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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A Korean Meal Less Ordinary

You've grilled Korean BBQ on your table, mixed heaps of spicy chili paste into your bibimbab that came in a stone pot, cracked an egg into a piping stew of soondoobu (soft tofu) and long for something new and unconventional.

Head to Shin Jung in Koreatown for melt-in-your-mouth braised cod and luscious raw crab.

This restaurant is in a nondescript mini-mall on Sixth and Kenmore Streets that offers other standard fare such as kimchi jjigae (stew) and mandukook (dumpling soup). The decor, as in many Korean restaurants, is nothing to write home about.

The things to get are eundaegu jorim (braised cod) and kanjang gejang, raw crab marinated in garlic and soy sauce.

The braised cod looks massive and intimidating at first, but as you bite into that moist, soft cod meat that is perfectly marinated in a blend of garlic, chili paste with a hint of sweetness, you can't stop. Before you know it, all that is left are the super soft radishes that have soaked up deep red juices of the marinade and have a very subtle sweet taste. Soft but not mushy, the radishes complement the cod's meaty texture tremendously well. For those who can't handle too much heat: not to worry. The marinade looks spicier than it is, and that's a good thing because you don't want it to be overpowered by spice. That's not what this is about.

The crab was disassembled and plated in a user-friendly manner for our benefit. The crab that had been marinating for days was salty enough but not overly so, and I could taste the garlic infused in it, which makes for a great match with the almost gooey texture of the raw crab. It's tricky to extract the meat (and you thought it was hard eating a steamed crab), especially as there are no special utensils or cute paper aprons offered.

Suffice it to say that two of us totalled these two hefty dishes. I was pretty impressed with two of the banchan (side dishes) as well. Restaurants usually pour MSG into their banchan and don't really invest too much in getting quality ingredients, but Shin Jung's banchan stood out. Its spinach namul was seasoned with fermented Korean soy bean paste (not the milder miso) unlike the usual garlic and salt variety. The cucumbers in vinegar and red pepper flakes were also crunchy and seasoned just right.

Other side dishes were ok to below average. The japchae was unremarkable (99% glass noodles, 1% other), the seaweed was too dry and pan-fried baby anchovies were soggy (must hear the crunch when biting into it). The two main dishes above don't come cheap at about $22 a pop, but they are well worth it and could probably feed more than two (we were hungry).

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Versatility in a Leaf

Because I wanted this blog to be a resource to find good eats in restaurants and at home, I am posting the first set of recipes in a series that will focus on frequently overlooked Korean ingredients.

The kennip, is sometimes translated as sesame leaf and other times known as perilla, which is related to the shiso leaf often found in Japanese cuisine. As you can see, they are almost identical in appearance but oh-so-different in taste (photo: I personally don't care much for the minty and distracting taste of the shiso leaf. Don't add it to my sushi or tonkatsu. The peppery and earthy taste of the kennip, on the other hand, always adds a refreshing layer of flavor and adds crunchiness that rounds up any dish nicely.

It's best to eat it raw as part of a salad or as an alternative to lettuce when wrapping juicy Korean barbecue meat slabs with pieces of kimchi. Kennip leaves are less cumbersome to handle than red-leaf lettuce due to their smaller volume and they make for a more interesting combination with the Korean-style grilled meats, whether it's spicy boneless pork bbq or the classic kalbi (ribs).

Another way to eat the kennip raw is to use it as a filling for rolls or handrolls. Koreans have a variation of the Japanese sushi roll called kimbab, and we usually use cooked ingredients rather than raw fish like in Japanese rolls. The tuna kimbab is yet another twist to the traditional standard meat variety, both of which feature omelette strips, cucumber or spinach and carrot strips as fillings squished amid slightly salty and vinegary short-grained rice -- all wrapped in unseasoned extra crunchy toasted seaweed sheets.

All you do is lay out two leaves of kennip over the rice that is spread on the seaweed, and then pile on the fillings like you would with a standard kimbab. If you don't feel like making a production out of the kimbab, which it often can become, just cut the seaweed sheets into 3x4 (or half of the size they come in the packages) rectangles, spread the rice, place the kennip over the rice, get some canned tuna (I like the standard Dongwon brand you can buy in Korean markets) on it, throw in some cucumber strips, roll it, and you have yourself a magnificent handroll.

If you just want a cool summer salad, shred some red leaf lettuce, slice 1/2 a cucumber and cut about 10 kennip leaves into thin strips. Excuse the cliche, but I should disclose that I have never used a measuring device for these recipes, as I learned to make them looking over my mother's shoulder. I credit her for much of the Korean dishes I will be sharing here. Consider this a disclaimer that the measurements are "ballpark."

For the dressing, mix about 1/4 cup of rice wine vinegar with 1/2 teaspoon of vegetable oil, 1 Tablespoon of sugar and 1/2 teaspoon of Korean red pepper flakes (kochukaru), sprinkled with 1 Tablespoon of toasted ground sesame seeds.

If you feel like making something more elaborate, try the classic kennip jun, which is kennip stuffed with a ground meat mixture, coated in flour and dipped into egg batter, before hitting a medium-high heat pan to fry (use plenty of vegetable oil). Pictured left is a trio of jun including zucchini, green peppers and kennip jun, all stuffed with ground meat.

You will need about 1/4 pound of ground beef, 1 Tablespoon of soy sauce (I use low-sodium), 1 Tablespoon of sugar (or substitute with maple syrup), 1 Tablespoon of minced garlic, 1 teaspoon of toasted ground sesame seeds and 1 teaspoon of minced green onions.

Mix all the ingredients together and place 1 teaspoon of the mixture into one kennip leaf and fold the leaf into half. Repeat with the remaining kennip leaves.

Prepare two plates -- one with 2 cups of flour and another with 2 beaten eggs. (Tip: If you leave the assembled kennip on a tray and refrigerate them for about 5 minutes, they will keep their shape better.)

Coat the stuffed kennip with flour first and then dip it into the egg batter before pan-frying them.

Heat canola oil or other vegetable oil into a pan and fry in medium-high heat.

If you have more of the meat mixture than kennip leaves, make small patties out of them and pan-fry them after coating them in flour and dipping them in egg batter. You have now created the venerable dongerang-teng, a wildly popular side dish.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Not Too Shabby

A Bay Area trip, no matter how short or hectic, always leads me to one place -- Shabu Sen in Japantown. It's nothing less than the most comforting comfort food around. Sure, it may not be wagyu beef (synonymous to kobe beef that seems to be finding its way to many fancy restaurants these days) you're dipping into pipping hot water and then sesame sauce, but I live in LA, where good and affordable (shabu)2 can be as stubbornly elusive as, well, public transportation.

For $10.99 at Shabu Sen, you get ten paper-thin slices of beef and a bunch of vegetables, two types of noodles and two dipping sauces. Not a bad deal compared to Kagaya in Little Tokyo that charges an arm and a leg for a similar plate. Granted, Kagaya serves better quality meat, but Shabu Sen is the best quality I've had for its price range.

The most important things for me are the thinness and freshness of the meat as well as the flavor of the sesame seed sauce, which must taste slightly nutty with just the right consistency -- not too thick or watery. Ponzu sauce is the other sauce offered, but I prefer to dip just about anything in the sesame sauce. I add chopped green onions into both sauces and the ground pickled radish into the ponzu sauce that I use to dip the tofu cubes.

The sliced ribeye steak comes with an array of other goodies to flash boil in the hot pot, including cubed tofu, shiitake mushroom halves, green onion strips, carrot slices, vermicelli and udon noodles, capping it off with voluminous chunks of napa cabbage. I like to have my meat with the vegetables and a bowl of rice that is also included, but others like to finish off all the meat first and then move on to the vegetables and finally, udon noodles.

What I like about Shabu Sen is that its shabu shabu looks so effortless that it makes you appreciate it so much more when you have such a hard time finding decent, affordable shabu joints in LA. I haven't been to Shaab in Pasadena, which I hear is ok. Boiling Pot in Pasadena is only an alternative under desperate circumstances. They gave me a bright orange Boiling Pot T-shirt one time my bill exceeded a certain amount. I think they'd be better off investing in fresh vegetables -- my cabbage is always a bit old and brown on the edges like it's been sitting there for a while. Not good. Shabu Shabu House in Little Tokyo may as well be non-existent as the absurdly long lines are enough to deter any meatlover in a rush. I tried making shabu shabu at home from meat slices bought at Nijiya but alas, the slices weren't thin enough. Home-made sukiyaki is another matter. The Nijiya meat worked very nicely for that purpose. Both are ideal for a cold, cloudy day.

Important: Don't forget to use the ladle-like tool from time to time to remove the nasty brown-colored blood curdles from the broth. It definitely takes away from tasting the meat in all its glory.

Who knew Genghis Khan would leave such a legacy? True to the OG, Koreans call this dish Genghis Khan after the original namesake. I'm glad he was in a hurry.

Anyway, I was a happy camper savoring my tender slices of beef tinged with the sumptuous sesame sauce. I saw that a Food Network episode where shabu shabu was cooked was entitled, "Do you fondue?" Talk about butchering my favorite foods. Still, since I shouldn't assume everyone knows what it is and how to eat it, simply dip the meat in the hotpot for 2 seconds first and then the sauce. Proceed likewise with the vegetables and pick the sauce you like best.

Shabu Sen proudly displays this by its door. Good to know that the term, shabu shabu, comes from the "rhythmic sound of immersing the meat in the water twice."

If anyone knows of a good shabu shabu eat in LA that's not going to bankrupt me, kindly share.

Shabu sen
1726 Buchanan St.
San Francisco, CA 94115
(415) 440-0466

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Shio Me the Ramen

[Update: I recently had the premium ramen with 6 slices of pork cheeks and it was surprisingly delish! It was a first for me, but boy, was it worth it. It's a bit pricier than the regular salt ramen, but I definitely recommend trying it at least once.]

I admit I have a soft spot for ramen and noodles, so be prepared for oodles of noodles and I promise they won't be hard to swallow. Santouka in the Mitsuwa Market in Venice is no exception. This is the place I go to for ramen on the west side if I don't want to venture out to Gardena's Shinsengumi that is dubbed SSG among the cognoscenti.

For second best, it isn't a bad bowl at all. Slurped on a cloudy Saturday afternoon after sleeping in, it's even better. The signature ramen is the salt (shio) ramen, which has an impressively deep pork-based broth but is inferior to SSG's Hakata ramen broth in one critical way -- it's significantly oilier, which distracts from the flavor.

The toppings include the usual suspects, such as crunchy green onions, chewy bamboo shoots, tender slabs of pork and a slice of fishcake that harmonize together both in flavor and texture. Santouka's version also comes with wood fungus and a pickled plum that submerges into the broth as you mix the noodles and feels like a pearl in the rough when you scoop it out because of its vibrant red color. I like the element of surprise, both to the eye and the palate, that comes with the pickled plum. It has a tangy taste that complements the thick broth very nicely. The noodles are decently firm but again, I prefer having more control over the doneness of the noodles, etc, like in SSG. And I would like the noodles to be firmer.

I have tried the spicy miso ramen and it's pretty good despite not having the pickled plum in it. I would recommend the salt ramen for first-timers. Santouka also offers the standard soy (shoyu) and a variety of combinations with mini rice bowls. Service is fast, parking is convenient, ambiance is barebones but I like that I can catch up on my grocery shopping on the way out (natto, anyone?). Take a jacket. It gets chilly in the food court, and even colder in the market. Santouka also has outposts in the Mitsuwas in Torrance and Costa Mesa. This one is located on the corner of Centinela and Venice. There is absolutely no reason to go to Sawtelle for your ramen cravings anymore.

And yes, it's better than Daikokuya in Little Tokyo, or any ramen joint in LT, for that matter. Daikokuya is plan C, when I have a hankering for ramen during the week. Avoid San Sui Tei, the new place that replaced Kobe Ramen a few doors down from Daikokuya, at all costs. The tonkotsu ramen was downright awful and service was infuriatingly slow. We'll have to continue standing in line for Daikokuya for now.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Pizzeria Mozza: Fancy Pizza Makes a Comeback

First it was burgers. Every self-respecting chef in town wanted their own gourmet versions. Now it's pizzas -- all over again. Didn't Wolfgang Puck make them chic and overpriced back in the day? Well, they're back, and the expression, "they're eating it up" has never been more fitting.

The day I went to sample the much-anticipated and hyped pizzas at Mozza, Frank Bruni at the New York Times had reviewed it -- and a pretty glowing review, at that. My dinner companion had booked a table one month in advance and managed to land one at the early bird hour of 5:15pm on a weekday, and every table was abuzz about the review.

The short end of it is that I would return but given the prices, not that often. And I liked the pizza in Bologna and Grimaldi's in DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass -- Brooklyn) better.

Walking in, I liked the cozy atmosphere with the high ceilings that almost had a New York vibe. Another reminder of New York, perhaps not that welcome, was the close seating. We sat elbow-to-elbow with our neighbors, admiring their babies, sharing travel stories, discussing the review and most importantly, stealing glances at the type of pizzas they had ordered and exchanging thoughts about our favorites.

Initial service was routine and not so attentive, but our designated waitress was great. She was very nice and made some good recommendations. Like the red sparkling wine, for instance. We were initially apprehensive about getting sparkling red wine, but it was a hot day and we decided to try something new. I think it was called Lambrusco from the Emilia-Romagna region in Italy. It was very refreshing and a nice way to kick off the meal.

For appetizer, our adventurous inkling had us order Speck, which we never had before. It's smoked prosciutto and tasted very, well, smoky. After tearing the speck into edible sizes and popping them into our mouths solo, our waitress suggested we try wrapping the speck around the breadsticks served on the house. That waitress -- she knew her stuff! The breadstick married perfectly with the speck's smokiness.

Then came the difficult decision of selecting the pizzas. I counted 16 varieties, from the famed fennel sausage one to the egg and asparagus one. After much pondering, we ordered the mixed mushroom (funghi misti) that came with fontina and taleggio (defined by wikipedia as "one of the oldest soft cheeses"), as well as thyme. The second one was my choice, and my obsession with squash blossoms (They're so beautiful and I want to buy them at the farmers' market stand but I'm at a loss when it comes to cooking with them. Don't think I like the stuffed preparation and trying to not have too many fried food) led me to the squash blossoms, burrata (buffalo mozzarella) and tomato pizza.

The verdict: The mushroom pizza was salty and a bit greasy. The squash blossoms pizza, on the other hand, was much more flavorful, and I liked how the mozzarella (the restaurant's namesake) was raw and not melted and stringy like in cheap pizzas. The squash blossoms gave the pizza a lovely orange and green color, and their texture and subtle flavor were a pleasant surprise. Definitely not your average pizza. The pie crust was thin and crispy, but like Bruni of the Times, I thought the crust edges were too hefty. I liked that the pizza was light, although not as light as Grimaldi's.

It's true that I had my reservations about this place because of the hailing of Nancy Silverton as the goddess of crust and pizza. Throw in a mega-celebrity chef like Mario Batali and you've definitely got hype and inflated expectations. I like Campanile ok and La Brea bakery is decent, but the bread there is not as good as in Balthazar in New York City or Acme Bread Company in San Francisco. Nevertheless, I look forward to Osteria Mozza, which will open next door shortly, we hear.

To square off the meal, we got something with an Italian name that resembled a parfait with sliced strawberries, strawberry gelato, whipped cream, macaroons and toasted almonds (if I recall correctly). It's hard to go wrong with gelato, although I have had some disastrous gelato experiences. It wasn't too sweet and except for the occasional French style macaroons floating in there, I enjoyed every bite. I'm not a fan of macaroons, that's all.

Sidenote: I found it a tad pretentious and puzzling that some of the items on the menu were in Italian and others in English. Why call tomato a tomato and arugula rucola? Why not call it pomodoro?

Some practical tips: Park on Highland on the southeastern side of the restaurant, as there is 2-hour street parking until 6pm and valet is $7.50. Don't park on the southwestern side of Highland, as it is permit parking only. If you don't feel like planning a whole month in advance, I hear it doesn't get as crowded during off-hours, like around 3-4pm on a weekend or I would imagine much less on weekdays. Maybe the Times' review will make that impossible for some time.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Perfect for a Hot Day

I know I shouldn't complain about the weather in LA because it's always so nice and sunny, but what's up with the weather lately? It has been scorchingly hot and I have had a hankering for something decidedly cool. So we headed straight to Ramenya in West LA to get the seasonal (in LA? More on this later) Hiyashi Chuka, cold Japanese noodles topped with a motherload of healthy vegetables, seaweed, egg and shredded chicken, sitting in a small pool of sauce that tastes like a combination of soy sauce, rice vinegar and sugar. The toppings include strips of cucumber, bean sprouts and sea kelp; quartered tomatoes; eggs that have been cooked like an omelette and sliced in strips; shredded chicken; pickled ginger strips and toasted seaweed strips for added texture and even more healthiness. Vegetarians could ask to take the chicken out. Vegans wouldn't do because it'd be a slippery slope once the omelette strips were "stripped."

The dish comes with a dab of Japanese mustard to be mixed into the sauce, which will subsequently be mixed into the noodles. Depending on how spicy you want it, mix in all or 2/3 of the mustard. Readers of my Shinsengumi post will know that I go somewhere else for my hot bowl of ramen on a cold day. I am not a huge fan of Ramenya's hot ramen, gyoza or rice dishes, although I have some dissenters who have yet to be bitten by the Shinsegumi bug. If I get really desperate for ramen and don't want to drive all the way to Gardena, Santouka at the Mitsuwa Market in Venice is an acceptable option as it is nearby on the west side (will review separately). But when it's hitting 90 degrees (sorry to the Sun Devils in AZ), there is only one place to go for this almost guilt-free indulgence (because of the sheer amount of noodles, I tend to feel a bit overstuffed afterwards, so I have learned to set aside some noodles before mixing).

One curious thing is that Ramenya insists on making this coveted dish "seasonal," as if LA had real seasons! The stubborn restaurant refuses to serve the dish before April and after November or so, which keeps groupies like us calling them and asking with full anticipation, "are you serving it yet?" I think most, if not all, of the ingredients could be found during the cold winter days in LA. We sometimes casually ask the wait staff if there may be a remote possibility of making it a year-round item on the menu, to no avail. I guess they're set on serving it as a seasonal dish.

It's fairly small and gets pretty crowded during the lunch rush on weekends but it's also a quick turnover. Grab a Japanese fashion magazine -- or your favorite manga -- neatly stored on the bookcases lined up by the counter and check out those designer duds while you wait.

Ramenya recently opened a spinoff restaurant nearby serving Korean dishes such as soft tofu soups (soondoobu) and rice mixed with vegetables (bibimbab), but I have not yet tried it. The name of the new place escapes me, although I do recall Ramenya posting ads on the opening all over its restaurant.