Sunday, May 15, 2011

OTAFUKU: A Tiny Taste of Tokyo


Otafuku is a small Japanese eatery located on East 9th street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues.  This little delight is literally about the size of an elevator.  It is so tiny that, if not for the big red flags that mark the entrance, I would walk right past it every time.
Otafuku serves only a few dishes:  okonomiyaki, a thick savory pancake made with cabbage, batter, and either squid, shrimp, pork or beef; and takoyaki, round fritters made of savory batter, ginger, scallions and octopus (although there are plain and cheese varieties available as well).  The restaurant also serves yakisoba, which are Japanese pan-friend noodles with squid and shrimp.
The three Otafuku staffers work skillfully behind the counter.  To make the okonomiyaki, they lay the beef or shrimp on the griddle, layer the finely-chopped cabbage in a neat round on top, and then ladle the batter onto the cabbage to make a patty-like entity.  Then they flip the pancake until it becomes golden and crunchy.  The takoyaki batter is mixed and ladled into small round skillets, and then systematically rotated until they become brown and firm.
Both dishes are served in white paper containers.  They are dressed with Japanese barbecue sauce, Japanese mayonnaise, salty bonito flakes and seaweed powder.
The takoyaki are hot and creamy on the inside, studded with pieces of chewy octopus. The mixture of sauces makes for a unique, and incredibly delightful flavor that is truly unforgettable.  
Moreover Otafuku offers up a good deal.  You get 6 nice-sized octopus takoyaki for $5.00 and a hearty okonomiyaki for $8.00.  Also, head's up:  Otafuku does not accept credit cards.  
Otafuku is always full, and chances are you'll have to wait outside with a throng of people, all eagerly clutching their tickets and awaiting their orders.  
If you go at night though, try to get there on the early side of the evening, because they often stop cooking at around 10:00 PM.  There is only one small bench outside the establishment, so I suggest either walking and eating or just resigning to sitting on the sidewalk.  Either way it's completely worth it.  
It truly is rare to find such authentic food for such a great deal.  I feel that we often forget that the phrase "Japanese food" doesn't solely mean "sushi"… Otafuku is a perfect example of the other mind-blowing specialties that Japanese cuisine has to offer.  A must visit.  

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Benefit for the Tibet Fund: Good Cause, Good Chefs, Good Food


On Thursday, April 28th, The Tibet Fund hosted a gala at the Pierre Hotel to celebrate 30 years of service. The Tibet Fund's mission: "to preserve the distinct cultural and national identity of the Tibetan people."  The Fund, which was founded in 1981 with the assistance of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, has been instrumental in helping Tibetan refugee communities in India, Nepal and Bhutan.  By providing funding for health care, education, community development and cultural preservation, among other things, the Tibet Fund has been helping Tibetans achieve self-sufficiency for 30 years.
 Long-time supporters of His Holiness and the Tibet Fund, our good friends Steve & Nina Schroeder kindly invited us to the Tibet Fund's gala.  The Invitation read "12 Great Chefs, 3 Cherished Honorees...Organized by Eric Ripert." 12 great chefs?  Eric Ripert?  Quickly I realized that I was about to enter into one of the most exciting nights of my life.  

The celebrity chefs attending were:
Eric Ripert, Chef and Co-Owner of Le Bernadin; Stephan Becht, Executive Chef at the Pierre Hotel; April Bloomfield, Executive Chef and Co-Owner of The Spotted Pig, The Breslin Bar & Dining Room, and the John Dory Oyster Bar; Scott Conant, Founder and Chef of Scarpetta, David Chang, Executive Chef and Owner of the Momofuku Restaurant Group; Tom Colicchio, Chef and Owner of Craft, Craftbar &Craftsteak; Dan Kluger, Executive Chef of ABC Kitchen; Mark Ladner, Executive Chef at Del Posto; Anita Lo, Owner and Executive Chef at Annisa; Laurent Manrique, Corporate Executive Chef at Millesime Restaurant; Joseph Realmuto, Executive Chef at Nick & Toni's, Rowdy Hall, La Fondita, Townline BBQ and Honest Catering; and Laurent Tourondel, Executive Chef at BLT Market.
The dining room at the event boasted 12 beautiful tables, and each table was assigned its own celebrity chef.  Each chef would cook a meal of his or her choice for the table. Our table, Table Eight, was Scott Conant's table. Conant, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, is founder and Chef of highly successful restaurant Scarpetta, which he first opened in New York City and later opened in Miami, Toronto, Beverly Hills, and Las Vegas.  Besides running Scarpetta, Conant makes regular appearances on many Food Network shows, and he is now the host of the new show "24 Hour Restaurant Battle".  In my seat at the end of the table, I was positioned right next to Conant, his crew, and their portable stove.  Around the room, all 11 other tables were buzzing with excitement about their own meals.
Our meal was prepared right before our eyes.  It was enthralling to see Conant and his assistants work with such artfulness and precision.  We blinked and our first course was being ladled into our bowls:  Warm pea soup with spring vegetables, Riesling and Humbolt fog.  The soup was refreshing and light, and had slight hints of tarragon.
Our second  course was a beautifully presented porcini panzanella with asparagus and a soft cooked egg.  The porcini and asparagus were crunchy, and went wonderfully with the creaminess of the egg.
Then, for my favorite course of all, we enjoyed a scrumptious ramp risotto with morel and fava ragu.  It was out of this world: the morels were tangy and flavorful, and the in-season ramps were delicious.
To finish off the meal, Conant crafted a mind-blowing Tyrolean plum cake with bitter almond Ice milk.  The tangy plums were soaked into the warm cake and the ice milk (similar to ice cream) was a perfect, refreshing accompaniment.
As if the food wasn't enough of a treat, I got to talk to Conant throughout the night as he crafted our meal.  We talked about our favorite NYC burgers (Shake Shack, The Breslin, to name a few) and his love for Danny Meyer's 11 Madison Park.  He was a friendly, charismatic guy and the members of our table were all delighted to engage with him.
And then the night reached utter perfection when I was introduced to my modern-day idol, David Chang.  I'm pretty sure he could hear my heart beating in my chest, but nevertheless we animatedly chatted about his pork buns (my ultimate weakness), Momofuku Ko (his smallest restaurant), his skill at cooking eggs, and his upcoming plans to open a restaurant in Sydney, Australia.  Here's me and Conant, and me and Chang (observe how elated I am):
After the meal,  The Vice-President of the Tibet Fund made a beautiful speech before inviting Richard Gere, one of the honorees of the evening, up to the podium.  Gere's speech was both funny and moving, and I got the chance to meet him at the end. Lastly, all the chefs went up on stage for a big round of applause.
I couldn't believe that I had gotten to bond with two of my favorite chefs and eat a meal personally cooked by one of them.  I even got to meet the new Prime Minister of the exiled government of Tibet, and Richard Gere himself.  On the ride home, I could stop giggling.  "What?" my mother asked me, smiling.  "Oh," I replied, "I just can't wait to blog about this."
The night was any Foodie's paradise.

Friday, April 29, 2011

ICHI UMI: Get Ready to Eat.

If you are an sushi-lover, Ichi Umi is a great option.  But if you are a sushi-lover who loves to eat sushi (and Asian food) in mass quantities for a low price, Ichi Umi is a freakin' dream come true.
Ichi Umi's sushi and Asian food buffet is nearly the length of a city bock.  Located at 6 East 32nd Street, this cavernous restaurant features nearly 200 different dishes and seats 600 people.  
Ichi Umi is all about quantity (although the quality is quite good too, I assure you).  Lunch costs $18.95 per person Monday-Thursday, and $21.95 per person Friday-Sunday.  Dinner costs a bit more: $28.95 Monday-Thursday and $31.95 Friday-Sunday.  Let me remind you that "per person" means UNLIMITED access to the GIANT buffet.  Yeah.  This place offers a damn good deal.  Also, this place is worth going to just for the spectacle.  It's like finding the El Dorado of sushi.
Let me give you some advice about dining at Ichi Umi.  First off, if you are someone who likes food but is on a diet, LEAVE NOW!! RUN AWAY!!  Unless you have an absurdly large amount of self-control, you will not be able to resist trying all of the 30 or so different sushi rolls that Ichi Umi has to offer.  
Second, I suggest taking a moment to mentally prepare yourself for the impending meal before you approach the buffet table.  It's length and variety is, quite frankly, daunting.
You're going to need to go to the buffet in rounds.  I'd suggest starting at the sushi-end.  Inch slowly down the the length of the buffet.  By the end of the sushi section, I guarantee you your plate will be laden with rolls.  Now retreat -- back away from the table and go enjoy your sushi.  The restaurant offers free unlimited refills of soft drinks, so enjoy that too (Warning though: they only have Diet Pepsi, NOT Diet Coke).  After you finish off your sushi, take a breather.  You've still got a lot ahead of you, soldier, so pace yourself.
Next comes the Cold Salads, and there are a lot of them. They've got everything from sashimi salad to spinach salad, from squid salad to jellyfish salad.  These dishes can be odd, though, and I personally like to stick to what I know.
Then we have the Cold Entrees.  There are a variety of tartares and tatakis, but honestly, this section is not a must-visit.  Get over to the hot food.
What I've found is that Ichi Umi has, well, everything.  I mean, they've got a sections solely dedicated to fried dishes, soups, and yakitori.  You name it ("it" being Asian), they have it.  In the mood for razor clams?  Check.  Some tempura, perhaps? Yup.  How about whole roasted fish?  Sure thing.  Dumplings?  Hell yeah.  Most importantly, though, Ichi Umi has a kick-ass chicken teriyaki.  Cut into small pieces and both crispy yet saucy, this teriyaki is simple and downright good.  A must have.  
Ichi Umi's desserts aren't particularly tempting, unless you're into jello and fruity little Asian pastries.  I wouldn't waste my time on desserts -- if you think you have room left in your stomach, just go try another dish. You should, however, take a second to read the names of some of these confections:  Would you like some Blueberry Delight?  How about Lemon Delight Cake?  
Sometimes, in life, you just get a craving for Asian food or sushi.  Next time this happens, don't even think twice.  Go to Ichi Umi and I guarantee you'll leave fully satisfied (although probably not wanting to eat Asian food for a month).  Worth it.
Go to ichiumi.com for more details.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Greek Easter: Breaking the Fast

At 11 PM, the Saturday night before Easter, my family and I always find ourselves standing beside each other in one of the pews of Agia Varvara, a tiny Greek Orthodox Church wedged under the Manhattan Bridge.  At 11:55, the lights go out and our candles are lit, and at midnight we wish each other "Christos Anesti" (Christ has risen) with a sense of giddiness and excitement.  Yes, the tradition of midnight service is exciting; but I honestly believe the excitement we feel comes from the fact that, after midnight Service, we are finally permitted to enthusiastically "break the fast" (although, let's face it, we hadn't really been fasting previously).  The whole family drives uptown to Ithaka, a classic greek "taverna" located at 306 East 86th Street (between 1st and 2nd Aves.), where we are greeted by all the other boisterous Greeks who are there to do the same exact thing as us: EAT.
Ithaka, which serves solid, quality Greek cuisine, makes a traditional Greek Easter Meal:
Avgolemono, an egg-lemon broth with pieces of chicken, carrot, and potato
Magirista, a lamb-offal soup with dill, onions, and vegetables (only for those with strong stomachs)
Prasini salata, a plain green salad seasoned with dill and lemon
Arnaki, roasted baby lamb served with lemon potatoes and vegetables
Loukomades, a fried dough pastry soaked in honey and cinammon.
If you're interested in traditional Greek cuisine, check out The Complete Book of Greek Cooking by the Recipe Club of Saint Paul's Greek Orthodox Cathedral.  It's pretty legit.
Easter Sunday is characterized by more of the same food, plus a few more delicious traditions.  Greeks are famous for tsoureki, a sweet, braided egg-bread that is flavored with vanilla and mastic, and decorated with sesame.  This bread is consumed along with hard-boiled eggs, which are dyed red for the occasion. 
Other classic Greek dishes that always make it to the table include:
Tzatziki, a yoghurt, dill and cucumber dip often seasoned with garlic
Simple onion and tomato salad seasoned with olive oil, salt, pepper and lemon
Tiropita, Phyllo-dough pies stuffed with cheese and accompanied by feta
Taramasalata, a dip made with salted, cured cod roe, bread crumbs or potato, lemon juice, vinegar and olive oil.
Tsoureki, dips, cheeses, olives, and many other typical Greek snack foods can be found at International Grocery, located at 543 9th Ave. (at 40th St.)  This small store is phenomenal and quirky, and I highly recommend it.
To finish off the meal, we eat koulorakia, buttery cookies flavored with vanilla and decorated with sesame, and always twisted into swirls or spirals.  We added a new tradition this year, with yummy homemade treats courtesy of my aunt: square pretzels with melted Hershey Kisses and peanut M&Ms on top.  They were festive, and, apparently easy to make -- a great idea for any holiday.  It's safe to say that our Greek Easter unfailingly turns into Greek Feast-er... but honestly, what's better than celebrating a holiday with good food and good company?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

MOTORINO

A few months ago, I received a message from a fellow food admirer.  She explained to me that she had found herself in a serious predicament: upon which New York restaurant should she bestow her "best pizza" award?  In her list of contenders, she mentioned the name "Motorino."  My interest was immediately peaked, and I decided to check it out.
The East Village Motorino -- it also has a Brooklyn location --  beckons you in.  Located at 349 East 12th Street, the small restaurant features dim, warm lighting, big glass windows, and a constant din of laughter and clanking silverware that create an intimate, but fun atmosphere.  Motorino is no nonsense.  The tables are simple, the service is good and directed, and the menu is small.  It features about five "antipasti" (Italian appetizers), eight varieties of pizza, two desserts and a long list of beverages.
Motorino describes itself as a "Pizzeria Napoletana" (Neapolitan Pizzeria).  Having just been to Naples a mere month ago, I was eager to see whether Motorino actually managed to capture the unique taste of Naples in the city of New York.  Guess what!  It did.
We started with the "polpette napoletane" (Neapolitan meatballs) and the Cockle Clam Crostino "Al Bianco".  Both antipasti were remarkable.  The portion of piping-hot polpette was generous (three nice-sized meatballs), and the polpette themselves were seasoned well and covered in a delicious, fresh tomato sauce.  They tasted exactly like the ones I had had a month before, sitting at a small cafe in the corner of a large square in Naples.  The Crostino was equally, if not more, delicious.  The dish was presented beautifully, and the flavors melded together even better.  The crostino was soaked in butter, white wine, oregano and chili, and the small clams were garnished with whole oregano leaves.  I highly recommend both these dishes.
Motorino serves individual pizzas, which is something I personally love, considering I have such a big appetite.  Between the three of us, we chose the Soppressata piccante (tomato, spicy soppressata sausage, mozzarella, garlic, and oregano), the classic Margherita with clams (added on for a few dollars -- do it!!!), and the special pizza, which had ramps, pecorino, and tomato.  
It is safe to say were were over the moon about all three.  The pairing of ramps (currently in season) with pecorino was surprising but delicious.  The baby clams on the typical Margherita made for a tasty, novel creation.  The soppressata pizza was a flavor-overload.  The whole cloves of garlic were fantastic, and the soppressata was crispy and plentiful (it was extremely spicy, however, so if you can't handle heat I'd steer clear of this one.)  
But what sets Motorino pizza apart is the juxtaposition between the soupiness of the pizza and its fluffy, yet crispy and slightly-charred crust.  The pizza requires some slurping, and don't be shy about using lots of napkins.  I highly suggest saving some crust to sop up all the delicious sauce left on your plate. 
Our meal was well-priced.  For two generous appetizers and three pizzas, each of the three of us payed less than $25 per person.  
Go to Motorino.  Molto bene.

Friday, April 22, 2011

And so it begins!

Welcome to One Foodie, One Fork at a Time.  Here, I will recount and review my many dining experiences in the hope that other food-lovers will read this blog and use it as a resource.  Whether that means comparing my comments with their own opinions or drawing ideas for good food or eating destinations, I hope that the readers of this blog enjoy the experience.  Bon Appetit!