Thursday, June 29, 2006

Ugly Dumplings

Our favorite quick and cheap lunch place is Fried Dumpling in Lower Manhattan. It is a small storefront and Chinese ladies handmake the dumplings on site. It is one of the best bargains in New York, $1 for 5 dumplings! You can eat them in the shop at a tiny counter with soy/vinegar and/or hot sauce supplied in recycled squeeze bottles or get them to go. A bag of 30 frozen dumplings, is a whopping $5!

After observing the ladies making the dumplings, Hiroko decided to make her own from scratch. She consulted dumpling/gyoza recipes from websites to cookbooks, and picked the gyoza recipe from one of her Japanese cookbooks.

She started by making the dough, mixing the dry ingredients with warm water. After pounding and kneading for 10 minutes, the dough reached the proper texture approximating that of an earlobe....this guideline courtesy of the cookbook. Now it was time to allow the dough to rest in the refrigerator for an hour. While the dough napped, she prepared the stuffing using ground chicken and pork and mixing the meat with minced ginger, scallions, and garlic.

So far, it seemed very simple and easy. The struggle began when she tried to roll out the dough into small individual wrappers. She rolled the dough into a log about 1-inch in diameter and then cut it into 1-inch slices. She then carefully rolled each out into a thin crepe-like sheet. The recipe made it look as if these would be easily rolled out into a round shape. However, everytime she rolled out the dough, it was neither round nor square. After awhile, her rolling skill improved a little, but the wrappers were still far from being a nice round shape.

She filled the wrappers with the seasoned meat stuffing, but they resembled ugly croissants more than dumplings. Rick suggested to cut the dough using a round cookie cutter, so that the wrappers will have uniform shape.

Hiroko fried the dumplings in grapeseed oil while Rick made the simple soy/vinegar dipping sauce. After tasting it, we realized that Hiroko had forgotten to add salt to the stuffing mix. Although the use of some salt is recommended we found that once they made contact with the dipping sauce and entered our mouths, our first homemade ugly dumplings tasted beautifully juicy and delicious!

Hiroko gained a new appreciation for the skill of the dumpling ladies at Fried Dumpling. Each return visit presents her with another opportunity to observe their technique and marvel at how they roll out the nice round wrappers.

Sugar Snap Peas

Sugar snap pea season is here! We look forward to this time of the year to buying sugar snap peas at Greenmarket. On a recent Saturday we made a special trip to the market in Union Square to see if the local producers were offering them yet. And sure enough, we spotted the peas filled a bag with several handfulls, and we have been eating them practically everyday since.

The way we like to eat them is simple. Cook them for 1 minute in boiling water, drain and run under cold water to chill and arrest the cooking process. The sugar snap peas are very soft and can be eaten raw, so it isn't necessary to cook them more than 60 seconds. This blanching in the boiling water is just enough to bring out the beautiful bright green color.

Eat them plain or dip them in a sauce of your own choosing. We like a slightly spicy mix of Kewpie mayonnaise and yuzu kosho paste (or Kewpie and miso). Enjoy them now (preferably with a glass of rose) because the season is short and there's nothing like the local variety!

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Experiencing Le Bernardin

Le Bernardin is universally regarded as the best restaurant in NYC. It has achieved the restaurant equivalent of a "grand slam" by receiving the highest review marks from Zagat, Michelin (3 stars), and the NYT's Chief Restaurant Critic, Frank Bruni (4 stars). How good is it? Does it really deserve all the accolades? Is the experience worth the price of admission? The restaurant offers a $105 prix fixe dinner consisting of three courses (two appetizers, one entree for you traditional diners) plus dessert. Since this falls a bit outside of our usual dining-out budget parameters, we decided to go there for a special occasion.

That occasion presented itself recently when we celebrated our first wedding anniversary. Upon arrival we were seated immediately for our 7:30PM reservation and were soon greeted by an amuse of roasted lobster in an asparagus bisque. As soon as Hiroko heard the "L word," she expressed her dislike for lobster to the waiter who without hesitation very kindly offered an additional amuse, an exquisite smoked wild salmon. Neither of us are usually inclined to order smoked salmon but this salmon had beautiful pale pink color and unlike most smoked salmon served in restaurants, it was not the least bit oily or salty and, its texture struck the perfect balance between firm and tender. As we savored each bite we imprinted it in our sensory memory as the gold standard for wild smoked salmon. Rick's first appetizer kanpachi tartare, a delicately composed interweaving of silky kanpachi with a whisper of citrus, olive oil, and fresh herbs, was also a classic example of how restraint and simplicity can produce maximum pleasure.

Along with its exceptional food, Le Bernardin is also a restaurant with a profound understanding of the importance of ensuring that their customers leave with the feeling that they've had the most enjoyable dining experience. They've mastered the art of focusing on pleasing their customer from every perspective. Our lobster amuse story exemplifies that ethic. Another instance occured when Hiroko diplomatically voiced her unhappiness with her first appetizer, a warm spicy octopus cut into small medallions, flecked with black olive and drizzled with aged sherry vinegar. After politely pointing out that it was too salty to enjoy the flavor of octopus and vinegar, to our surprise, they insisted on bringing another dish, an Escolar (Hawaiian white tuna) salad (which turned out to be Rick's favorite dish of the evening). We couldn't have been more impressed with their dedication to hospitality. Not only did they replace the initial dish, but it was accomplished with virtually no delay in our meal. There are not many restaurants that we've visited that deliver this level of exceptional multi-dimensional service!

One of our favorite dishes was a "progression" of fluke ceviches in four marinades: citrus, tomato and basil, ponzu, and lemongrass and coconut. It was very simple dish, but each of the four explored a different flavor and seasoning combination that made their own mark on the taste of the fluke. This perfectly light yet flavor-focused execution characterized the restaurant's deft ability to achieve balance among the elements of each dish on the menu.

Four-star restaurants don't always have great ambience. Le Bernardin has been said to have the look of an airport frequent flyer lounge or hotel lobby. We suppose the midtown location of the restaurant, its need to serve the corporate world, and the fact that it was designed in the mid-80's have something to do with its decidedly bland decor. Nevertheless, it certainly doesn't intrude on or distract the least bit from the dining experience... which may actually be a plus!

Overall, we had a wonderful evening. Service, as we noted earlier, was superb and even the dishes that we had that we don't mention here were of nearly equal caliber. Every course was well matched with by-the-glass and half bottle selections from the mostly French and American wine list (we were happy to see that several sakes were offered and in fact, we enjoyed one with the fluke). Le Bernardin is not an everyday kind of place (certainly not for us, at least!), but it is, indeed, the perfect place to go for a special occasion. Now that we've had the experience, we won't necessarily go again next month, but on another special occasion....we wouldn't hestitate one bit!