Its no big secret Japanese food is amongst one of us sisters’ favorite cuisines, so while in Vegas, we set our sights on dinner at Raku, a small izakaya off the Strip that comes highly recommended by bloggers and chowhounders.
cute little sake bottles

cute little sake bottles

If not for the internet, we would never have found our way to Raku. The Japanese restaurant is tucked in the corner of a slightly run down strip mall. Except for a sign hanging next to the entrance, there was little indication it existed. In fact, we almost missed Raku because the large store signage above the shop was written in Korean, and most definitely did not spell Raku. The interiors were almost as nondescript as its exterior, a smallish squarish space painted in dark brown/eggplant (lighting issues). Truely, the Totoro-like cartoon sake bottles warming in the water bath were the only design detail worth mentioning. Yet Raku is immensely popular, and it took us an hour long wait before we were given permission to perch ourselves along the bar. Needless to say, the food made the wait endurable.
 
We ordered rather liberally across the expansive menu, calories be damned, starting with fresh, thick slices of bluefin tuna sashimi, the toro meltingly soft. We swooned a little, there and then.
yakitori

yakitori

 Yakitori made up a big part of the menu, and we ordered most skewers and found them largely good. The pig’s ears were unexpectedly satisfying, a contrast of gelatinous and crunch with minimal pork funk. Bacon wrapped anything is always tasty, especially when its thick spears of asparagus.

tsukune
  tsukune

Chicken featured prominently in the skewered and grilled section, so we worked our way through chicken wings, breast, skin and meatballs. Our favorite, the succulent meatballs drenched in slightly sweet barbeque sauce. As we dug our chopsticks to dislodge the minced meat off the skewers, little puffs of smoke brought the smokey scent straight to our noses. Ah.. my favorite type of perfume.

agedashi tofu

agedashi tofu

 Raku makes its own tofu and the difference between homemade and industrial is immediately apparent when we tried it’s Agedashi Tofu. The tofu came shaped in a disc, silken soft and only lightly battered and fried without a trace of oiliness. The sauce was also more refined than regular agedashi tofu, topped with enoki mushroom caps and ikura that provided a savory pop.

shrimp!

shrimp!

 Raku really does a commendable job with deep-fried foods and a dish of fried shrimp was extremely tasty. The skin was so thoroughly fried that the entire shrimp could be eaten, skin and head on, yet the meat was not over-cooked. Bravo.

grilled corn

grilled corn

Grilled corn was the dish that made me think. Its a special piece of grilled corn, and not just because of its bicolored ears and pretty grill marks. No, the corn’s cob has been removed, and the hollow were the cob is had been stuffed with mashed potato. How on earth did they do it? Till now we still can’t figure it out. No matter, we’ll just let Ruoying eat there more often until she digs out the secret!

Raku

5030 Spring Mountain Rd #2

Tokyo bar - wall mural

Tokyo bar - wall mural

Always fancied being a character in a Japanese Manga? Then go to Tokyo Bar and you do not even need to dress up, for the restaurant is sufficiently and wackily decked out already. Giant comic strips act as wallpaper, speech bubbles and random japanese words light up the ceiling in neon, and the bathroom is painted in pink and glitter. Not to mention the dj who incredulously plays bad 90s pop on slow weekends. It is all cool, if not a little out of place in staid Tribeca, which could explain why it was emptier on Saturday than on a Thursday, when office workers in the offices nearby drop in for the happy hour. A place with such a busy decor and high ceilings really need a crowd, and feels sadder than usual when sparsely filled.  

Omurice

Omurice

Even for those who may be overwhelmed by the decor, a visit to Tokyo Bar is still warranted. While named a bar, it is really a restaurant serving very decent renditions of Yoshoku cuisine, aka Western food interpreted by the Japanese. The omu-rice I ordered my first trip there with Karen was on point, a generous mound of chicken fried rice encased in a fluffy, almost runny omelette. A perfect bite entails some rice, a little bit of egg, and a good spoon of tangy ketchup and demiglace sauce piled neatly in one spoon and eaten in a single mouthful. 2 days later, I convinced Dawn to order the omurice so I could legitimately “share”.
Besides omurice, I’ve also tried the spaghetti, with berkshire sausage instead of beef bolognese; fried rice, and certain appetizers. All were adequate to good. The desserts were interesting, the genmaicha creme brulee smelled redolent of japanese tea and toasted rice; while the pumpkin soup with celery sorbet was unique and light, although I can’t say I appreciated the flavor mix nor the grainy texture of the soup. Next time, maybe I’ll get another omurice for dessert.
Tokyo Bar
277 Church St
So my birthday came and went rather uneventfully. That is not to say I did not celebrate. Au contraire! In a market as crazy as it is right now, I would say a day of calm is not a bad thing at all. AND I did celebrate with many friends and a lot of food over the course of the week.
On the day itself, my boss decided to get me something good. When one’s boss is in the mood to buy one cake, one happily complies and so we traipsed to Grand Central Terminal towards the direction of Little Pie Company’s corner in the food court, and I got to pick out something I liked.
Little Pie Company's Apple Walnut Sour Cream Pie

Little Pie Company's Pie

Which would be pie! And not just any pie, but an apple pie befitting of the seasons. Little Pie Company’s sour cream apple walnut pie is exorbitantly expensive yet so worth it. The tart and sweet apple and the silken sour cream is a marriage made in heaven, the pleasure of eating the pie filling only enhanced when combined to the perfectly buttery crust topped with a walnut streusel. As Alan pointed out, only vanilla icecream would have made it better.

Yasuda's Peace Passage Oyster Sushi
Yasuda’s Oyster Sushi

For dinner, I opted to eat alone. My friends are still not quite convinced it was intentional, but I must say my date with the sushi chef at the sushi bar was quite a success. Since there was no dining companion, I did not have to waste time on chit chat, and the 90 minutes at Sushi Yasuda was spend singularly focused on the fish. My favorite piece was the peace passage oyster sushi. I’ve had many an oyster, baked, raw, on the half shell, in a chowder. But on rice? Definitely my first time. The combination of plump oyster and the compact mound of sushi rice was simply alchemy, the minerally and iodiny taste of oyster melding into the soft sweetness of the rice as the sushi hits the mouth and disintegrates. It is the taste of the sea and the paddy fields compounded multiple times. So magical, I had to have another piece before I was satisfied. Highly recommended, along with the rest of the super fresh seafood at sushi palace Yasuda.

Besides these, I feted throughout the week with Katherine’s homemade cake and a kickass birthday banquet at Danny Ng’s with 8 dishes for good luck. Not bad indeed, for an uneventful birthday.
Little Pie Company
243 Grand Central Terminal (In the basement food court)
Sushi Yasuda 
204 E 43rd St (Bet 2nd & 3rd Aves)
Udon Salad

Udon Salad

During these last few weeks of summer, where temperatures are high and my appetite depressed, I’ve developed a slight obsession with the udon salad at the newly opened Cafe Zest. By slight, I mean 3 times a week slight. The prepacked bowl is stuffed with slithery udon and a mess of finely shredded vegetables, some lettuce, a little purple cabbage, a spoonful of corn, a sprinkle of shiso and a solo cherry tomato. Some well placed tempura bits add oily, non-vegetal crunch. Boiled shredded chicken provide some protein, but so bland and unnecessary you could hardly tell its absence. Douse the mixture with a soy and sesame seed based salad concoction, stir vigorously and you’ve got yourself a light lunch to beat summer lethargy.

It was thus distressing to find out that as of this coming week, Nonoca, the company supplying Cafe Zest with the incredibly delicious bowls of salad will no longer selling udon salad by way of Cafe Zest. It has been an intense but brief love affair, me and the udon salad. Sure, there are the Japanese buns, pastries, sandwiches and bento boxes by way of Cafe Zaiya, its older sister cafe with multiple locations, but they don’t give me quite the same amount of pleasure as slurping the cold noodles do. Oh well, maybe it was meant to be just a good summer fling.

Cafe Zest

143 E 47th St (between Lexington & 3rd Aves)

Uni with Yuzu jely

Uni with Yuzu jely

As long as I can remember, soba was the plainest noodle dish available. Cold grey strands of buckwheat noodles set on a bamboo tray, with nothing but a soy-based dipping sauce accompanying it. Simply put, one eats soba purely for the noodles and not the fanciful toppings or flavor-packed sauces that come with other noodle dishes. At Matsugen, the newly opened Japanese restaurant anointed with Jean Georges Vongerichten star power, you can choose to slurp your choice of three sobas plain. However, you do not need to be a purist at Matsugen, where its house specialty comes topped with a myriad of toppings. After all, this is the U.S, where choice is king, and this is a JGV establishment, where liberties are allowed. 

Inaka soba with Goma-Dare sauce
Inaka soba with Goma-Dare sauce

 

The noodles ranging from smooth to coarse were handmade and had good al dente bite to them. and an intrinsic nutty taste heightened by the sesame based dipping sauce. The guys enjoyed their Matsugen soba, also known as the “everything but the kitchen sink” noodle, with scallion, bonito, yam, okra, wasabi, egg and other ingredients thrown into the mix.

With a menu that tries to cover so much ground, it would be remiss if we didn’t try the other dishes. We decided to forego the sashimi and sushi, which to our knowledge was pricey and average, and instead picked a few interesting dishes. The uni with yuzu jelly was fantastic, with the jelly and uni simulataneously sliding to the back of one’s throat, while providing contrasting sweet and sour flavors. The Bakudan too had uni, along with other slimy components such as raw squid, natto and a poached egg, with each different flavor layered on top of each other, the funkiness of natto staying safely in the background while fresh wasabi gives it a bracing finish. Between our final two and most expensive savory dishes, I would count the kurobuta pork shabu shabu the more successful one. The tray of thinly sliced pork, after being lightly swished into a boiling pot of water and vegetables and then dipped into ponzu sauce was clean tasty yet very meaty, a taste akin to liver. The Uni Kamameshi (yes someone on the table really likes uni) was slightly disappointing, as the big pot of sea urchin cooked fluffy white rice smelled transcendent but tasted flat. It is indeed a waste to cook uni.

grapefruit jelly

grapefruit jelly

We ended the night with desserts, ranging from Jean George’s famous molten chocolate cake (with green tea icecream providing the Japanese touch), a parfait with mochi, grapefruit jelly that looked ingeniously like slices of real fruit (the jelly is solidified within an empty grapefruit skin) and a bruleed ice-cream that unfortunately tasted far too ordinary to be so enthusiastically recommended by our server. With all the hype surrounding the restaurant, I must admit I was pleasantly surprised by my experience. Could the room be less stark and plain, and more decorative fixings added to the series of fish filled tanks to brighten the aesthetics? Sure. And could the expensive and sometimes random menu be more tightly curated? Definitely. But this is seriously good soba, and this is as good a place as any for a bowl of quiet luxury.

Matsugen

241 Church St (Between Church & Leonard)

www.jean-georges.com

shio ramen

A bowl of noodles in a salty seafood broth enriched with the umami of seawood and dried scallops, topped with scallions, menma, roast pork slices and half a hard boiled egg. This is a bowl of Ramen Setagaya’s signature shio ramen. On hot, steamy summer days, I much prefer the tsuke men, where you a bowl of cold noodles accompanied with a smaller bowl of warm, broth concentrate that is chockful of broken roast pork slices and chunks of dried scallops. Dip the cold noodles in the hot soup and you get a contrast of cold, bland, al dente noodles swathed in hot, savory soup.

I do find the broth at Setagaya inconsistent, sometimes wonderfully flavorful yet other times tasting one-note and plain salty. And the pork can range from a micro thin slice to a big fatty chunk in the same bowl, which I’m sure was not the intention. But one thing has always on point, and is the reason I go again and again, and its the shio tama. I’m not quite sure how they do it, but the hard boiled egg is cooked in salted water, such that the whites and firm, yet the yolk is not quite fully set, and the middle has a brillant golden hue, and a slightly gooey and almost creamy texture. So go for the egg, and a bowl of ramen while you’re at it, and you’ll find out why Ramen Setagaya is perpetually packed with noodle and egg lovers alike. 
Ramen Setagaya
141 E 1st St (Between 9th St & St Marks Place)    

It must be Ying’s impending departure that’s sparking a state of nostalgia and broodiness. Last night we ate at Cha-an, where I wrote my second food blog entry the Friday after I returned to New York with my trusty camera. The attendees were the same, Yanru, Ying and I, and the topics of discussion were probably similar too, that of work and of men. The sesame creme brulee was as good as ever, creamy with a slight smoky flavor, and just sweet enough. The 3 course dessert set did not disappoint either, except for perhaps overly icy chestnut icecream that had the unappealing consistency of frozen milk. The warm chocolate pudding/cake was wonderful, and so was the red bean choux pastry, and the green tea macaron, albeit a little tough to chew was redeemed by the bitter-sweet green tea cream. We left the tea house and hugged good bye in a torrent of sudden snow that quickly turned into icy rain. I’m going to miss these dinners without Ying terribly.

Today I met up with friends from college and had dim sum again at Jing Fong, where the food was reliably cheap but more salty than usual. A girl was visiting from Chicago and I asked her about changes in Hyde Park. It was sad to find out that the Hyde Park Co-op, where I’ve bought way overpriced and not too fresh groceries during my time had/was closing, to be replaced by a chain called Treasure Island. There goes another neighborhood institution.

And tonight, feeling even more antisocial than not, I begged off dinner with Yanru and her friends and wandered alone in Chinatown, blissfully vacant at 8pm. I found Teochew food at New Chao Chow Restaurant just off Canal Street. The soy-braised duck called out to me and I ordered that in a bowl of hor fun (rice noodles) and ordered a side of stewed pork innards. The noodles were only ok, the duck was pale brown and not deep chocolate like what I’m used to, and the soup resembled salty water. But they had 5 types of chili sauces on the table, including the traditional condiment for duck rice, a murky red chili sauce that’s grainy with the inclusion of chopped dried shrimp and umami packed. And thankfully the innards – including pork intestine, ear and stomach – were braised well and much more flavorful, in a rich sweet and salty black soy-based braising liquid. The innards were also clean tasting, and all the textures were there, crunchy ears and chewy stomach, with some sweet pickled vegetables to clear the taste in between bites. I ate and remembered the sunday brunch tradition shared long ago with my parents, when we’d frequent a kway chap stall in the CBD area, below a multi-storey carpark adjoining a now-forgotten Ministry building. Ruoyi and I were not innard shy and would eat everything with gusto, while Ruoying would go for the braised egg and tofu. Regretfuly, that happened way back, before Chicago, before my mum became vegetarian, before we became too busy/ too far away to have lunch together on Sundays.

After dinner, I ended up at Quickly and bought a cup of milk tea (with egg pudding and tapioca balls) despite the chilly weather, and reminisced about high school, my pals in choir, Marina Square and the quickly shop in that poorly designed and unattractive shopping mall we once hung out in between carolling sessions at the Ritz and the Raffles. Too bad there’s not a single branch left in Singapore.

I’m not quite sure whether the food invoked the memories, or if the memories induced me to seek out the foods. It could be circular, but should nostalgia strike again, I’m comforted to know that I can find it all in the city. 

Cha-An

230 E9th St (Between 3rd & 2nd Aves) 

Jing Fong

18 Elizabeth St (between Canal & Bayard Streets)

New Chao Chow Restaurant

111 Mott St (between Canal & Hester Streets)

Quickly Restaurant 

237 Grand St (Near Bowery St)