Impromptu Sushi Dinner on the UWS (aka the “This is Never a Bad View” Post)

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: It’s really hard to find quality, affordable sushi in New York City. Spoiled from living in Los Angeles? Sure. The fish markets of Tokyo are that much closer. In New York, you can find the most impeccable sushi — at an equally impeccable price. You can also find the “meh”/get the job done pre-made sushi in various refrigerated cases at markets everywhere. Compared to its bookends, the middling ground is seriously underrepresented.

So, after attempting to go to a certain pickle-centric restaurant on the Upper West Side and failing yet again (they have this policy of no reservations for parties under 6 — wait time of an hour for seating for 2 — it’s ridiculous) we looked across the way and felt the pull of a certain welcoming red awning: Kitaro Sushi. Busy enough but not packed; we have a movie to catch in 50 minutes; let’s give it a shot!

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This is never a bad view.

[Aside: There is so much about this particular story that reminds me of why I love New York City. Unexpected, impromptu, serendipitous, happenstance … simply, perfect for the moment.]

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Pictured: fuko make roll & sake (salmon) hand rolls

The spouse and I sat at the sushi bar and ordered at will: gyoza; ohitashi (delicious spinach!); baby yellowtail; yellowtail / jalapeño / ponzu; fuko maki roll (crab stick, avocado, delicious pickled vegetables); 2 sake (salmon) hand rolls. And it rocked — in that way that sushi of this class should: Chefs hands flying deftly; order after order delivered with impeccable timing; hot sake and cold beer; graciousness all around. (I so wish I took a photo of Kitaro Sushi’s menu. “Special Rolls” circa 2011.)

The point being: Kitaro Sushi is a true local, neighborhood gem. And a New York City sushi gem at that. Wishing the Kitaro Sushi family/team many years of prosperity and keep on keeping on. You are doing so much that is right. Thank you!

Beast of Bourbon’s Bringing it to Bed-Stuy (aka the “Damn Good Barbecue” Post)

Last night Bed-Stuy barbecue joint slash music venue Beast of Bourbon threw a little shindig in honor of their new pit master, Nestor Laracuente, who carved up hunks of brisket and pork belly for an endlessly regenerating queue of barbecue fans — or, at least, fans of free barbecue. A pair of salads accompanied the meaty tastes: a vinegary cucumber salad and a shredded carrot salad with macerated cherries, which was unexpected and totally delicious.

Hook, line and sinker: Those bites only stoked my appetite, so on my way out I ordered one of the “power trios” to go: 1/2 lb. brisket and two small sides, in this case, brisket beans and meat-studded collard greens, plus cornbread: $21.

The brisket power trio

Such a good move, and frankly, a bargain: Two of us shared (or rather, devoured) the meal, as pictured above, and were totally satisfied. The brisket has a gorgeous, peppery crust and is falling apart tender; the beans and collards were incredibly flavorful with smokey notes imbued from the meaty bits; the cornbread, outstanding.

For a 2014 article on brisket in the New York Times, Laracuente is quoted as saying, “Cooking is science, but barbecue is magic.” If ‘cue is magic, the man most definitely has the magic touch. Smart move by the Beast to bring him to Bed-Stuy — that brisket’s worthy of a G Train trip any day.

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Williamsburg, Brooklyn Tour de Caffeine (aka “That Time That I Had 1 Espresso, 1 Turkish Coffee, 1 Piccolo, Plus Devoción in 1 Day” Post)

I drink much more tea than coffee — always and forever. I’d just rather not require coffee to jumpstart my day every morning, needing caffeine to coax my consciousness to return to reality. …Which also means I’m woefully behind the curve in exploring the neighborhood’s beans scene. And so, in the name of “research” for an upcoming article, I hit four hotspots in one afternoon.

Parlor Cafe

First up: Parlor Coffee, located in the back room of Persons of Interest barber shop, is a super tiny space that gets crowded quickly, which basically means one barista, one espresso machine, one cash box and anyone else. The barber shop; the gleaming steel of the Speedster espresso machine; the two guys hanging out in said tiny space talking music and records; Parlor Coffee couldn’t have been staged better. The barista’s methodical process was impeccable; the espresso grounds are weighed out on a digital scale — down to the precise gram. Serious business.

A tiny stamped cup was handed to me. I took a sip. Zoom! 0 to 60 in three seconds. That espresso was so strong, evening thinking about it now, it makes my arm hairs stand on point. I wonder: Is this what it’s like to have a proper straight razor shave?

Scene Two: As of December 2015, Williamsburg now has an outpost for all things Turkish:  Lions Milk, a charming storefront that’s equal parts Mediterranean marketplace (with a great selection of imported food sundries) and cafe, serving a selection of sandwiches, pastries, beverages and a proper Turkish coffee, naturally.

I’m going to preface my mini expose on Turkish coffee with statements that I now know to be true: One does not drink Turkish coffee in a hurry. To have a Turkish coffee is to have an experience — the polar opposite of a quick caffeine fix. To have a Turkish coffee is a calming, earthy, murky, contemplative experience, served in a tiny porcelain cup with matching saucer, accompanied by tiny treats: Turkish Delights, or gelatinous, sugar dusted cubes of which there are both sweet and savory varieties. And when you finally unearth the sediment on the bottom, that is when you take the final bite of your final Turkish Delight and momentarily close your eyes and give thanks.

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Scene three: First thought, “Where is this place?” Looking for the new kid on the block of a street that I claim to know so well, I felt a bit like a tourist in my own backyard. Set back from the street a down a few steps, Sweatshop is the kind of place I suspect one discovers rather than seeks out (and probably prefers it that way). A self-proclaimed “Melbourne style coffee and creative space built inside an active design studio and incubator,” the next destination on my caffeinated crawl is just feels different — if warmly indifferent, in that unstudied cool Brooklyn kind of way.

I thought that I had a rough idea of what I was getting into. Until I had no idea of what I was getting into: that disarming Aussie/minimal/neon signage/succulent plant/Brooklyn vibe, all fitted black t-shirts, casually unkempt facial hair, a menu of “espresso / filter / bevies / brekkie / waffles” (appropriately subtitled for Americans). Ahhhh… I’ll have the piccolo (“short strong latte” the subtitle read). And then the man in the black t-shirt with the not quite beard-ish facial hair proceeded to craft for me probably the best caffeinated beverage that I’ve ever had in my entire life — and I felt super fine.

Last stop, the epicenter of beans, from which so much of Williamsburg’s coffee scene emanates: Devoción (“devotion” en espanol). But don’t take it from me, let’s go to the source: “Our coffee beans are sourced from farms we hand-select deep in Colombia’s most inaccessible zones.” Harvested, air-shipped, roasted on site in Brooklyn, hand-packaged and hand-delivered to many of the neighborhood’s other coffee destinations — “Farm to Cup in 10 days” — that’s Devoción.

It’s an impressive feat, although perhaps the end result lost on this relative coffee novice, who still prefers hers with milk and sugar? And sure, while I can taste the difference in the flavor profiles of different beans, would I be able to tell the difference between beans freshly roasted, less than 15 days old, versus a month or two or 12? That’s next level coffee consumption.

Blue Bottle, Toby’s Estate Coffee, Black Tree, Konditori, Oslo Coffee Roasters, Gimme! Coffee, Vittoria Caffe — the list goes on and on. It would take a week or three to explore all of the caffeinated fixes in the neighborhood. So is this post comprehensive? Not by any means. A solid stamp of approval? Absolutely. Williamsburg’s beans scene definitely has some game.

Hard Rock Hotel, Juniper & Ivy, Bracero Cocina (aka the ‘Check Out San Diego, All Grown Up’) Post

There was a period in my early 20s when I spent a significant amount of time in San Diego, and golden years were those indeed. Bar hopping after dinner out with friends in the Gaslamp Quarter; gloriously long days on beach cruisers winding through San Diego’s beach towns and around Mission Bay itself; the omnipresence of Mexican fare, which in terms of quality and variety, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Ordering Mexican food in San Diego
December 26, 2015: Dude in flip flops and trench coat picking up an order he phoned in. Probably a carne asada burrito.

Back in ’04-’06, shiny new Petco Park was already causing a ripple effect, pushing development and “revitalization” beyond downtown’s historic core. San Diego’s “East Village” neighborhood as it stands today, with its luxury high rises, upscale grocers and fully realized urban lifestyle, was but a figment in some enterprising developer’s imagination. All 12-ish blocks of Little Italy collectively counted less than a handful of Italian anything, with taquerias and dive bars perpetually encroaching.

But I digress: It’s been a minute since I’ve been on the ground in America’s Finest City and so the chance to spend 24 hours downtown — an overnight getaway to celebrate our wedding anniversary — was very much a welcome reunion. We had a triple date lined up for the restaurant du jour, Richard Blais’ Juniper & Ivy, in Little Italy. (Side note: That Little Italy would be the trending, cool neighborhood in San Diego? I did not see that coming.)

We booked a suite at the Hard Rock Hotel, quintessential San Diego new-ish school cool with it’s Nobu outpost and terrace pool and lounge — alas, no daytime pool party in December. When the hotel opened about eight years ago, it was a trailblazer in San Diego’s recent development. I’ve always been a fan of the Hard Rock brand and it did not disappoint. The front desk (aka “Ground Control” — RIP David Bowie) even sent up a complimentary bottle of bubbles for the occasion.

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After a quick stop in the aforementioned “East Village” neighborhood — I’m sorry, after almost 10 years of living in New York, I can’t think of San Diego’s so-called “East Village” without a sense of irony. Like, who plucked that name out of the sky? — we were off to Juniper & Ivy for the best triple date ever: two of my longest, dearest friends, including one who officiated our wedding on the beach three years ago, and their wonderful spouses.

Here, a sampling of what we ordered:

Juniper & IvyEverything was absolutely delicious — if a bit disjointed. There was a Southern-ish element, a Pacific vibe, a trio of pastas, many small plates, a few cheeky nods to American “classics” a la corn dogs, General Tso’s, sweet potatoes and marshmallows and “Lamburger Helper.” I didn’t see a through line to the menu other than that it emerged from the depths of Richard Blais’ wildly creative culinary dreams. (Not that that’s a bad thing.) Impressive, still, that a nationally-known chef like Blais picked San Diego to open his first West Coast outpost over big sibs LA and SF. Strategically, it’s brilliant — he’s the first chef of that stratosphere to stake a claim here, and residents have welcomed him with open arms.

On point water conservation messaging.
On point water conservation messaging via @HardRockSD

The next day: Fully in vacation mode, we’re back in Little Italy (of course we are) for lunch at Bracero Cocina de Raiz. So secretly full of anticipation: This is the kind of restaurant that did not exist in all in San Diego or anywhere in Southern California as I knew it for all of my formative years. Not in San Diego County, Orange County, Los Angeles County; not even when I lived in East LA and Antonio Villaraigosa was our City Council member (prior to his mayoral term ’05-’13).

The difference being chef Javier Placencia — a Tijuana, Mexico, born chef who has traveled the world — is bringing his cuisine to California. Specifically, it’s ‘Baja Mediterranean’ cuisine. Beguiling? Sure. But it’s also fucking brilliant.

Bracero Cocina

We only had lunch, which meant sticking to the House Guacamole (crispy beluga lentils / avocado / chickpeas / blackbean hummus / zaåtar & sea salt chips, pictured above) and the “TJ style” fish ceviche tostada (above right), followed by an order of tacos … and another order of tacos. Sharing was not enough when you’re working with options like these:

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Placencia is a culinary ambassador and an innovator, and Bracero Cocina is a superlative love letter to the rich heritage of Mexican cuisine — and a nod to its future. Bravo to Placencia, Luis Pena and their entire outstanding team. Sitting underneath a giant, suspended farming plow, we watched a woman make tortillas by hand with a wooden tortilla press that is well loved and going strong — you can’t do better than that. The cocina doesn’t work without all of its moving parts.

San Diego: Apparently we’ve both grown up a bit. I’m impressed by the flourishes of sophistication and actual urbane cool. And your laid back, sunny, beach hair and flip flops vibe? Don’t worry, you’ve still got it. It’s in your DNA — and it’s why I’ll keep coming back, always. Thank you for the warm embrace!

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Spicy Korean Soup on a Cold Winter’s Night? (aka the “Riff on Sundubu” Post)

Why should big, bold, beautiful flavors be complicated? The answer is — they don’t have to be. In this simple soup recipe, inspired by sundubu jjigae, a traditional spicy Korean soup made with tofu and kimchi, a few authentic ingredients do the heavy lifting.

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The key to this recipe, which comes together quickly, is to prep all vegetables in advance of cooking. Additionally, homemade stock adds complexity and deliciousness. Choice of add-ins means that this soup can be vegetarian — or not. We used leftover braised leg of lamb and it was absolutely delicious.

Spicy Korean Soup (aka Sundubu)
Serves 4

4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 Serrano chili pepper, minced
1 medium onion, sliced
4 oz. shiitake mushrooms, sliced
1 medium zucchini, chopped
1 T anchovy paste
6 c. homemade stock (chicken, pork or veg.)
2 T Korean hot pepper paste (also known as kochujang or gochujang)
8 oz kale, chiffonaded
Salt and pepper to taste (alternatively, soy sauce and pepper)

Suggested add-ins: 
Soft or silken tofu, cubed
Kimchee (to taste)
Shredded chicken, pork, or leftover braised leg of lamb — at room temp
Glass noodles (also known as cellophane noodles or bean thread noodles)

Optional toppings: 
Thinly sliced Serrano peppers
Sliced scallions
Toasted sesame seeds
Red pepper flakes

Directions: Sauté garlic, serrano pepper and onion in 1-2 tablespoons of oil over medium heat in a heavy-bottomed stock pot for 2-3 minutes, until fragrant; add anchovy paste and stir until combined. Add mushrooms and zucchini and cook until beginning to soften, approx. 5-7 minutes. Add stock, cover and and bring soup to a simmer; stir in Korean hot pepper paste until combined and add kale. Cover and simmer until kale is wilted, approx. 5 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste.

Meanwhile, prep soup bowls with add-ins of choice. Once soup is ready, ladle soup into bowls and add toppings (optional). Enjoy!

What a Year! (aka the “#2015BestNine on Instagram” Post)

Food & wine. NYC design. Scenic views (Rocky Mountains). Brooklyn culture. Healthy eats. One epic lunch (Guadeloupe, French West Indies). More scenic views (San Francisco). A fabulous negroni. Scenes from last night (Nashville edition). 

2015 marks the first complete calendar year that I’ve been on Instagram, and while at times I’m sure that my Instagram posts feel disjointed, there is always the through line of: good food, epic travel, inspired moments and joie de vivre — sort of like The BLD Project, which is in growth mode.

#2015BestNine on Instagram
#2015BestNine on Instagram @elindhomie

I say: Bring on 2016! I have a feeling it’s going to be a great one.