Monday, October 31, 2011

Carla Hall's Asparagus Soup with Parmesan Shortbread Coins

I just realized that the last post was my 100th one on this blog, even though my mom commented on this milestone several days ago. Maybe I should've made The French Laundry post my 100th one. But you know what, I think Marukame Udon suits number 100 just fine. Anyways, here's to at least 100 more. And thanks to everyone who's come along for the ride.

While asparagus isn't in season now, I've been meaning to share this post since asparagus season. And while I would've loved for today's post to be something festive with pumpkin or a mountain of candy, I'm willing to overlook a Halloween-driven post for this soup. I know, serious backlog on posts since early summer.

If you haven't noticed already, I have a little bit of an unhealthy obsession with trying recipes by Top Chef contestants. I guess the main reason for this obsession is that I have an unhealthy obsession with Top Chef, and not being able to taste what's on the screen just isn't fair. So what do I do? I cook the contestants' recipes to see for myself.

This time, I decided to try out Carla Hall's Asparagus Soup with Parmesan Shortbread Coins. On Top Chef, Carla was known for healthy, hearty, and comforting flavors, all of which just happen to agree with my favorite types of food. Sometimes the healthy part of the trifecta gets sacrificed, but when all three align, that's definitely something worth tasting.

The recipe starts out with parmesan shortbread coins. I know, a huge stick of butter and parmesan probably aren't the healthiest things in the world, but, spoiler alert, the parmesan shortbread coins aren't even necessary. The soup stands perfectly well on its own. But you know what, some parmesan shortbread coins can't hurt. Especially when the coins contain thyme and lemon zest.

After some paddling, combining, and kneading, the dough should look something like this.

After refrigerating the dough log for half an hour, slice the log into a good number of coins and place them on a baking sheet. Send them off to the oven and start working on the oh-so-delicious soup.

The soup definitely features asparagus, but the recipe also calls for some onion, butter, and chicken broth.

After around 20 minutes, you get to throw in a healthy portion of parsley and tarragon. The tarragon is key in making the flavors of this soup pop. Next, take an immersion blender or transfer the soup to a regular blender to purée the soup.

At this point, the aroma of the coins should fill the kitchen with buttery, cheesy goodness. Once they've reached a nice golden brown, take out the coins and transfer them to a cooling rack.

Once the coins have cooled enough, put the finishing touches on the soup. Add some heavy cream, peas, salt, and white pepper to taste.

The end product should be a creamy, hearty soup that melts the distinct flavors of asparagus and tarragon into the corners of your mouth. The white pepper allows for a milder peppery taste and the peas add some slight texture to the soup.

Don't be surprised if you forget to dip in the parmesan shortbread coins. I did. When eaten together, though, there is a nice contrast in texture and flavor between the cheese and the asparagus and the lemon zest and the tarragon. While extremely comforting, to say the least, I think I still preferred just having the soup on its own.

Needless to say, I'm excited to learn some more of Carla Hall's recipes. The soup itself really showcases her ability to limit the need for unhealthy ingredients (even though next time, I might even try using olive oil instead of butter and a homemade vegetable broth instad of chicken broth), to bring out the core flavors of select ingredients, and to make ingredients that aren't widely considered comforting, comforting.

Relatively short and sweet today. Happy Completely-Unrelated-Blog-Post Halloween!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Marukame Udon

Because I still have a mountain of savory places to write about from my Oahu trip, I'm going to mix things up and rotate through Napa, Oahu, and home-cooking posts. And the first place that comes to mind when I think about Oahu savories is Marukame Udon.

My friends and I went to Marukame Udon three times over the course of nine days of beaching, and by the end of our trip, we wished we had gone at least five more times. It's that freaking good.

One of my law school mentors put Marukame Udon on my radar, and when my friend and I saw the huge line outside of the restaurant, we were more than sold. Don't let the line deter you. Persevere and you shall be rewarded.

Marukame Udon is a cafeteria-style joint that serves up an unbeatable combination: Housemade udon, tempura, and musubi. While you're in line, take a good look at the menu before you get thrown into the stressfully enjoyable process of getting your meal.

Once you enter the restaurant, look to your right and you'll see someone making batches upon batches of housemade udon. The line gently moves forward in a surprisingly organized and well-paced fashion. Before you make your order you'll see a person manning the noodle-cooking station. Next to piping hot water in a large tub outlined with noodle baskets, is a tub of running cold water to keep the udon nearly perfectly cooked. He then masterfully ties and weighs each individual serving of udon.

Take a second to pick up a tray, and if you're planning to get some tempura, grab a small plate as well.

Place your order and continue observing the udon-making process. The next person takes the tied udon, briefly dips the noodles in a lukewarm bath, which puts the finishing touch on reaching udon-cooking perfection, and runs the noodles through something similar to a salad spinner to remove excess water.

As the next cook adds the appropriate broth to a bowl containing a serving of the carefully prepared udon, another will ask you whether you want any tempura flakes, green onions, or soft-boiled eggs to add to your bowl. More often than not, get all three. And maybe more than just one soft-boiled egg.

After you get your udon, you have to walk past a tempting display of freshly fried tempura varieties.

They have all the standards, like eggplants, green beans, sweet potatoes, onions, carrots, and shrimp.

They also have Mushroom Tempura on skewers and huge bricks of sliced onions and carrots.

Though it's easy to get overwhelmed with all the options, make sure to get a piece of Chicken Tempura. The chicken is ridiculously juicy and the nugget is fried just enough to add some crunch without making each bite feel too heavy.

They also have Egg Tempura, which I was really excited about, despite the fact that I already had two soft-boiled eggs floating in my soup.

Thankfully, my heart was spared when I took my first bite. While the idea is awesome, I think this one is passable. I'd rather just get a third soft-boiled egg.

After passing up all the tempura, they tempt you with an assortment of musubi. I've had the Salmon Musubi and the Spam Musubi. While both are good, I think you're better off just sticking to some tempura and udon. If you want good musubi, head over to Iyasume Musubi.

Once you've paid for all your goodies, grab some shichimi, a drink, and some tempura sauce and find a table to enjoy your bowl of udon.

I've had many a bowl of udon here in the States, but for some reason, I never though udon was something exceptional. In the midst of hundreds of bowls of ramen in Japan, however, I did get introduced to a bowl of unbelievable udon at Udon Kurosawa (their Kurobuta Curry Namban is the best curry udon I've had in my life, topped with thick, delicious slices of rich black pig pork belly; shout out to Rina for taking me there). That bowl haunts me to this day.

But I still hadn't had a regular, simple bowl of udon that blew my socks off. At Marukame Udon, the standard Kake Udon exceeded expectations. The broth is clean, light, and addictive. The broth tasted more of a rich dashi with less soy sauce and mirin than the average udon. The noodles had just the right amount of chew. They almost had the texture of the first bite of a piece of Korean rice cake, without any of the subsequent stickiness. The optional green onions really add a lot to this bowl, but the tempura flake and shichimi toppings are unnecessary. But sometimes you're just in the mood for some deep-fried bits and a kick of spice. So if you're in that mood, go for it.

The Ontama Bukkake Udon is perfect for those really hot days in Oahu, though if you're not into cold udon, don't bother. This bowl comes with tempura flakes, green onions, a soft-boiled egg, and a small base of concentrated broth. The broth has some hearty hints of anchovy, but isn't so liberally applied to make it overwhelming. With this bowl, however, the udon is the star. With cold udon, the udon is perfectly cooked, more so than hot udon because if you don't eat your hot udon fast enough, the noodles slowly get overcooked. So if it's unbearably hot out and you need a refreshing bowl of perfect udon from your first bite to your last, get this one.

If you're looking for a heavy bowl of comfort and warmth, get the Curry Udon. In this bowl, the delicious udon slithers around in a lake of thick curry. Definitely get the green onions on this bowl to break up the heaviness of the curry, and definitely get the tempura flakes to add some welcome texture. The curry itself is absurdly delicious, speckled with bits of addictive, sweet onions. Come here hungry if you plan on getting this one.

The best bowl of udon I had, by far, was the Niku Udon. The broth is noticeably heartier than the Kake Udon, without being as heavy as the Curry Udon, and the thin strips of brisket come perfectly tender and not too fatty. By the end of my trip in Oahu, I had no qualms with ordering this bowl of udon over the other options. The best way to enjoy this bowl is with two soft-boiled eggs, tempura flakes, green onions, and shichimi. The light spice from the green onions balance really well with the umami broth, the shichimi gives each spoonful a nice little kick, and the tempura flakes add some crunch to the gooey soft-boiled eggs. Add some of those awesome, toothsome, housemade noodles and you've really got yourself a winner.

With one last bowl of Niku Udon, I said a sorrowful goodbye to Marukame Udon. I knew we'd meet again. Some day. But I knew that each step I took away from the restaurant was a step towards mediocre, unsatisfactory, depressing udon. For all those planning to go to Oahu, do me a favor to help battle my bout of udonless depression. Plan for enough meals to eat everything on your list, but set aside at least two of those meals for Marukame Udon.

Marukame Udon
2310 Kuhio Ave
Honolulu, HI 96815
(808) 931-6000

GET: Chicken Tempura; Mushroom Tempura; Niku Udon with Two Soft-Boiled Eggs, Tempura Flakes, and Green Onion (add some shichimi, too).

Monday, October 24, 2011

The French Laundry

I sped down the 29-N, fretting over the fact that my grandma, dad, brother, and I were already ten minutes late. The panting Dodge Caravan rental car frustrated the situation. We tried to call the restaurant several times to notify them of our tardiness, but nobody picked up. As we hit nearly every red light, I felt my coveted reservations quickly slipping away.

Reservations were a painful test of perseverance. Two months to the date before the reservation date, I woke up at 9:00am on a Sunday morning, antsy for 10:00am to arrive. I had a friend visiting me that weekend, but I didn't want to subject him to the absurdity of making reservations for a contingent meal, two months away.

At 9:55am, I started calling the already flooded phone lines. With my iPhone in one hand and my other hand conducting the speedy call-making ability of Skype, I heard at least 300 renditions of the busy signal. My friend figured out what I was trying to do and made a few attempts with his Blackberry and Google phone. The drone of busy signals was occasionally interrupted by several rings. But after three rings, an operator told me to hang up and try again. What a tease.

Thirty minutes in, I began to lose all hope. With reservations getting snatched up for places like Ludo Lefebvre's LudoBites and Michael Voltaggio's ink. in minutes, I questioned why I was still attempting to make a reservation for one of America's most recognized restaurants. As my Skype and iPhone efficiency waned, the phone began to ring again. Three rings were followed by a fourth. My eyes lit up when an automated voice thanked me for contacting The French Laundry and provided a list of options. After making my selection, a professional and calm voice assisted my panicked, rushed, and excited voice in making a reservation for a party of four, as if the past thirty minutes had never happened.

Out of breath and with slightly damp armpits, I arrived at the entrance of the restaurant. After gasping for a few deep breaths of composure, I opened the door, twenty minutes late. "Eff," I thought.

"Hello," said the hostess.

"Hi. Um, I have a reservation for a party of four. I'm so sorry we're late."

"Welcome! Is the rest of your party here?"

"Yes, they're just walking over right now. They'll probably be another five minutes."

"Great! Please, take your time."

"Oh, thank you. you mind if I run out and take a few pictures while it's still light out then?"

"Absolutely. Just let me know when your party arrives and we'll get you seated. Again, please take your time."

As I snapped several pictures, I reveled in the already apparent professionalism of The French Laundry's staff. In just a few seconds, they were able to calm an unnecessarily stressful and frenetic situation. Once the rest of my family moseyed on over, we followed the hostess to our table.

The space is beautiful. The interior reflects the cozy appeal of the restaurant's exterior. While everyone seemed dressed to the nines, I couldn't help but feel a casual vibe from the sporadic murmurs and moans of excitement.

I finally found myself at the seat I'd been dreaming about for two months. The coveted clothespin sat nestled in a napkin, neatly folded into thirds. As I sat, brimming with excitement, the clothespin gave me a suggestive grin, knowing what was in store.

All four of us got the chef's tasting menu. While the vegetarian course looked just as amazing, we had all agreed that we wanted some meat. The menu listed ten courses, five of which had two options. We briefly strategized and blurted our preferences, trying not to sound like little kids at a candy shop.

We chose not to do the wine pairing. Instead, we ordered the cheapest wine on the interactive iPad wine list. "Excellent choice," said the waiter. No judgment, and as professional as ever.

Though the menu flaunts a series of ten courses, the meal comes scattered with tons of little amuses and bouches. First up was a Gruyere Cheese Grougère. The puff pastry exterior was light, buttery, and crispy, opening up to a creamy, dense cheese filling.

If you've never had a grougère before, think of this as the savory equivalent of a cream puff. With a little crack.

The second canapé was a Smoked Salmon Coronet. The roe-like salmon came served in a black sesame and pepper tuile cone. Like chocolate at the bottom of a Nestlé Drumstick, the bottom of coronet stored a delicious helping of crème fraîche. The effect was that of an elevated and playful version of lox and cream cheese. Bring on the first course.

First up was the famed "Oysters and Pearls". Offered as an option for the first course for over two decades, this dish lived up to all the hype.

A "sabayon" of pearl tapioca was topped with two Island Creek oysters and a generous quenelle of Sterling White sturgeon caviar. The oysters were beautiful and briny, as were the luscious pearls of caviar. The base was creamy and sweet, which played well off of the dish's oceanic counterpoints.

While I could probably eat batches upon batches of this stuff, my brother commented on how another bite might have spoiled our stomaches and how the portion was just enough to have us all begging for more.

The subsequent bread course could have held its own as another course. The Egg Bread came with salted, whipped butter and unsalted, firmer butter. Both butters were addictive and I had to restrain myself from asking for more bread.

The first option for the second course was a Tart of Toybox Tomatoes. The clever assortment of colorful tomatoes and a cool tomato sorbet came topped with edible blossoms from their garden and Armando Manni Olive Oil. The centerpiece was accompanied by seven spots of 100 year-aged balsamic vinegar. The vinegar and olive oil were rich in flavor, while the tomato flavor bombs did a great job of bringing in sweet and refreshing elements. The buttery base crumbled easily and rounded out the dish.

The second option for the second course was even better. The Moulard Duck "Foie Gras en Terrine" costs an extra thirty bucks, but if there's ever an occasion to spend a little extra to try a preparation of foie gras, this is the one. The long sliver of foie comes accompanied by Silverado Trail strawberries, Gos Michel banana, fennel, walnuts, and white honey.

This course came with an absurdly addictive brick of Bouchon Bakery's buttery brioche. Rip off a piece of brioche, smear on some foie, top the bite with a bit of each component, lower your eyelids, roll your eyes, and shamelessly lick any stray remnants on your fingers. Buttery and sweet from the delicious fruits, foie, and honey, yet surprisingly bright from the use of fennel. So, so good.

As if that weren't enough, this course also featured a trio of salts: A sea salt from the Philippines, Jurassic salt from a 10,000-year-old mine, and a locally sourced sea salt. They were all amazing.

The first choice for the third course was a Grilled Fillet of Gulf Coast Cobia. This perfectly sous vide and seared morsel of fish came on a base of Arrowleaf spinach with a side of chickpeas, spicy paprika, and Eureka lemon condiment. A bite with every component was probably the tastiest preparation of fish I've ever had.

The second choice for the third course was Monterey Bay Abalone. The abalone was toothsome, and the bits of Hobbs' bacon did a great job of bringing out the meatier qualities of abalone. The Hass avocado purée, thinly sliced red radishes, and leaves of Romaine lettuce lightened up the meatiness of the dish, while some "bottarga di muggine" reminded me that the dish was a seafood course.

The fourth course was Sweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster "Mitts". Beautifully composed with always-delicious bone marrow, meaty lobster mushrooms, bright Nantes carrots, petite onions, and a "vinaigrette d'estragon," this dish really blew me away.

Everything was perfectly prepared and every component bursted with flavor. The restrained use of the vinaigrette did a great job of bringing some acidity and sweetness to the dish.

After four amazing courses, out came a large platter of different types of bread. Nothing stood out quite as much as the egg bread or the brioche, but they were delicious nonetheless.

As we were waiting for our fifth course, my brother and I decided to run a few tests for the restaurant's staff. My test was to see how quickly they would refold my napkin when I left for the restroom. My brother said that in less than fifteen seconds after my departure, someone came in to completely replace my napkin with a new, neatly folded one. Crikey.

My brother's test was to see how long they would take to refill his glass of water. Once my brother took his last gulp of water from his cup, he gently placed his cup back on the table and started to count. I don't think he even got to twenty seconds. Blimey. We expected nothing less.

The fifth course was a "Croquette de Cuisses de Poularde". Essentially, a hen thigh croquette. This came with a tasty base of braised pine nuts, vivid broccolini, garlic buds, black truffle purée, and some addictive thyme oil.

The first cut into the crispy ball oozed with aviary delight. A measured bite featured the sweetness of the pine nuts and the earthiness of the black truffles. Best croquette ever.

The first option for the sixth course was an Elysian Fields Farm Lamb Saddle. This came with a light side of couscous, cauliflower, fairytale eggplant, jingle bell peppers, and Spanish capers. As if the large medallion of lamb weren't enough, the plate also came adorned with a comically small bite of absurdly delicious braised short rib.

The lamb was beautifully sous vide and each morsel melted in my mouth. The spread of vegetables and couscous helped to bring in a little bit of Mediterranean flare and functioned as a break between each delicious bite of lamb.

The second option for the sixth course featured a lengthy table-side preparation of Marcho Farm "Côte de Veau".

The veal chop was well-cooked, though a little lukewarm from the table-side service. The summer pole beans, swiss chard, and pickled mustard seeds were a beautiful combination and the small portion of veal sweetbreads was amazing.

The seventh course was titled, "Acapella". I have no idea where the name comes from, but the plate did look pretty musical with beautiful strands of celery branches and playful notes of Montana huckleberries.

The fermata-like cheese had a developed and long-lasting flavor and the cornbread "pain perdu" added a good bass to ground the dish. Overall, a really great way to integrate a cheese course into the menu.

The eight course was a delicate presentation of White Grapefruit Sorbet. The light and refreshing sorbet had just the right amount of tartness, while the champagne "gelée" base added some great texture and subtle accents of sweetness. The vanilla-grapefruit "nuage" was another beautiful way to add some light sweetness to the dish.

The first option for the eighth course was a Caramelized White Chocolate "Namelaka". The browned white chocolate still tasted like white chocolate, but with a bit more of a denser flavor. The fresh figs and the crunchy Piedmont hazelnuts balanced out the sweetness and creamy texture of the chocolate. The chocolate was flanked by a quenelle of Black Mission fig sorbet over a base of toasted oats. The sorbet was hearty and addictive, and the caramel drizzle added some needed sweetness to the sorbet and oats.

The more refreshing option for the dessert course was a "Peach Melba". A play on a classic French dessert featuring peaches, raspberry sauce, nuts, and vanilla ice cream, this rendition interpreted the dessert in a much lighter way. The trio of Sicilian pistachio "pain de Gêne," Andante dairy yogurt, and thinly sliced peaches was perfect. The side of raspberry sorbet topped with a thin "biscotti" and the fresh raspberries and peaches were a great way to institute a break between bites.

At this point, we had all forgotten about the last course: Mignardises. More sweets? Yes, please.

The first of the finishing bites was a Cappuccino Semifreddo. What looked like a normal cappuccino or latte delivered unexpected flavors.

The purpose, said the waiter, was to reinterpret the classic combination of coffee and donuts.
The sweet froth was thick and creamy and the coffee was just as clean and rich as its chocolatey complement at the bottom of the cup.

The Brioche Donut Holes with Cinnamon Sugar were insanely addictive. I had trouble limiting myself to two pieces. The cinnamon wasn't too overbearing, while the donut hole dough was a sweet rendition of the delicious brioche that came with the foie. When was that? Three hours ago? Yeah, probably. So, so good with a dip or a sip of the semifreddo.

Alongside the coffee and donuts was a Chocolate Caramel Toasted Macadamia with Powdered Sugar. I think I popped four of these in my mouth before I could stop myself. I don't know why people don't think to toast macadamia nuts more often. Or toast macadamia nuts and cover them with caramel and chocolate. And powdered sugar.

The last tray of delights was a set of Six Chocolate Truffles. Following the shape of a "U," going from the upper-left to upper-right: PB & J, Hazelnut Praline, Meyer Lemon, Pink Cherry, California Olive Oil and Dark Chocolate, and Dark & Stormy.

Now turn the "U" ninety degrees counterclockwise. I know, this is like a math problem on the SAT. Sorry about that. All of them were sweet, creamy, and insanely delicious, but my favorites were the PB & J and the Hazelnut Praline.

As my family and I gleefully discussed the highlights of the night, the waiter brought each of us a bundle of Shortbread Cookies, neatly tied up with a long, blue ribbon. We didn't eat them that night, but when I ate my treats two days later, I was immediately transported back to The French Laundry. The cookies felt like the restaurant's way of saying, "Until next time."

What felt like one hour was actually four. Before leaving our table, my brother asked my grandmother how this meal stacked up with all the meals she's had in her life. "In 88 years of living, this was the best meal I've ever had."

After getting a bag to store some leftover chocolate truffles, our shortbread packages, and a couple clean copies of the menu, we got up, and made our way out of the restaurant.

Before saying goodbye to one of the most phenomenal dinners I've ever been to, my family and I took a stroll through the courtyard and spied on the kitchen. The professionalism, concentration, and camaraderie among the chefs came as no surprise. As I looked on with extreme interest, I felt weird, like I was spying on a family through their living room window. But a kind wave and smile from the chef closest to the window reminded me that I, in a way, was like family, or a close family friend, for those short four hours. The service wasn't obligatory or belabored, the food wasn't overworked, and pretention and pomp was nonexistent.

I left with the grin of a Cheshire cat, and though I knew that with the rapid evolution of food I would inevitably have a meal that at least measured up to The French Laundry, I couldn't help but solemnly think that I might have already experienced the best meal of my life. Until I turn eighty-eight, at least.

The French Laundry
6640 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599
(707) 944-2380

GET: A reservation and enjoy.
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