Sunday, November 22, 2009

Omakase at Kanoyama

Well, it's that time of year again: Rob's birthday month. And by now I feel it is tradition to start looking for a suitable place to take Rob for an above-average place for sushi.

When I started doing my research earlier in the month, Kanoyama kept popping up. At first I didn't really want to go there, it seemed too obvious. It was reviewed in the same Frank Bruni article that inspired me to take Rob to Sushi Azabu last year. But then I started to realize what he meant when he called both these places "bargains." It's super difficult to find an omakase deal with fresh sushi, flown from Japan for under $200 a person. And in some cases, its nearly impossible to get reservations. Luckily, its easy to make a reservation at Kanoyama, and their lowest "omakase" starts at $32 (which really just means an assortment of fish on one plate). The price range beyond that is limitless. Just tell them how much you're willing to spend, and they'll bring you as many courses as that price range allows.

Since we're stressed out with hosting our first Thanksgiving this year -- and since Kanoyama is closed for renovations next week -- we did the birthday dinner early this year. The fish was great and very fresh, the sushi chefs were very skilled and fun to watch. It was a little hard not to compare this experience with Sushi Azabu, though. Last year we tried a bigger variety of food, we were given a good deal more, the service was nothing less than completely hospitable, and the ambiance was unbeatable. This year, the service was a little unsteady; our second course came before we were done with the first and then we waited a good while for #3. Most of what we ate this year was sushi, even though that's what we specified when they asked if we wanted more sushi or more kitchen appetizers. We shouldn't have to make decisions like that! I felt like after we said that, we limited ourselves in terms of variety.
Those slight complaints aside, here's an overview of the fantastic meal we shared:

1) Kaki GomaAe (Winter Persimmon with Sesame Tahini) -- The presentation of this was beautiful -- melonballs of persimmon lightly coated in tahini and served in its own core. I've never had persimmon, but I couldn't even distinguish its flavor from the tahini it melded together so well. It had a crunch kind of like a pear. I expected its flesh to taste softer since it looks so much like a tomato. This was a great starter.
2) Cod Roe with Ponzu -- I always think of tiny, bright, glasslike balls when I think of roe, but cod roe is different; its more like a chicken egg. This was lightly fried, like tempura, with runny whites in the middle. The ponzu definitely played a key role in the flavor here.

3) Sashimi -- Here we each were given a finely adorned selection of three things -- striped jackfish, white yellowtail and pike eel roe with dashi. The plate (and by "plate" I mean giant shell from a mollusk on ice) contained a small dish of dried kelp, and we were instructed to unroll the sushi, put the kelp inside, re-roll and dunk in a small amount of house made soy sauce. The kelp was oddly chewy but it gave the fish a new dimension. I didn't like the eel roe; it came like a square glob of jello and I still don't get what made it this way. The flavor was nice and light, kind of like champagne-flavored jello, but the texture was too weird for me.

4) If you take a look at the post I wrote on Sushi Azabu last year, I called what comes next as "grand finale of sushi." However, it came too soon this year to be a grand finale; this time it was more like the main event. They served it the same way, though: one piece at a time. Last year they plunked each piece right in front of us. At Kanoyama, they put it up on the counter so you have to make sure your chopstick skills are steller, lest you drop your fish during the 12 inches it travels from its dark granite home to your outstretched neck.

There were quite a few similarities from last year, which I enjoyed. Many of these things I haven't had since last year, and now I'm somewhat familiar with them to know what a treat they are. Namely, uni and toro. I would like to find a way to incorporate more uni and toro into my life.

Here are the seven fishes:

a) Fluke -- Topped with a little bit of salt and lemon juice. Great flavor, but very chewy.

b) Japanese Mackerel -- This one was the fishiest of all and therefore, probably my least favorite.

c) Sea Scallop -- I love the texture of fresh, raw scallops. A little citrus and wasabi hid beneath the fish and the rice and made it even better.

d) Jackfish -- Topped with lots of sesame seeds. This combination was surprisingly good.
e) Toro -- It's always a treat to have the non-translucent tuna. The way it hugs and rice and then melts in your mouth... wow.

f) Uni -- I thought of a passage from the book Motherless Brooklyn when I saw this. Somewhere it is mentioned that uni is the national food of Japan and that a Japanese family must eat it at least once a week to maintain self-respect. That sounds as good an excuse to indulge as any; I LOVE the taste and texture of sea urchin. It goes down so easily without being slimy or too wet. How does it do that?

g) Sea Eel -- We each got a whole, huge eel. I know these are delicacies but I wish we could just stick with the good, cold stuff. The glaze they put on top is too sweet for me and I don't think it helps that I can never get the creepy grimmaces of those things out of my head.

5) We ended with a bowl of matsutake mushroom soup. It smelled sort of like an old wood cabin; in a good way. Apparently these mushrooms are delicacies as well but I really don't like the springy texture of most mushrooms.

Well, we should have been done here but we wanted one more thing: an oyster we saw going out a few times with uni and orange roe on top. It was a huge bite, but so good -- a great combination of wet uni and oyster and popping, flavorful roe. Oysters are a relatively new thing to me and having bizarre combinations like this is a good getting-to-know-you exercise. One of the things I'm liking about oysters are the way they linger in your mouth, kind of on the back roof of your mouth, like you just jumped into the ocean, face first. In a good way.

We finished with a scoop of ice cream -- red bean for him and green tea for me.

While I don't think we'll be doing any more omakase at Kanoyama, I do think we'll be back at some point to try a few things we didn't get to have here -- lobster miso soup, sliced duck, and the ankimo, which looked amazing. I may have to get a little toro and uni, too. You know, for self respect's sake.

175 Second Ave (at 11th St.)

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Cafe Grumpy at its Grind

Remember last fall when I talked about how great Cafe Grumpy was? You probably don't, but I did. And I just found out, they're even better now!

Rob and I stopped in on Friday night for a sweater movie. What is a sweater movie, you ask? It's their fall season movie celebration where you win a prize for the best woolly top (in Friday's case, a pack of glow in the dark stars). A nice festive way to spend the evening. Cafe Grumpy was projecting Coraline that night, and I must admit I haven't been that scared by a kids' film... ever. What kind of fearless kids are we bringing up these days? Wasn't the Wizard of Oz bad enough for most of us?

Anyway, we happened to notice the presence of a new counter in the back room we hadn't seen before, with an industrial-sized roaster. Naturally, we asked the barista if they were roasting their own beans now. Yup, he says, we just started last month. As of right now they are roasting two kinds of beans: a Finca Chichupac (from Guatemala) and Finca El Carmen (from El Salvadore). How cool! I would have opted for one had I not really been in the mood for a sweet mint tea. Probably a good choice... I think caffeine + Coraline would have been a bit much for my faint heart.

I'll be back to see Christmas Vacation. Until then, I'm on the hunt for the best holiday sweater I can find. Maybe one with reindeer?

Chasing Cupcakes

New Yorkers love moving targets. The fact that gourmet trucks are always so popular is proof of this. You feel a sense of pride when you finally locate that elusive banh mi cart, you feel lucky when the falafel cart regularly parks along your commute. And when the cupcake truck graces you with its presence, maybe you dash down the street like a little kid that heard the faint ringing of the ice cream truck.

The Cupcake Stop truck finds a new home each and every day, and fans can track its location on Twitter. Last week the truck happened to be a few blocks away from the office, so I went out and got a red velvet one. The cupcakes were much smaller and far less sweet than Crumbs, which was a welcome surprise after a big lunch. They bake them fresh every morning and you can tell, the cupcakes were way moister than any cupcake I've ever gotten from Buttercup.

Here's hoping the Cupcake Stop truck and I cross paths again someday.