrageous stuffed peppers. The Tasting Table D.C. has a post about the Stuffed Pepper Chicken, see the mention of the “Cantonese” peppers.

Stir-fried Shanghai Greens and Black Mushrooms
Menu name: “Stir-fried Shanghai Greens and Black Mushrooms” (bok choy, shiitakes, ginger, garlic slivers). The greens were perfectly cooked and this mild standard paired well against the fried chicken.

Anyone know what “mouth mouth” (kou kou) means?

Apparently my next stop is Sichuan Pavillion in Rockville…

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Trevor Corson at Zentan
Photo: Sushi chefs preparing plates at Zentan.

March 3rd at Zentan restaurant in Washington, D.C., Trevor Corson (a native of the D.C. area and author of The Secret Life of Lobsters and The Story of Sushi) gave the first in a planned series of “sushi concierge” presentations. He hopes to come down to D.C. whenever he can book enough people for his sushi talks. I, of course, was lured out by the promise of sake, hoping to score something new.

While I was waiting at the bar for the event to start, I tried some Wakatake junmai daiginjo: sweet, smooth, fruity, but I had a hankering for something a little more fleshy that evening. The Zentan sake list discombobulated me. Several of the sakes are only listed by their English translations rather than their Japanese names. Thus, Ama no To is listed as simply “Heaven’s Door.” The English translations are nice to have, but why no Japanese transliteration? I was completely unmoored by these de-Nipponized sake names with no brewery listings. I’m praying this is not the wave of the future.

Trevor Corson at Zentan
Photo: Three selected sakes of the evening.

Corson’s presentation was designed to help one experience throwback sushi, that is, the more classic fish, rather than the common American style of sushi. As he put it, “Hey, I happen to like California rolls, but I think we should search out a fuller experience.” He specifically excluded salmon and bluefin tuna from the evening’s menu because they are not “traditional,” and wanted to focus on white and silvery fish and shellfish. Whether or not we need to buy into the concept of historical sushi fish versus modern fish, he makes a sound plea for diversity in sushi eating.

Nothing in his lecture was particularly earthshaking, but his focus on expanding the repertoire of sushi in America is admirable. He’s trying to get Americans to eat less appreciated fish that sushi chefs want to serve in the States but can’t get their customers to order. Thus, he emphasized that one should concentrate on texture from shellfish and the more subtle flavors of certain fish rather the “obvious” fatty and simplistic tuna belly, salmon, and unagi. Bluefin tuna should be off the menu for many obvious environmental reasons, but I like Corson’s manner of selling species diversity as evidence of diner sophistication. Will America buy it? Probably not, but it’s a worthy message.

We were served what is apparently the Zentan signature dish, Singapore slaw, which at first has some nice flavors and textures with hazelnuts and fresh radish and crispy rice noodles. Then it gets soggy and makes one think of July 4th party leftovers. The first of three sakes was Ame no To (Heaven’s Door) tokubetsu junmai. This is an old friend of mine from Japan, with that delightful crisp and ricey palate. Good stuff, and not hard to find in the States. In fact, all three sakes of the evening were Vine Connections imports. Corson declined to comment much about the sakes, saying he doesn’t have enough knowledge to do the subject justice. Disappointing, I wonder if he needs a lecture partner?

Round one of some well-made nigiri sushi: kanpachi with yuzu garnish, ocean trout with California caviar, madai with umeboshi, sweet shrimp with salmon roe and deep fried shrimp heads (particularly yummy), anago (sea eel) with the standard eel sauce.

Corson moved on to some well-known etiquette issues: Americans need to stop insulting sushi chefs by rubbing their wooden chopsticks together before eating (something I’ve always found bizarre). Later in the evening when he stopped by our table, I offered him my theory that some people feel the need to “remove splinters” because they are tightly (and incorrectly) pressing their lips against the chopsticks as they pull them out of their mouths (like a person eating chocolate cake with a fork).

He also counseled against pouring copious amounts of soy sauce, making a wasabi slurry, and sloshing away with the fish. As he put it, sushi chefs have told him when they see this they ensure that customer is “off the best fish list for the night.” Again, the choir says, Amen Brother.

He made an interesting point about how tightly sushi rice is packed for nigiri in the United States and that one way to get your sushi chef to regard you as good fish—worthy (the secret stash under the counter) is to ask for a looser pack on the rice. In this case, you’d eat the sushi with your fingers, something he encourages.

Corson confirmed a suspicion I had that sushi chefs in the States were preparing very sweet sushi rice compared with the sushi rice in Japan (even allowing for Kansai/Kanto variations). He said Japanese sushi chefs learn quickly that sweeter rice sells more sushi because it pleases the “American palate.” There’s mention of the American palate again! Someone please wash out America’s mouth with soap.

Sushi round two: sea scallop, horse mackerel with ginger and scallions, flounder with chili daikon, and ye olde bara zushi of mackerel and kelp.  Sake two: Tentaka Kuni (Hawk in the Heavens) junmai. More about that below.

Lecture concluded, Corson visited all the tables to answer questions, and miso soup was offered tragically in a lipped bowl with stainless steel spoons. I stared at the bowl on the table and held the spoon above it wondering what was wrong. Then I realized that so much of the enjoyment of miso soup is bringing the bowl up close to the face, appreciating the aromas, and sipping from a warm lacquer (ok faux-lacquer plastic) bowl. With Western-style etiquette plus a wide lip on the bowl keeping it anchored to the table and the feel of the cold, stainless steel soup spoon, the miso soup lost all its allure. I left it.

The Tozai ginjo nigori (Voices in the Mist) served with dessert was crisp and not as cloudy as many nigoris. Very nice, and I am hard on nigori sake. Dessert was an enjoyable, modern almond panna cotta with pineapple raspberry ravioli and passionfriut sauce.

Trevor Corson at Zentan
Photo: Tentaka Kuni (Hawk in the Heavens) junmai.

I played nice with our waiter and he brought me a free second glass of the Tentaka Kuni. I may have to revisit this one for the interesting bitter nutty taste with a widely spreading palate. Intriguing. Has some warming potential but was served cold that evening.

See Trevor Corson’s Sushi Concierge site for more about these lectures in D.C. and New York. He admits that his standard lecture must be aimed at sushi newbies. A private lecture (you must have at least 6) might be better for people who want to delve deeper.

Sushi Taro Osechi 2010
Photo: 重箱, jūbako, multi-layered box to serve food at New Year’s.

The jūbako is like a Ph.D. in Japanese culture in a box, how to start? The oshinagaki (menu) lists 43 items, in Japanese, so there was some kanji dictionary work for the names. But nothing on the palate was completely unfamiliar, a lot of comforting friends in that box.

A whole baby sea bream swam in a sea of preserved vegetables and fish. A jar of kuromame (sweet cooked black beans) was nestled one one side, like grandma had sent over her blue-ribbon preserves. To fully appreciate this bounty one must study the traditional meanings of the foods, the name puns (see below), the visual appeal and arrangement, the complex recipe preparations, the history of foods that have been eaten since ancient times (black soybeans, sardines) and the modern additions (black pork, beef).

And then you just tuck in.

Sushi Taro Osechi 2010
Photo: Top layer, 22 different items, including sea bream, ankimo tofu (monkfish liver pate), smoked salmon wrapped in many layers of thinly sliced daikon, kuri kinton (chestnuts in sweet yam paste), kinkan mitsuni (kumquat that was sweet simmered), tataki gobo (smashed burdock root with sesame sauce), house made karasumi (preserved bottarga, i.e., mullet roe), red and white kamaboko (fish paste), kararashi renkon (lotus root stuffed with mustard, ginko nuts, and more.

Arrangement of the food: The top layer of the box actually has two layers of food, laid out in a traditional format of celebratory foods on top, with a second layer of preserved foods beneath, the second box having the third and fourth layers of seafood and meats and then stewed vegetables. The visual appeal of the box is heightened by the names that are puns for good luck and success in the new year.

Sushi Taro Osechi 2010
Photo: 田作り, tazukuri, soy-glazed baby sardines. The name is a pun for “fertility.”

Sushi Taro Osechi 2010
Photo: Bottom layer, 21 items, which included winter Spanish mackerel yuan yaki, black pork belly miso yaki, chicken balls, house made datemaki (a fish and egg sweet omelet), sabazushi (a pressed mackerel sushi), salmon roe in a bamboo cup, and much more.

Sushi Taro Osechi 2010
Photo: Detail, bottom layer.

We’ve been feasting for several days. It’s preserved food meant to save the women (ahem, the cooks) of the house from having to prepare food in the first days of the new year. Some standouts: the black pork miso yaki, the sweet-simmered kumquats, the house-made karasumi (mullet roe), roasted duck, the glaze-grilled Spanish mackerel. Quite an experience, maybe next year I’ll make some myself…

Sushi Taro Osechi
Photo: Sushi Taro’s Osechi ryōri (New Year’s food)

That wrapped box is a bit of a pink tease, hmm?

I just received an e-mail from my former Japanese teacher in Yokohama. She thanked me for my nenga jo (New Year’s greeting card) and wrote that my Japanese had gotten better. I hadn’t told her that 10 handwritten lines of Japanese took me hours to compose, as I built a wall of dictionaries and textbooks around myself. So much for my past resolutions to study hard, gambarimasu, and all that. Nevertheless, here we are at the end of 2009 and I haven’t given up on studying the language and enjoying bits of Japanese culture in the Washington, D.C. area. In 2010 there will be more sake tasting reports on this blog, more outings to Japanese restaurants, and a report on an upcoming trip to a Japanese-style B&B in rural Virginia that has a traditional Japanese bath. My heart just got a bit fluttery with happiness.

Sushi Taro
Today’s lunch: Octopus, wakame, cucumber, and salmon salad with ponzu dressing.

A few weeks back we were at Sushi Taro and we placed an order for osechi. Osechi ryōri is traditional Japanese New Year’s food. Kyoto Foodie has an excellent series of posts about it, including the symbolic meaning of the various foods. Carlos and I had taken a class in Tokyo on osechi taught by Elizabeth Andoh, so we are eager to try Sushi Taro’s version.

Sushi Taro
Today’s lunch: Katsuo (bonito) nigiri-zushi. Part of the “Sushi Tokujo” set.

Lunch at Sushi Taro today was relaxing. I watched many couples and families (99% of Japanese descent) arrive to pick up their osechi. They hoisted the pink-wrapped boxes with a slight hesitation (it’s a heavy box!), and turned to walk down the stairs. I toasted a few of them as I drank warmed Shimeharitsuru “Jun” junmai ginjo. Yes, warmed properly by putting the tokkuri in a pan of water, not boiled to death in the microwave (I asked). The nose was koji and a bit of crème caramel, the taste started with peppermint alcohol and finished with a lovely lingering tail of sweet almond nougat.

I was buzzed before I even drank the sake. New Year’s makes me crazy and full of wary hopefulness. Life is like a box of salted fish roe and dried baby sardines.

Sushi Taro
Today’s lunch: Hijiki with soy beans.

Happy New Year! We’ll undress the jubako tomorrow…

Dining at Sushi Taro the night before Veterans Day: a treat in honor of my husband’s present (and my past) service to our country. It was also his ploy to stop temporarily my obnoxious keening for Japan.

Sushi Taro kaiseki
Photo: First appetizer, gomadōfu (sesame tofu) in dashi with garnish of uni, adzuki bean, and wasabi.

I had tried Sushi Taro last summer, during one of my ongoing, but here scantily reported, tastings at several Japanese places positively noted by the local Washington, D.C. foodie news. I was, and remain, skeptical at each new outing. Japanese food in the DC area is—how shall I say?—not always in full blossom.

I headed to Sushi Taro the first time last summer when I read that it had been transformed from a beloved neighborhood sushi bar (with a good quality, standard-in-America sushi menu) into a kaiseki ryōri joint. The Yelpsters were screaming how it was now too expensive and fancy, which I took as possibly a good sign. Tom Sietsema, in the Post, quoted the new chef (son of the former chef), Nobu Yamazaki, justifying the change, “Chicken teriyaki and spicy tuna roll are not exactly authentic Japanese food.” Not that I have anything against chicken teriyaki, but Yamazaki-san was calling to me.

On that lovely summer evening, I ordered a la carte: baby ayu (sweetfish) tempura, takigawa dōfu (homemade tofu cut into long strands and arranged like a river flow in a dashi broth), and my personal quality tester nigiri sushi: yellowtail, salmon roe, and tamagoyaki [the last one is a good way to see how much care the chef takes with the humblest ingredient, egg]. Everything was excellent, everything was served on seasonally appropriate dishes. I was transported. As I sipped my Suigei tokubetstu junmai sake, I said a little toast to the chef and intoned, Itadakimasu. I humbly receive.

Last Tuesday night I finally went back with my man. We drank:

Sushi Taro kaiseki
Photo: Kubota koju tokubetsu junmai.

The Kubota had a big mouth feel with a kick on the middle of the tongue, then a long bamboo-lime finish (I know, sounds weird, tastes delicious). The bottle was chilled, but I would let a glass warm slightly on the table to taste the transition from crisp grassy start to a banana smoothness. The sake list is very nice, but the prices are a bit nutty. [But premium sake prices in the U.S. make me sick. I found a deal today at the Super H, but that’s for another post…]

The food, on the other hand, I consider good value (for kaiseki). We each had a 10-course meal including 3 special courses of madai* AND 2 courses including matsutake mushrooms, for $90. The photos show most of the courses.

*Sushi Taro’s menu and various Web sites identify madai as snapper, but my Hosking Dictionary of Japanese Food has it as “sea bream.” It was written in Japanese on the menu as madai. Hosking also tells me madai is best in spring, hmm.

Sushi Taro kaiseki
Photo: Second appetizer, soft cod roe tempura with a lotus root fritter dressed with thickened yuba sauce.

Sushi Taro kaiseki
Photo: Third appetizer, slow braised female ayu, fishcake-stuffed ginko nuts, green beans.

[Not pictured] The soup course was matsutake mushroom dobin mushi (served in a little tea pot, good explanation at Kyoto Foodie) with anago (eel) meat, shrimp, and ginko nuts.

Sushi Taro kaiseki
Photo: Sashimi course, chūtoro (tuna middle belly meat, that night of remarkably excellent quality), madai, hiramasa (yellowtail?), sea bass, and cucumber-wrapped monkfish liver (ankimo).

Sushi Taro kaiseki
Photo: Hassun (“tray of tidbits”) course, madai head and collar, grilled sanma, miso-marinated egg yolk, pickled daikon-wrapped salmon, lotus root stuffed with mustard sauce, tuna kakuni, pickled myoga.

This giant fishhead on a platter struck me as kaiseki on steroids (cue the Schwarzenegger Suntory ad). I’m still wondering if the chef sent it out waving his carbon-steel, yelling, “Banzai! Take that California-roll eaters!” We picked it clean. Back at you, badass.

Sushi Taro kaiseki
Photo: Same course, showing the other side of the plate: miso-marinated egg yolk, pickled daikon-wrapped salmon, lotus root stuffed with mustard sauce, tuna kakuni, and an unidentified chinmi dish (a “delicacy” that I couldn’t quite identify). I think it was ankimo mixed with something.

Sushi Taro kaiseki
Photo: Sushi course, buri fatty belly meat and oyster.

[Not pictured] The next course was lotus root stuffed with fishcake, coated with Japanese “crispies” (mijinko, I think) and deep fried. This course reminded me of izakaya pub grub, but it was delicious.

Sushi Taro kaiseki
Photo: Oshokuji (rice, soup, and pickles) course, matsutake mushroom and madai infused rice, served with miso soup and pickles. The miso soup was a thick country-style soup with enoki mushroom, cabbage, and scallions. The pickles were a bit disappointing. (Soup and pickles not pictured.)

Sushi Taro kaiseki
Photo: First dessert, purin (Japanese custard, like a loose flan).

Sushi Taro kaiseki
Photo: Second dessert, the art of fruit in kanten.

Despite the news that Sushi Taro is too “fancy,” for a kaiseki place it’s quite casual. The waitstaff are dressed in samue, which makes me think of a slumber party. Across from us a couple was absorbed separately in texting while the waitress placed dishes on the table. The pacing of the meal was a bit rushed. We gulped down the soup course when she brought the sashimi. Something ineffable about the experience of kaiseki hasn’t been translated. I wonder…next stop Makoto!

Nevertheless, for a few hours, I gazed out on 17th Street, the warmth of sake in my belly and head, my husband smiling across from me, and I was royally feasted.

————
Note: Sushi Taro is offering osechi (New Year’s food). They give the link to the order form only on the Japanese-language version of the Web site. I assume they mean to weed out casual inquiries from those who don’t know osechi well (especially because even Japanese can become weary of it). I love all the different tastes. We made an order and I’ll write a post about it in January.

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