Saturday, March 28, 2009

Inside the Bubble with Iron Chef Morimoto

We were in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan at Morimoto Restaurant, and we were inside the bubble.

“Beautiful people,” as Jack Donaghy explained in a recent episode of 30 Rock, “are treated differently than moderately pleasant looking people. They live in a bubble. A bubble filled with kindness and free drinks.”

My friends and I have always felt that we should be treated as if we were inside the bubble. To my knowledge, though, none of us believes that we actually have the looks to access this magic globule – with the possible exception of Dave, who once spent an entire double-decker bus tour of London admiring his own reflection in the windows of the buildings we passed. Overall, though, we think that we get only what we deserve.

But at Morimoto, you feel that you have access to the very best of everything, and that you can get away with anything. You are surrounded by wealthy, beautiful people, and by the power of suggestion, you begin to believe that you, too, are one of the City’s modelesque big hitters. The wait staff fawns over you like a mother looking after the needs of a sick child. And when you go to the bathroom and step into the stall, an automated toilet lid rises to greet you. People outside the bubble don’t get this kind of treatment.
Not only were we seemingly in the bubble, but it was Saturday night and we hadn’t seen each other for a while. In celebration, we were drinking straight Vodka as we waited for the food to come. Dave said he had started watching Top Chef and thought he was ready to join Colicchio’s team of judges. This led to a loud argument over whether Dave knew enough about food to be on national television. Even though the conversation reached an inappropriate volume, no one gave us nasty looks. Maybe it was that the tables have plenty of space between them. Maybe it was that the noise is reduced by translucent partitions and wavy white sheets of canvas and fiberglass on the ceiling and along the walls. Or, just maybe, we were inside the bubble.

The food came, and first up was the lamb carpaccio. My last experience with raw meat was in D.C. at the Ethiopian restaurant Etete, where they served kitfo as a thick mound of beef lumped at the center of the injera. Morimoto’s carpaccio was a welcome contrast: light, silky slices of lamb, presented simply with green onions, grated ginger, and olive oil.

The braised black cod with a ginger-soy reduction and the sea bass in sweet sake kasu were unremarkable, but the sashimi received unanimous praise from our group. Terrine-like cubes made from layers of hamachi, smoked salmon, barbecued eel and seared toro were luscious and hugely flavorful.

Then, Ed, red-faced and mouth full of sea bass, pointed and yelled: “Morimoto!”

I was pessimistic and debated whether it was worth turning around. Ed was on his fifth or sixth glass of vodka. On the other hand, Morimoto is pretty recognizeable. Maybe it was some other Japanese guy sporting all-black clothes, goatee, pony-tail, and black-rimmed glasses?

Reluctantly, I turned, and sure enough, Masaharu Morimoto was relaxing in the back of the dining room, drinking a beer with the hostess.

Seconds later, menu and pen were in hand as I made my way to the legendary Iron Chef, who boasts 16 wins on the program. Despite my inebriation and my experience with getting autographs from Top Chefs, I was nervous. This guy makes Bravo's show look like Slop Chef.

I noted that Morimoto was drinking a Rogue Ale – his specialty line of beers. I also noticed that the hostess was doing most of the talking; Morimoto is known for having a soft-spoken manner and heavy accent. The guy came to Manhattan in 1985, so I’m not sure why after 24 years he still hasn’t found time to learn English. His speaking is so bad that during the judgment phase of Iron Chef his voice is usually dubbed or subtitled.

Distracted from her monologue, the hostess rolled her eyes when I tapped Morimoto on the shoulder, but the chef didn’t seem to mind the adulation. He might have had a few too many Rogue Ales, though, because he missed the front of the menu, accidentally signing the back. He nodded cordially when I thanked him, but he didn’t say a word.

I returned victoriously to our table. We regarded our satisfied stomachs and Iron Chef memorabilia with a sense of accomplishment. Life inside the bubble was good: we had clearly been treated with kindness.

Then the bill came. Our eyes widened in terror, and the pop was almost audible. No free drinks or discounts of any other kind. It’s a good thing we didn’t get the certified “saga” Japanese beef. That runs $30 per ounce.

As Liz Lemon’s good-looking boyfriend said when she stopped letting him win at tennis, I don’t like it outside the bubble.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Letting the Crab Out of the Bag

The phrase “crabs in a bag” always meant one of two things to me:

1. A hot brown paper bag that fills your car with the smell of old bay while driving back from the crab house.

2. A bad joke about venereal diseases.

Then Marcy introduced me to meaning # 3. While checking out a food market in Chinatown in Las Vegas, she found a Doritos-sized bag stuffed with crabs. These things aren’t made by Keebler elves in a hollow tree – they’re real, baby crabs, each about an inch wide. Their shells, claws, and innards are all intact.

It was a no-brainer for Marcy to buy these things for me. They combine two of my favorite things: crabs and weird Asian food.

And I wanted to like them. The Japanese manufacturer, Shokuhin Company, markets them as a snack for Tokyo businessmen to eat while getting drunk after work. The bright yellow bag reads, “Let’s Party,” and, in Japanese, “A time spent with fun companions – come on now, all together!”

I was riled up and ready to party, but then I took a bite. Have you ever eaten crabs and been reminded of crackerjacks stuffed with dried fish? Me neither. These “crabs” – processed in food coloring, MSG, corn syrup, and sugar – tasted nothing like crabs. The smell was like a fish market at closing time Sunday night, or a horseshoe crab washed up on the beach. And at the bottom of the bag, no owl whistle or 3-D picture of a deep sea treasure.

Shokuhin calls them “Roasted Crab Meisaku.” According to my crack research team (Google), meisaku can either mean masterpiece, or interesting. I’m going with interesting.

The only upside of this snack food was that it motivated me to go out and get the real thing. Even though the commercial crab season doesn’t start until April 1, I needed a salt-of-the-earth crab house. I needed it immediately.

I rocketed my Civic through the sedate streets of suburban Maryland and found myself at Bethesda Crab House, the self-proclaimed second-oldest restaurant in Bethesda. Perfect. The restaurant was completely empty, and I sincerely hoped that all their customers weren’t at home getting wasted and eating crackerjack crabs. I grabbed a mallet and it wasn’t long before my back ached from leaning so enthusiastically over a pile of fresh crustaceans. Slathered in tomale, I told Frank, the weathered guy at the bar who looked more Dundalk than Bethesda, about my roasted crabs “party” earlier that day. “Sounds disgusting,” he said.

It was hard to imagine that these delicately textured, increasingly rare creatures belonged to the same species as their processed, maltose-soaked kin. Then it hit me: Shokuhin is taking perfectly healthy baby crabs, and instead of letting them flourish to their tasty adult potential, turning them into the Japanese equivalent of beer nuts.

So, shouldn’t this be a felony?

Crab-loving Marylanders would say yes. Since 1990, the Chesapeake Bay’s crab population decreased from 791 million to 260. And U.S. environmental groups have long said that overfishing of crabs is a major factor in the blue crab’s decline.

I don’t know where Shokuhin gets their crabs, but I did some research into Japan’s record on overfishing, and it reads like Saddam Hussein’s record on killing countrymen. Their legacy of exploiting fish populations goes at least as far back as the 1930s, when the Japanese all but annihilated the red king crabs of the eastern Bering Sea. In 1964, the U.S. had to arrange a bilateral fishing agreement with Japan, and the agreement notes the “historical fact that nationals and vessels of Japan have over a long period of years exploited the king crab resource.”

Although that agreement provided some protection for king crabs, other subspecies weren’t as lucky. In the mid-1990s, snow crabs got popular in Japan, and the country’s fisheries were willing to pay top dollar and go anywhere in the world to get them. They settled on the North Pacific coast, casting their nets from Washington to Alaska. Predictably, they overfished, and the snow crab disappeared.

All just so the Japanese can get their crabs and beer out of the same vending machine?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Where to Find Your Luxury Canned Food

Is there such a thing as luxury canned food? Is it an oxymoron that can only be eaten while wearing natural make-up in a room filled with deafening silence?

A&H Gourmet and Seafood Market of Bethesda believes that you can still be posh while working the pop-top.

In fact, on their “March Specials” placard, right next to the fresh Siberian caviar, they have a picture of Conservas Ortiz Ventresca de Bonito del Norte. AKA, canned tuna.

But this isn’t your grandpa’s chicken of the sea. Imported from northern Spain, Conservas Ortiz uses the most tender part of the white tuna: the belly, or ventresca. Each tuna is line-caught by hand, which preserves the texture and flavor that are often missing from tuna that are subjected to the stressful process of net harvesting. The albacore is freshly cleaned and dressed, then hand-packed to ensure that the fillet stays in one piece.

Labor + parts + cool northern Spain cachet = $8.99 per can.

Of course, I had to try one. I also bought a can of Starkist tuna for a side-by-side comparison, and it wasn’t even close. As advertised, the most impressive trait of the Conservas Ortiz was its texture. Whereas the Starkist was predictably chalky and stuck to the mouth, the ventresca was delicate and light. The taste was slightly smoky. Usually I have to throw the Starkist in a sandwich or salad just to tolerate it, but the Conservas Ortiz satisfies by itself. I also noticed that the Starkist had a much fishier odor than the luxury model.

Two more items at A&H caught my fancy for fancy cans. One was Cofimar cockles in brine. Cofimar is a dry cargo company that is relatively unknown, and based on their cockles, I completely understand why. Imagine tiny tasteless bivalves sitting in water mixed with about four tablespoons of salt and a dash of sand. Now imagine throwing most of it away, as I did.

My third purchase was Goya’s Eelbroods of Surimi, the best of my buys at A&H. Yes, even better than the Conservas Ortiz tuna. In taste and texture, if not in appearance, the silver eelbroods reminded me of the glass noodles in chap chae bap – sweet and slightly chewy. And Goya packs them with enough garlic and cayenne for just the right amount of kick.

But when I looked at the ingredients, I realized that Goya had tricked me. These baby eels are born on a Goya assembly line. Which is to say, they aren’t eels at all. They are “surimi,” a mix of fish meat, water, white egg, vegetable flour, and, last but not least, “natural aroma of eel and ink.” Goya didn’t think the actual eel was important, but the genuine aroma of the eel – that was indispensable.

But what do you expect? It’s sold in a can.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

A Brand New P'haal Curry Monster

Through the tears, I looked up to see my mother’s face, wrenched with concern for the welfare of her only son. “My child is suffering,” she cried.

I didn’t have a life-threatening disease. I wasn’t stretched out on a sidewalk bleeding from a gunshot wound. But the pain was about the same. I was eating a plate of p’haal at the Brick Lane Curry House in the East Village.

Originally a Bangladeshi curry, p’haal has always been spicy. But in early twentieth century England, Indian restaurant owners upped the ante. British revelers would stumble into Indian restaurants after the pubs closed to harass the staff while eating a nice curry. The owners got revenge by dumping ten to twelve ground chilis into each bowl of p'haal.

The kinds of peppers that they chose to feed these rude Brits tell you just how much Indians resented colonization. One pepper was naga jolokia, which translates to “cobra snake” and is used by Indian farmers as the main ingredient in smoke bombs to keep wild elephants away from their crops.

But the Brits were so drunk they didn’t seem to mind the spiciness - not to mention the stomach aches, passing out, and nosebleeds. Eating this unbelievably hot curry soon became a ritual for late-night male bonding.

I hoped to participate in this bonding ritual at Brick Lane. While waiting to be seated, I got off to a good start when I met a guy from Texas at the bar. Was the rumor true that he’d tried the p’haal? “Naw, I didn’t try it,” he said. Then he smiled. “I didn’t try it. I tamed it.” With that, he whipped out the Brick Lane certificate that proclaimed him a P’haal Curry Monster. His attitude was exactly the kind of bravado that I needed to inspire me. How else could I conquer a dish that defeats 90 percent of want-to-be Monsters?

But the Texan took off, and my bonding for the night was over. No one at my table was masochistic enough to join me in ordering the fiery curry. They thought the other menu options looked especially good after the owner, Sati Sharma, said we could only get the p’haal if we gave verbal disclaimers not to hold the restaurant liable for physical or emotional damage.

I gave the disclaimer, and when I took my first bite, it stung my palate like chards of glass. My table mates looked at me like I was a circus freak getting paid peanuts to lie down on a bed of nails. The spectators seemed to be divided into two camps: those like my parents who worried that my brain would melt; and another group, mostly the Indian wait staff, that clearly enjoy the site of yet another customer panting and wildly fanning himself with his napkin. Our friend, Don, had a foot in both camps: he showed some sympathy, but he also cackled with amusement when I told him that the spiciness was making me so congested that I thought I was losing my hearing.

About this time, I got a text from my Indian friend Dave, a well-known asbestos mouth who pumps bottles of hot sauce like most people squeeze the lap bar during a roller coaster ride. “You’re crazy,” it read. “I would never try that stuff.”

I felt alone and misunderstood, and my tongue was killing me. I kept waiting for the high that’s talked about by lovers of painfully hot curries. Supposedly, the body defends itself against the heat by releasing endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. Indonesians on the Spice Islands who eat bird’s eye chilies as snacks throughout the day are said to be addicted to these endorphins. But my only addiction was to a cool glass of lassi, the Punjabi yogurt blend, that the waiter gave me to help quiet the screaming pain fibers in my mouth. But even this was an exercise in futility. There’s nothing you can do for the chili burn. Once the capsaicin penetrates the tissues in your mouth, only time allows the compound to break down. Cold beverages temporarily help because they numb the nerves, but as soon as you swallow, the bonfire lights up again.

My dad studied the p'haal and said that the smell suggested law enforcement grade pepper spray. “You don’t have to finish it,” he reminded me. Defiantly, I took my biggest bite yet and immediately regretted it.

Mercifully, I heard my spoon scrape the bottom of the plate. Sati, the owner, had been watching me closely, perhaps to make sure I didn’t try to hide any of the p’haal in my pockets like the mutton trick on Seinfeld. Sensing my progress, he came running over. I had done it. I had finished the p’haal.

“You are not done yet!” Sati said, shaking his fist. “This,” he said, pointing to the huge chili pepper that came as a garnish, “you must eat this, too.” I stared at him in dejection until Sati laughed and I realized he was kidding. Then his smile went away and he cleared his throat. “You do have to continue, though,” he said, pointing at the curry-covered clumps of rice that were left on my plate. My parents eyed him venomously, but I just wanted to live up to Sati’s expectations. He was like my sergeant in the eating marines.

I regrouped and polished off the last traces of p’haal. I was happy to accept my Curry Monster certificate from Sati, but my stomach was like a furnace. With every breath, the flames would shoot back up into my throat. I said I needed some fresh air. Outside, I crossed the street to a shadowy area of the sidewalk, waited for a couple to pass by, and threw up.

I was a little embarrassed that the p’haal had reduced me to sidewalk decorating. But I think later that night I earned back some tough points. After we left the restaurant, I ignored my stomach's protests and went out with Dave for quail eggs. The Texan would have been proud of me.