Single Thread: Soon to be a Michelin 3 star restaurant

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Single Thread: Soon to be a Michelin 3 star restaurant

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SingleThread, an inn, farm and restaurant in Healdsburg, California, opened at the very end of 2016. I visited the restaurant four months after opening, and I have never had a more perfectly curated restaurant experience. I was in Napa for the Culinary Institute of America's annual World of Flavor conference (very likely the best food conference each year), and was lucky enough to secure a reservation. 

When I walked in, I was greeted by name and was invited to take a look into the kitchen before heading up to the roof for a drink. Chef Kyle Connaughton came over to the window to say hi and asked me how the conference was going. I asked him how he knew I was at the conference and he said, 'We know things." We both laughed and chatted about the conference. A lot of restaurants claim to do their homework on their guests, but SingleThread really does.

The next stop in the flawlessly curated evening was the roof top patio. I was greeted with a drink of purple sweet potato bush and oroblanco. It was tart and refreshing. It was a perfectly clear, blue, and warm Sonoma county day. After a few minutes, one of the servers brought over some snacks nestled amongst a plate of foliage. The four bites prepared me for the visual perfection, immensely fresh vegetables, and creativity of the meal to come. It was clear that the SingleThread farm was providing gorgeous produce for the restaurant.

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I was escorted into a stunning dining room where many of the tables faced the kitchen. The far wall of the kitchen is shelf after shelf of Japanese donabe cooking vessels, simple yet elegant. The table was already set with a bounty of foliage and hidden bites. My favorite items in this first barrage of delightful bites were malted potato with caramelized onions and turbot, creamy egg with caviar and spinach purée, and tuna loin cured with seaweed and flavored with with house-aged ponzu, and scallop crudo with shiso vinaigrette. 

Every one of the ten courses that came out after the initial offering were surprising in different ways. The trout cooked in a donabe was one of my favorites. It was served over a vinaigrette made with shio koji and topped with trout roe. Koji is the fungus used to make soy sauce, miso and sake, and shio koji is a salted liquid that is used as a marinade and sauce which contains enzymes that help break down proteins which releases free glutamate, the main source of umami. The trout itself was cooked flawlessly. It had the perfect doneness of fish cooked sous vide, but with a firm texture and a very slight smoky flavor. It was perfect, and nothing I've ever seen before. It was paired with a yellow tumeric and grenadine cocktail with smoked sea salt, which was a superb pairing. Another of my favorite dishes was foie gras with turnips, spinach and tomato tea made from dehydrated tomatoes from their farm. I have never had foie gras with turnips before, but I do hope to again.

I was driving back to St. Helena after dinner, so I opted for the non-alcoholic pairing. Non-alcoholic pairings are definitely a test of how seriously a restaurant takes its bar program. At Noma, their juice pairing was fascinating, full of non-alcoholic fermented vegetable and fruit juices. At Coi, the tea pairing was a first of its kind and I learned a lot that night. SingleThread was by far the best non-alcoholic pairing I've ever had. It is head and shoulders above any other in my experience. Every drink was unique, superbly paired, something I had never come across before, delicious, and in the most beautiful glassware from Japan. The glass maker is Kimura in Japan. 

As you can see, I was inordinately impressed by SingleThread. Some people may find the heavily Japanese inflected food a bit light or subtle, and I do think there is room to continue to improve the food. But let me be clear, that would mean taking a few things from very good to great, or great to amazing, as everything was at least very good. Considering that the restaurant has only been open for four months, they have achieved the nearly impossible. I predict that they will have 3 Michelin stars when the San Francisco Bay Area guide comes out in October. In all of my travels and all of my restaurant visits, I have never had such a perfectly choreographed evening. 

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Traveling Alone: A Bold Food Guide

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Traveling Alone: A Bold Food Guide

I've traveled by myself on more occasions than I can count, including Malaysia, Peru, Turkey, Cambodia, Spain, Japan and many others. I've never encountered a problem, but I have learned a few things along the way. Here are some of my tips for traveling by yourself:

  1. Be forewarned
    • Before going to a new country, check out the safety and travel warnings from the US Department of State, particularly safety, visa requirements, and health information. Keep in mind that there is crime everywhere. Keep it in perspective by asking yourself, if the report were about the city I live in, what would it say?
  2. Find local transportation
    • Load Lyft or Uber onto your phone. Sometimes it is hard to find a cab or know how to get a cab in a foreign land, but Lyft and Uber work the same way all over the planet. One or both of the companies are active in many international locations. You don't have to worry about having local currency, or even speaking the local language.
  3. Stay connected
    • Pay for at least rudimentary roaming to stay connected.
  4. Research activities in advance
    • Do your homework ahead of time so that you have a list of activities that you're confident about doing and are reputable. (Most of my activities are scheduled and arranged before I arrive.)
  5. Be confident
    • When you're traveling, give off a very confident energy. (I am not timid and scared, but I also remain humble and open to new people and new experiences.)
  6. Don't stress about the language
    • Don't be intimidated by visiting a country where you don't speak the language. English is the international language of business and hospitality, so checking into a hotel is usually simple. Restaurants can be more challenging, but pointing and gesturing works incredibly well. In many locations,  subway maps and street signs are in the native language and in English. Try to arrange most of your activities ahead of time via the web with English-speaking guides. If you learn a few basic words (please, thank you, excuse me), you'll be set!

The best thing about traveling alone? You get to do whatever you want! There is no worrying about other people having a good time. 

If you're not ready to travel completely by yourself, sign up for a Bold Food Tour, where you'll have the experience of traveling by yourself without having to travel alone.

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Roasted Asparagus Salad with Vinaigrette and Black Garlic Yogurt Sauce

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Roasted Asparagus Salad with Vinaigrette and Black Garlic Yogurt Sauce

This festive salad has two dressings: a classic vinaigrette and a yogurt-based sauce, which was inspired by Ottolenghi, The Cookbook. The acidity in the vinaigrette is balanced nicely by the creaminess of the yogurt.  In addition, the sweetness and floral notes in the fermented black garlic in the yogurt sauce goes very nicely with the stronger pungent aspects of the raw garlic in the vinaigrette.  Make sure to scoop up some of the yogurt sauce with each serving of salad!

A tip for seeding the pomegranate: Cut it in half through the middle and then, over a large bowl, whack the rounded part of the pomegranate with a sturdy wooden spoon while loosely holding the cut side in your other hand. The seeds should fall right out.

Serves 6

Salad

1 lb. asparagus 

2 firm persimmons, peeled and sliced

3 Persian cucumbers, sliced

¼ - ½ cup Marcona almonds, chopped

Seeds of one pomegranate 

½ cup mint leaves, roughly chopped

½ cup cilantro, roughly chopped

olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

Vinaigrette   

2 tablespoons lime juice (or to taste)

2 tablespoons honey

½ cup olive oil 

1 clove garlic, minced

Salt to taste

Black Garlic Yogurt Sauce

16 oz. plain Greek yogurt (whole milk)

Zest of one lime

3 tablespoons black garlic, minced 

3 tablespoons oil-cured black olives, minced

1 tablespoon olive oil

Coat asparagus in olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast under the broiler until the tips are brown and crispy. When cool, cut asparagus into 2-inch pieces and put into a large bowl along with the cucumbers, persimmons, cilantro, mint and almonds, and pomegranate seeds. 

To make the vinaigrette mix all the ingredients together and whisk rapidly.  The honey will emulsify the vinaigrette.  Taste for salt and tartness.  The vinaigrette should be tart, so add more lime juice if it is too sweet. 

To make the yogurt sauce, mix the yogurt, lime zest, black garlic, olives and olive oil in a small bowl until well blended. Spread the yogurt sauce on the bottom of a serving plate, toss the vegetables with the vinaigrette, and place the vegetables on top of the yogurt sauce. Serve immediately.

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Portland: A Bold Food Guide

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Portland: A Bold Food Guide

Portland, Oregon is one of the best food cities in the US. It has one of the highest numbers of restaurants per capita, and all that competition adds up to delicious food. I have been traveling there once or twice per year for many years now, and I am never disappointed.

In addition to the great restaurants, Portland has a unique food cart scene. Don't call them "food trucks," or they will know you are from out of town. Food carts are stationary trailers that are situated in pods of two to 25 all over town, including the suburbs. There are more than 600 of them. Eater keeps a list of "Must-Have Food Cart Dishes" and very successful carts can go on to become restaurants, or, in some cases, create a multi-cart empire.

With all of this great food to choose from, it's hard to know where to start. Here is my list, in order of preference. Note that everything on this list is worth a visit, even the ones at the bottom of the list because this is my best of Portland list. 

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Gaggan: #1 Restaurant in Asia

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Gaggan: #1 Restaurant in Asia

I had spent the previous 24 hours in bed, and I was not sure I was going to make it to dinner. About 4pm the previous day I got very cold, in Thailand. By American standards, it’s really hot in Bangkok all of the time. ALL OF THE TIME.  But that night I wore a long sleeved shirt and a jacket to dinner and I didn’t take it off all night. I had been really excited about my three nights in Bangkok because I had reservations at Issaya Siamese ClubNahm, and Gaggan, the #21, #5 and #1 ranked restaurants in Asia, respectively, according to Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. 

I had been to Nahm before and had been blown away by the citrus, chilis and funky flavors that meld into beautiful harmonies. Most people don’t think of Thai food as fine dining, but David Thompson can easily change that opinion. Unfortunately, that night the food didn’t sparkle like it did the first time. I could barely eat more than a few bites of each dish, not because the food wasn’t wonderful, but because I felt so full. When I returned to my hotel after dinner, I realized I was sick, and likely had been since the afternoon. I got in bed and stayed there. And throughout that night and day, I worried. Not about being sick and alone in a foreign land, not about all the things I’d eaten on my culinary walking tour that day, and not about anything except whether or not I was going to make it to Gaggan. The time ticked by and I alternated between sleeping and worrying. By 3pm I could sit up and watch TV. By 4pm I was starting to get bored by sleeping, lying down and watching movies. That is always a good sign for me and usually means I’m getting better, so I decided to risk it. I showered and headed downstairs, and was extremely relieved to feel really hot as soon as I exited the hotel lobby. Maybe I was going to make it to Gaggan after all.

The restaurant is down a short alley off the main street. As per usual in Southeast Asia, never judge a destination by the griminess of the path to get there. You never know what you will find, and in this case it’s a bright, welcoming fusion of a colonial building with an ultra modern glass entryway. This is the perfect setting for the melding of traditional and modern food inside. Gaggan is a modern Indian restaurant started by Chef Gaggan Anand in 2010. Chef Gaggan had been frustrated with the status of Indian food in the world, and he set out to change that by cooking fine dining, modernist Indian food. He has succeeded dramatically, winning the top spot on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list for the last two years in a row. 

When I sat down, I found the menu on the table and it was written in emojis, 21 of them. The titles of the dishes are not given until the end of the meal. Until the last savory dish of crab curry, the dishes are one or two bites of beauty and intensity. Surprisingly, this is a great way to eat after 24 hours in bed suffering from what was likely food poisoning. One bite at a time over the course of many hours is the perfect way to recover! And if you are lucky enough to be in Bangkok and have a reservation at the best restaurant in Asia, it’s also the most delicious way to recover. 

I loved the creativity of the entire menu. My two favorite dishes were the yogurt explosion and the chutoro sushi. Spherification has almost become a cliche in creatively driven modernist kitchens, but not at Gaggan. The key is that it tastes amazing. It is tart and sweet, with subtle flavors of cumin. If yogurt was always this good, we would all live to 100. The chutoro sushi was another great example of over-the-top flavor combined with originality and creativity. Good fatty tuna sushi is a gift from the food gods, but every sushi restaurant in the world carries it. No one else has Gaggan's version though. The rice in the sushi is a crisp, dry foam that dissolved on my tongue. My guess is that it is a dehydrated tight foam made from pureed rice. Chef Gaggan has more than proved that Indian food can be luxurious, creative and modern. If you are in Bangkok, I hope you get the chance to experience it.

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Malabar in Lima, Peru: Food from the Amazon

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Malabar in Lima, Peru: Food from the Amazon

Lima is one of the best food cities in the world, and there's a delightful culinary surprise practically around every corner. But Malabar in Lima was the most exciting meal of my entire trip to Lima. Malabar has kept a position on the Latin America and World's Best Restaurants lists for many years now, and for good reason. Every menu item was full of ingredients and preparations I had never seen before. 

Chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino is the owner of Malabar. He trained at the Culinary Institute of America and the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners, then spent five years cooking in Italy before moving back to his native Lima. He is one of a handful of world-renowned chefs in Lima who is highlighting local ingredients and techniques in his restaurants. 

There's nothing more exciting for a foodie than to find something new and incredibly tasty. When I sat down to dinner and the server brought me the bread course, I knew I would have my mind blown during this meal. I was treated to three breads made from yucca (cassava) that were completely new to me, along with a dipping sauce made from fermented yucca juice that was black and funky with an umami kick that the Japanese would envy. I was in awe of it. It was one of those moments when I thought, "Why doesn't the whole world eat like this?" After the bread came the most flavorful hearts of palm dish I've ever had, and and then raw scallops with cucumbers, native herbs and fermented ají amarillo. This native yellow pepper is ubiquitous in Peruvian cuisine, but this is the only time I have had it fermented. Every dish contained a delicious surprise. I only wish I could eat like this every day! 

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Homemade Thai Spiced Potato Chips

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Homemade Thai Spiced Potato Chips

Sometimes at a Super Bowl party, you want Frito Lays with canned Hormel chili (no beans; don't be ridiculous) and Velveeta. Theres nothing wrong with that. It tastes good!

I'm from Denver, so every year the Broncos make it as far as the Super Bowl, I also make two pans of rice krispies treats at my house. One batch is orange, and one is blue. Even if the Raiders are in it, Im still gonna make my orange and blue rice krispies. I've lived in the Bay Area for 20 years, but once your arch enemy, always your arch enemy.  

Sometimes at a Super Bowl party, you want chips with onion dip, tiny pizzas and beer.  

And sometimes you want to make those homemade potato chips and caramelize the onions for the handmade dip. Maybe the pizzas are tiny tarte flambées made with specialty puff pastry, and the beer is home brewed. Just sayin. If this is one of those years for you—like it is for me—this recipes for you.

Homemade Thai Spiced Potato Chips

Serves 4

  • Ginger - 25 g
  • Galangal - 25 g
  • Lemongrass - 2 stalks
  • Thai chilis - 25 g
  • Lime leaves - 20 leaves
  • Coconut - 25 g unsweetened shredded
  • Takii umami powder
  • 4 Russet potatoes
  1. Dehydrate all of the spice mix ingredients except the Takii powder on separate shelves in a dehydrator.  The ginger, lemongrass and galangal should be cut into thin slices to speed up the dehydration.  [Most ingredients will take only a few hours to dehydrate, but do this the day before in case some of the ingredients need to be dehydrated overnight.]
  2. Roughly chop each ingredient before grinding in a spice grinder.
  3. Grind Takii powder in a spice grinder.
  4. Mix 10g each of ginger, galangal, lemongrass and coconut.  Add lime leaves, chilis and Takii powder to taste.
  5. Cut potatoes into 3mm slices using a mandoline (no need to peel).
  6. Cook potato slices for 3 to 5 minutes in boiling, salted water.  The potato should taste cooked.
  7. When cooked potatoes cool, fry at 165C (330F) until brown and crispy.  This will likely need to be done in 3 to 4 batches to avoid overloading the fryer. 
  8. Immediately transfer potato chips to a large bowl, add some spice mix and toss to coat.

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Smoked corn "noodles" recipe

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Smoked corn "noodles" recipe

For National Spaghetti Day we are sharing a modernist recipe that looks like spaghetti but doesn't actually contain any pasta! This smoked corn noodles dish has noodles made of smoked corn cob infused broth with a sauce of thickened Vietnamese-style nuoc cham, all topped with fried shallots, mint and hibiscus crystals. The noodles are made with a mixture of hydrocolloids, which provide a chewy, noodle-like texture (courtesy of Rich Rosendale).  And remember, the same three steps are almost always used with hydrocolloids: disperse, fully hydrate with heat, and cool.  The dish is smoky, savory, sweet and tart, in addition to being gluten free and pescatarian safe.   

Smoked Corn Noodles with Nuoc Cham

Nuoc cham:

  • Sugar - 60 g
  • Xanthan gum - 0.8 g
  • Fish sauce - 60 g
  • Rice vinegar - 30 g
  • Lime juice  - 30 g
  • Garlic, minced - 10 g
  • Bird’s-eye chili, minced - 1

Noodles:

  • Broth - 900 g of chicken or pork broth
  • Smoked corn cobs - 6 ears of corn smoked for 30 min to 1 hour (until corn kernels are cooked) at 135C (275F) 
  • Salt - to taste
  • Locust bean gum - 3 g  
  • Kappa carrageenan - 1 g
  • Iota carrageenan - 5 g
  • Calcium lactate - 0.5 g 
  • Mint leaves - 12 small leaves
  • Cilantro leaves - 12 small leaves
  • Fried shallots - 30 g
  • Hibiscus Flower Crystals from Fresh Origins - 10 g

Method:

  1. Mix sugar and xanthan gum together
  2. Mix all ingredients for nuoc chom together and sprinkle in sugar/xanthan gum mixture while whisking
  3. Whisk to dissolve sugar and xanthan gum for at least one minute to fully dissolve and then set aside
  4. After corn is removed from smoked corn ears (and kept to use for another purpose), steep corn cobs in broth for one hour at a low simmer
  5. Season the broth to taste, but be careful not to over salt because the nuoc cham will be salty
  6. Strain the broth
  7. In a blender, disperse (blend in slowly) the locust bean gum, kappa carrageenan, iota carrageenan and calcium lactate 
  8. While stirring constantly, heat mixture to 70C (158F)
  9. Pour mixture into a flat tray to set.  It should be no more than 1/4 inch deep.
  10. Let cool to solidify
  11. Cut smoked corn broth into 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick noodles
  12. Portion noodles and dress with nuoc cham to taste
  13. Top noodles with fried shallots, cilantro, mint, and Flower Crystals

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Mostly Ramen in Fukuoka, Japan

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Mostly Ramen in Fukuoka, Japan

Should you plan to visit Fukuoka for one day or seven?  It is a tough choice.  Fukuoka is a city in the southwest of Japan.  It has a population of about 1.5 million people and is the largest city on the southern island of Kyushu.  It is Japan’s fifth largest city, and probably the most manageable city in Japan that I’ve visited (Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo being the others).  It was the seventh most livable city according to Monocle in 2016.  Not many people speak English and I only know a few words of Japanese, but after only a few days in Fukuoka I could easily manage the subway and the buses on my own.  I knew the major sections of the city and had found the 24 hour Ichiran, thankfully only a half mile from my hotel as I made many trips there.  Fukuoka is a city of food and shopping.  There is a park containing the ruins of the samurai compound, the ocean and associated fishing industry, and a few notable temples.  But it isn’t the wonderland of activities like the bigger Japanese cities.  There is no Disneyland, no Harry Potter Universal Studios, no giant robots walking the streets.  But there is ramen.  And that might just be enough for an entire week.

Fukuoka and Hakata are two cities that merged into one and the official name of the city is now Fukuoka, but Hakata is still often used to refer to the city and the main train station is called Hakata Station.  Hakata ramen is famous worldwide as rich, pork based tonkotsu ramen.  This is the type of ramen that is popping up on every other corner in major cities around the US and the world.  And this is may be the only type of ramen most people around the world have eaten.  In Japan there is ramen based on fish, miso, and chicken.  In most of the world there is only tonkotsu ramen.  It has taken over the world because it is so delicious.  

I managed to fit in eight bowls in three and a half days. They were all so good that it was on my last night in Fukuoka at the two Michelin star Tempura Tenko where I hit the wall, not any of the ramen joints.  It’s a good thing I walked ten miles a day while I was there.  

Ramen, in order of preference:

Ichiran - This is a global chain and for good reason.  At most locations you get your own small booth to slurp your noodles with only your ramen for company.  They make a pork broth, but it also has garlic, their special red spicy sauce, and I venture to say some other aromatics and something mildly acidic.  Every bowl is customized because you get to choose the intensity and richness of the broth, level of spice, amount of garlic, addition of green and/or white onions, addition of chashu (roasted pork), and firmness of the noodles.  The noodles in Fukuoka are a bit different than ramen noodles known to most people.  They are thin and straight.  And delicious.  Three of my eight bowls were from Ichiran, partly because I loved it and partly because the restaurant at their global headquarters is open 24 hours and I ate ramen for breakfast.  Most ramen joints do not open until 11 am and some stay open very late.  

Mengekijo Genei - Unlike many ramen restaurants where you are expected to file in, sit or stand at a crowded counter, eat quickly and get out, Mengekijo Genei is built like a stadium with the ramen chef on center stage so that everyone can watch the show.  We were early to avoid the crowd and got a front row seat.  The chef was incredibly friendly and came out to speak to us.  I was with a Japanese guide so was able to talk with him a bit and learn more about his ramen.  It is made with dried shrimp, scallops and abalone, and pork or course.  We tried their standard house ramen and a spicy version with minced pork topping.  Their house ramen was the best of the two.  It had the standard topics of chashu, mushrooms and green onions and nothing more was needed.  The noodles and broth were amazing and that’s all that really matters.  This broth was more complex than many of the others I had in Fukuoka and one of the best.

Hide-chan - Canal city is one of the shopping meccas in Fukuoka.  My dream food court is on the fifth floor and is called Ramen Stadium.  It is filled with the best ramen shops from the Fukuoka region.  My hotel was attached to this mall and it is the one and only reason I chose to stay there.  Hide-chan is very well known and has many locations world wide.  I ventured out a bit while there and chose their special fatty pork neck rather than the standard chashu.  The bowl was simple and contained only the pork, green onions and noodles.  The broth was on the complex side, which I found that I enjoy more than the simpler broths.  The pork neck was delicious and very tender.  It went perfectly with the broth.  All in all a great bowl of ramen, surrounded by seven other ramen restaurants plus Ichiran in the basement.  If only I'd been hungrier!  Heaven.  

Ganso Nagahama - This is a classic ramen shop near the fish market.  It opened right after the end of WWII and now has other branches in Fukuoka.  The original restaurant is very industrial and utilitarian.  The workers are dressed in white with rain boots.  Everything behind the counter is stainless steel and clearly built and organized for efficiency.  In the eating area there are large communal tables with stools.  There is a giant pot of warm tea on each table, a bucket of mugs, and a tub of red pickled ginger.  The ramen ticket machine outside has the fewest number of options I’ve seen.  You could choose to buy extra noodles or extra chashu and that was it.  It was also the cheapest bowl of ramen at only 500 yen (about $4.75).  This was a simple and straightforward bowl.  Noodles, paper thin chashu and a generous helping of green onions.  That’s it and really no other options.  The noodles were very good and cooked perfectly.  The broth was simple, but delicious.  I would guess that it was almost completely pork broth, but with a small bit of something else to give it slightly more complexity.   

Shin Shin - This is also a famous Hakata ramen mainstay with multiple locations.  This was my least favorite of the the five ramen restaurants I visited, but it was still very good.  Before I tried this ramen I didn’t fully understand what was meant when by a silky tonkotsu broth.  This broth had that heaviest mouthfeel of any ramen I’ve ever had.  I can imagine it will start to become a solid mass very quickly as it cools because of the amount of collagen in the broth.   The broth was meaty and full of pork flavor, but was the least complex of the five different places I tried.  It would probably be the best ramen in most cities in the world.  

Other notable Fukuoka finds:

Yatai - Fukuoka is about the only city in Japan with much of a street food culture.  Every night when the sun goes down, tiny, fully functional restaurants called yatai pop up on the street.  They serve ramen (of course!), matsunabe (organ soup), mentaiko (spicy cod roe), oden (boiled meat and vegetables), yakitori and sushi.  They are open until around 2am and are perfect for that last meal after a night of drinking with your friends.

Tempura Tenko - As mentioned above, this is a classic high end Japanese tempura restaurant.  The chef is a very experienced tempura master and provides instructions on how to eat each piece (tempura sauce, lemon, salt or curry salt).  It was the cheapest 2 star restaurant I have been to in quite a while ($150 total with sake).  It was a beautiful space and the chef and the hostess were very gracious.  We got by with my extremely limited Japanese and their slightly better English.  The chef had a list of the ingredients in English, so he would tell me in English or show me the sheet if he was unsure of the pronunciation.  As I mentioned above, after so many bowls of ramen and a meal of fried things, even if they were expertly done and very light, I hit the wall.  I could only take two bites of the last rice dish.  It was a very good experience overall.  I enjoyed the perfection of the restaurant.  The pottery was beautiful.  The restaurant was decorated sparingly and achieved that perfect simple beauty at which the Japanese excel.

Kira Hakata Steakhouse - Kira Hakata is a teppanyaki style steakhouse that is right on the bank of the river.  They serve Saga beef which is wagyu beef from the Saga region (like Kobe beef is wagyu beef from the Kobe region).  My own personal teppanyaki chef  started by cooking giant garlic chips in oil, then saved the oil to cook the subsequent steak, vegetables and fried rice.  The steak was so marbled it was half fat and half meat which makes for incredibly tender and meaty beef.  The chef cooked each bite individually.  The garlic fried rice was so well prepared that the garlic was not overwhelming and every component in the rice came together perfectly.  

Yakitori Masashi is the Japanese restaurant of my dreams.  Delicious salty grilled meats on skewers, sochu (sweet potato liquor), and fun.  The staff was incredibly welcoming to this foreigner.  They made sure I could properly say the name of each item before they served it to me, joked around with us, encouraged me to take all the pictures I wanted, and posed for every picture they caught me taking.  They even brought me a special dish of tiny taro like potatoes that had been grilled with oil and salt.  If I found a yakitori joint like this in the SF Bay Area, I would move next to it so that it could become my favorite neighborhood restaurant.  

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Ramen School in Osaka, Japan

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Ramen School in Osaka, Japan

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Over the holidays some families stick to age old traditions of cooking and baking holiday favorites.  My younger son Cooper and I make ramen! We love ramen and avidly explore every Bay Area ramen shop we can find.  When I travel across the nation and globally I do the same, looking for the best and most popular ramen I can find!  

When we make ramen over the holidays we often use the Momofuku recipe.  That is a great book with very creative recipes, many of which aren't too labor intensive, have a small number of steps and each recipe is packed with flavor.  Their ramen recipe, however, is quite a bit of work, which is why we do it over the holidays when we have time away from work and school to focus on doing it right!  

When we were in Japan last year, we were delighted to find out that there was a professional ramen school in Nagase, a short train ride from Osaka, and we made sure to sign up.  The Toranoana ramen school is run by ramen master Hiroshi Miyajima.  He trains chefs who want to open ramen restaurants, and also teaches one-day classes to amateur cooks.  Miyajima-sensei is, by his own admission, not fluent in English, so a translator allowed us to get the most of out his class.  Cooper was nine years old at the time and I love that cooking schools outside of the US are open to having children join their classes.  Cooper is a passionate cook, very responsible in the kitchen, and has an innate set of cooking skills that make him a natural in the kitchen!  It's often hard to find good classes for him to take at home but here they had no reservations about Cooper taking the class with me.  

We both learned a lot during the course.  In the morning we started preparing the chashu, dashi for tare, onsen eggs and broth.  We made the broth in just a few hours with a giant pressure cooker.  Partway through the morning we took a break to eat ramen that the chef had made in a course the day before and received a great lecture on ramen theory (as I now call it).  The morning ramen was chicken based, surprisingly rich and very tasty!  In the afternoon we climbed a set of  very steep stairs (maybe it was really a ladder) to find a few small rooms with machines for quickly making fresh noodles.  Cooper had a great time collecting the noodles quickly and efficiently as the came down the conveyor belt and placing them in a noodle tray.  At the conclusion of the class midway through the afternoon, we ate another bowl of the ramen that we had made that day.  This was pork based and just as good.  We were very full after two bowls of ramen, and actually couldn't find it in ourselves to eat any more ramen for the next few days!  This was actually very sad because we were in Japan!  The good news is that we made a quick recovery, and were able to resume our ramen regimen by the time we reached Tokyo a few days later!

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Maido in Lima, Peru: The best of Nikkei, the fusion of Peruvian and Japanese food

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Maido in Lima, Peru: The best of Nikkei, the fusion of Peruvian and Japanese food

Recommended: Strongly        

Type of Food: High end, Technique driven, Creative, Modernist, Local Ingredients

Maido is ranked 13 on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list and is ranked 5 on Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants list.  Maido was my favorite meal in Lima.  At it's heart, Peruvian food is a fusion cuisine based on all of the immigrants who have added their flavors to the indigenous culture including Japanese, Chinese, Italian, African and Spanish.  Nikkei is Japanese-Peruvian food.  When I first heard about Nikkei, I was skeptical.  When I tasted it, I was an immediate convert.  The great umami centered Japanese cuisine combined with Peruvian ingredients with it's acid and incredible fruit and vegetable diversity makes for one of the most flavorful and exciting cuisines in the world.  No doubt.  The vibe at Maido is relaxed, and it is large enough that there are a small number of walk ins available.  However, reservations are a must if you want the Amazon Nikkei Experience, which is their tasting menu.  I have heard that if you are not able to get a reservation for the Nikkei Experience, they may be able to provide a smaller tasting menu experience.  Mitsuharu Tsumura is the chef and owner of Maido.  He is a native of Lima and trained in Japan before opening Maido.  If you are in Lima, make sure to get a reservation at Maido for the Nikkei Experience.  

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Central in Lima, Peru: The best restaurant in a great food city

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Central in Lima, Peru: The best restaurant in a great food city

Recommended: Strongly        

Type of Food: High end, Technique driven, Creative, Modernist, Local Ingredients

Central is currently ranked #4 on the World's 50 Best Restaurant's List and #1 on the Latin America's 50 Best Restaurant's List.  They are known for venturing into the wilds of Peru to find native ingredients to highlight in the restaurant.  Peru is one of the world's most ecologically diverse countries containing peaks in the Andes that are over 20,000 feet high, jungles along the Amazon river, and a coastal desert where most of the population lives.  There are 4,000 varieties of potatoes, hundreds of varieties of chili peppers, and jungle fruit I had never seen before.  Central's mission is to highlight the amazing diversity and uniqueness of Peru's flora and fauna and they do it incredibly well.  The cost of the large 18 course tasting menu is 398 Peruvian Nuevos Soles which is about $120.  This is a lot of money in Peru, but much less than most world class restaurants cost.  Central succeeds in presenting a very refined version of incredible Peruvian cuisine.  

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Sous vide smoked BBQ brisket

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Sous vide smoked BBQ brisket

BBQ is an art form and there's nothing more satisfying than cutting into your brisket to find that it is still moist and the fat has rendered perfectly.  And like any other art form, practice and persistence help to improve the final product.  It is so disappointing to spend a lot of money on a great piece of meat and spend a lot of time prepping and cooking that meat, only to end up with a chewy piece of shoe leather.  Combining sous vide with smoking is a perfect way to increase your chances of ending up with a moist and delicious brisket.  Sous vide ensures that the brisket will stay tender and moist, while the smoker provides that great bark and smoky flavor.  I combined the ChefSteps Smokerless Smoked Brisket recipe with actual smoking.  Also, because I have a CVap, I was able to keep the brisket whole rather than cutting it in two to fit it into sous vide bags.  Either way will work just fine.  A CVap is a controlled vapor oven which allows you to control the wet bulb and the dry bulb temperatures independently.  The key for this preparation is that there is a tremendous amount of water vapor in the oven which severely limits evaporation from the meat and keeps it as moist as cooking it sous vide in a bag.  In addition, the CVap provides precise, consistent low heat exactly like sous vide.  Check out the pictures below to see the steps for sous vide smoked brisket.

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Smoked Brisket Dip and Sous Vide Chicken Ballotine: Private Workshop on Modernist Cuisine

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Smoked Brisket Dip and Sous Vide Chicken Ballotine: Private Workshop on Modernist Cuisine

Jacinta D'Souza joined us for a private workshop on sous vide, hydrocolloids, the Pacojet and transglutaminase.  We made sous vide steak, sous vide chicken ballotine, smoked brisket dip, crispy chicken skins, peach fluid gel, and whipping siphon extruded microwave cake.  The most unusual item was the smoked brisket dip.  We froze brisket, homemade bbq sauce and sour cream in a Pacojet container and pacotized it the next day.  It was smoky, slightly sweet from the bbq sauce, and creamy.  It was a very unusual dip and everyone who tried it took a minute to consider it, then decided they liked it. 

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42 grams: Michelin 2 star dinner party

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42 grams: Michelin 2 star dinner party

Recommended: Strongly

Categories: High end dining, Creative, Technique driven, Modernist

Lately there are a few high end restaurants playing with the theme of a dinner party.  Lazy Bear in San Francisco is one of my favorites, and El Ideas in Chicago is also very successful with the model.  42 grams goes in a more intimate direction than either of the other two restaurants and seats only 8 people at a time.  The entire staff consists of two chefs, a dishwasher and one person running front of the house.  Jake Bickelhaupt is the chef and co-owner with his wife Alexa Welsh who is the entire front of the house.  Chef Bickelhaupt worked at Alinea, Schwa, and Charlie Trotter's, so he has a great resume.  Like Schwa and El Ideas in Chicago, 42 grams is BYOB.  They offer still or sparkling water only.  This is not a place that focuses on the traditional aspects of fine dining.  It is comfortable and modern inside, but the neighborhood is not a great one and there is no lounge area inside, so do not come early.  But don't be late either because everyone is served at the same time, like at a dinner party.  Clearly, the focus is on the food and creating a relaxed and friendly environment where people interact with each other.   42 grams is completely successful at this.  The food is amazing and I had a great time with the people next to me.  We shared our wine and chatted the whole night.  Most of the time we were talking about how good the food was.  

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Grace: One of the best meals of 2016

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Grace: One of the best meals of 2016

 

Recommended: Stongly

Categories: High end, Technique driven, Creative, Modernist

This is one of the best meals of the year so far.  Grace was extremely impressive.  The food was beautiful and unique.  There were classic European flavors like prosciutto and truffle served only a few dishes after tuna carpaccio with caviar, coconut, cashews and fennel, and then a few dishes later the beef had Southeast Asian influences from lemongrass and finger lime.  While some of these Southeast Asian flavors can be quite assertive (which is why I love them!), Chef Duffy manages to make them a bit more subtle so that they can fit in with the flow of the tasting menu.  The most beautiful dish of the night was the two layered cucumber and king crab dish that was sweet and savory in perfect balance.  The lightly sweet sugar crust on top played off the sweet king crab and cucumber below.  The raw tuna dish came in a close second for the most beautiful dish of the night.  The flavors here are brilliant and unexpected with the caviar and fennel pairing well with the Caribbean flavors of coconut, lime and cashew.  The raw squash dish was tossed with a warm som tum dressing and crispy, yet not overpowering, garlic might have been my favorite of the night.  This squash dish was from the flora menu, proving that the vegetable menu might be even better than the fauna menu.  

The service was very good and the wine pairings worked well.  One particular wine, Bukettraube from Cederberg in South Africa, was especially nice, and I had never heard of it before.  The table next to me had the same surprised reaction.  Bukettraube is a German varietal that is a cross of Silvaner and Schiava Grossa.  It reminded me of other German whites in that it was very aromatic and complex.  I will look for it again.  

Grace has some of the most beautiful dishes I have seen this year.  The restaurant opened in just 2012 and has already earned three Michelin stars.  After eating there, I am not at all surprised.  I am a huge Grant Achatz fan and would suggest Alinea, Next and especially the Aviary to anyone living in or visiting Chicago.  However, right now, if you have to choose one three star restaurant, I would choose Grace over Alinea.  If you don't have to choose, even better!

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Eataly in Chicago

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Eataly in Chicago

Recommended - Yes

Category - Food Hall with both ingredients and restaurants

This was my first trip to one of Mario Batali's Eatalys. I wasn't sure what to expect. The bottom floor contained some sweets counters and a large collection of boxed candies, along with books (possibly every book Mario Batali or Joe Bastianich have ever had anything to do with), kitchen gadgets and serving dishes. The top floor held a number of counter and sit down restaurants, charcuterie, cheese, fish, meat, bread, wine, and pasta sections. There was a huge collection of Italian cheeses and meats. I asked some some questions about prosciutto at the cheese and charcuterie counter and the very knowledgeable worker told me about the different regions and let me try some great cured ham from all of them, including an American La Quercia Acorn Prosciutto which turned out to be my favorite.  I am partial to jamón (shhhh, don't tell Mario), so it's probably not surprising that this one was my favorite. It is great to see American producers making such high quality products.   Overall, I was impressed by the depth and breadth of the offerings and would go back. It is certainly on the expensive side, but not more than other specialty food stores, and the selection is tremendous. 

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Pizza in Chicago, finally

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Pizza in Chicago, finally

Recommended - Maybe

Category - Local Specialty

I am not a fan of deep dish pizza.  There's nothing wrong with it, it's simply not my preference. As a result, I have never eaten pizza in Chicago until yesterday. Pequod's isn't quite deep dish and it certainly isn't thin crust. Pan pizza is the best description. It has a nice crispy ring around the top, the sausage was tasty, and it was packed with pepperoni. I would have liked more cheese. The crust was fluffy and nicely chewy where it met the tomato sauce. It's not the best pizza I've ever had, but the folks in the area who get to say Pequod's is their neighborhood pizza are quite lucky. 

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