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.