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September 30, 2010

Mexico City - Day II

Tamalitos en salsa de achiote Dominic Armato

Don't let the photo fool you. Day two was a big bust.

Particularly given that it's so rare I get to leave the country these days, a lost day is incredibly frustrating. But that's just how day two worked out, despite quite a bit of early promise. The early part of the day was consumed with work, which meant a brief breakfast in the hotel -- a buffet with both Mexican and American items, neither of which were prepared with the greatest care. But this was to be expected.

Not to be expected were the circumstances that kept us from our lunch. After finishing our business for the day, our hosts offered to take us out for a late lunch, and knowing that I was equally interested in downscale food, one of them mentioned that one of his favorite taquerias in the city was right by the hotel. Getting back required a crosstown cab ride, and though it was a time of day that wouldn't ordinarily present an issue, a large organization of electrical workers had designated that day to protest wages, which rather effectively snarled traffic around the Monumento a la Independencia, where we were staying. With a plane to catch, they were forced to divert to the airport, planning to get something to eat in that area. As it turned out, our cab driver, a retiree who apparently had just started driving a cab a few days prior, didn't know where the airport was. You read that correctly. So by the time we were within spitting distance, time was short and we were forced to hit a perfectly edible but unremarkable steak joint in the terminal itself. And after waiting out the ruckus back in the Zona Rosa, we cabbed it back to home base. Fantastic Mexican eats? 0 for 2 on the day.

PapadzulesDominic Armato

But dinner, I was jazzed about. My experience with Yucatecan is pretty limited, but as one of the more distinctive regional Mexican cuisines, it's one about which I'm intensely curious. While I don't anticipate getting to Yucatan anytime soon, Mexico City is certainly known for restaurants that represent cuisines from all over the country. So we opted to hit one about which I'd heard quite a bit, Los Almendros, also in Polanco. But the moment we walked in the door, I feared we'd made a mistake. First clue? Mariachis. A dozen of them. In full sequined garb. Blaring music that while fantastic in the right context, was just ear-shattering in the space. Trumpets and enclosed spaces with hard walls don't mix. Unless you're really into hearing loss, I suppose. Second clue? Streamers and banners and tequila carts and everything they could possibly throw at you to create a fiesta atmosphere. Experience tells me that when a restaurant spends that much time overdoing the decor, it usually means they aren't that focused on the food. Final clue? From our vantage point, I could see perhaps thirty or forty other diners, and not a single one looked local. Not that there's anything wrong with places that attract tourists. I'M a tourist. But places that exclusively attract tourists... let's just call it suspicious and move on.

Crema mestizaDominic Armato

So we ordered a small assortment of Yucatecan classics as well as a couple of other dishes, and tried with limited success to carry on a conversation over the band. When dishes started arriving, the first were the papadzules. Papadzules look like enchiladas, tortillas wrapped a filling and doused with a sauce, in this case hard-boiled egg in the interior and a pair of pumpkin seed and tomato sauces. It's a simple dish, and there really isn't anywhere to hide if it isn't on point. This wasn't. The tortillas weren't especially tender or fresh and the pumpkin seed sauce wasn't terribly distinct or flavorful, so simply having nice hard boiled eggs wasn't about to save the plate. It was just flat. Ditto our second dish, tamales with an achiote salsa. The tamales were passable, but nothing to get excited about. The salsa was a typical tomato/onion/jalapeno, blended with achiote. But the one distinctive feature -- the achiote -- didn't particularly come through. It was the second dish to elicit an unenthused response.

Cochinita pibilDominic Armato

The kitchen totally exposed itself with my soup. Up until this point, since I have so little experience with Yucatecan, I was forced to question myself -- are some of these dishes kind of drab by nature? Simple can and should still pop, but... well... I've never had Yucatecan in Mexico and I wouldn't call this a realm of expertise. But the soup made it absolutely clear that this was just mediocre food. I ordered their crema mestiza, mixed cream, which was a pair of soups -- squash blossom and huitlacoche -- separated by crispy tortilla strips and queso fresco. And both were pretty terrible. Yes, they're cream soups. But cream soups shouldn't taste exclusively of heavy, heavy cream. The primary ingredient needs to be first. The cream supports. Here, despite their intense color, both soups were largely flavorless and almost completely indistinct. If you blindfolded me and had me taste them side by side, it'd be tricky to determine which was which. They were just very, very heavy and didn't convey any of the life of their theme ingredients.

Huachinango a la tallaDominic Armato

When the cochinita pibil hit the table, I figured this would be the last chance. If you're running a Yucatecan restaurant and can't make a killer cochinita pibil, you might as well pack it in. And while it wasn't bad, it certainly wasn't killer. The meat was a little dry and could've been more tender, but the flavor was nice, if not exactly a flavor riot. And though it was served on a perfectly cut circle of the same, I certainly didn't get the sense that it had been roasted in banana leaves. Plus, the usual accompanying onions were scarce bordering on nonexistent. Mostly, it was just that I've had so many wonderful, vibrant stewed and roasted Mexican meats that this seemed like a pale imitation -- the kind of Mexican dish I'd expect to get in the United States rather than in Mexico. Serviceable, but significantly less than exciting.

Chile en nogadaDominic Armato

Unsurprisingly, that was their best shot, and from there we pretty much ran out the clock. I might've found the snapper okay, split down the middle and roasted with a guajillo chile sauce, but I had scale issues. And I realize that even careful kitchens might occasionally let a couple slip through, but by the time I was done eating a quarter of the fish I had a pile of about 15-20 scales on the side of my plate. I was too busy dodging and picking scales to pay much attention to the fish. Maybe that was a good thing, I don't know. And though we were completely setting ourselves up for disappointment after the amazing chile en nogada we had at Izote last trip, we gave it a shot anyway -- and were completely disappointed. Weak sauce, soggy chile, poor texture and bad balance on the picadillo... exactly the sort of thing I fear people will end up with when I tell them how incredible of a dish this can be. But on this last one, we probably only have ourselves to blame. After all, the cart with a pile of chiles and a punch bowl full of sauce sat untouched on a cart right in front of us through our entire meal. I don't know when they put it there, but the beginning of dinner service seems like a good bet.

0 for 3. Bummer. We walked out of the restaurant less than twelve hours before our scheduled departure, and I still hadn't managed to score any street food. Day three would have to be an early one.

Los Almendros
Campos Elíseos 164
Colonia Polanco, Del. Miguel
Hidalgo, C.P. 11560, México, D.F.
(55) 5531-6646
Mon - Sat7:30 AM - 11:00 PM
Sun8:00 AM - 10:00 PM

Mexico City - Day I   |   Mexico City - Day II   |   Mexico City - Day III

September 29, 2010

Mexico City - Day I

Taco Al Pastor Dominic Armato

They let me out of the country again!

After spending so many years where two months was a long time to remain stateside, it kind of feels like an escape these days on the rare occasions when I get to clear customs. Right about the time my son was born, I retired the passport twice expanded with extra pages as well as the Hong Kong travel pass and got a crisp, shiny new RFID passport that still, three years later, looks like it was just issued. But a month ago, I got 46 hours outside of the country, which after the 31 hours I got last year, can be considered progress, I think.

Once again, Mexico City was my destination and the trick, of course, is cramming as many ethnic eats as possible into a work trip with an indeterminate amount of free time. Last time, I managed to spend a day in the Distrito Federal without sampling a taco al pastor or a single bite of street food. A year later, the shame remained, but this time I would not be denied.

Carving the ConeDominic Armato

Day one, arriving shortly after lunchtime, we had plans for a business dinner, so it seemed street food would have to wait at least until day two. But with a little time to kill, I figured I'd better see if I could knock at least one of my goals off the list. And while doing a bit of online research in preparation to wander around the neighborhood and see what I could find, I discovered that an outpost of El Tizoncito, a local chain and one of the establishments that lays claim to the invention of tacos al pastor, was a brisk twenty minute walk away. With an hour and a half before our departure, I figured I'd have just enough time to powerwalk a mile and a half, pound a few tacos, powerwalk back and take a quick shower before dinner. Good thing I brought my walkin' shoes. Five minutes into the journey, I found it odd how easily I was becoming winded, which is about the time I remembered that Mexico City is located at 7,350 feet, almost half a mile higher than the Mile High City itself, Denver. I thought of charred, marinated pork and pressed on.

The branch I hit was located in Cuauhtemoc, which struck me as a rather comfy neighborhood, streets lined with trees, lush parks every few blocks, and a far cry from the dingy urban sprawl that is the impression many folks have of the city. El Tizoncito -- this location, anyway -- is a small corner shop tucked into a residential neighborhood, a comfortable place to park and have a beer and some eats, with tables and chairs out on the sidewalk and a fellow carving the beautiful cone of pork right on the edge of the sidewalk, for everybody to see. The pork was densely layered, bright orange and rotating in front of a box filled with live coals. The gentleman tending it wielded a blade that looked more like a small saber than a kitchen knife, and he'd use it to quickly shave a few thin layers of pork into the tiny tortilla in his left hand, before a quick flick of his wrist sent a chunk of pineapple flying from the fruit impaled atop the cone, which he'd deftly catch in the center of the tortilla down at waist level where he was holding it. Unfortunately, he was in the middle of filling an order of what must have been thirty tacos just as I walked up, which meant that the outer char had been completely stripped from the meat. But I wasn't about to turn around and head back, so I ordered two tacos and a coke and grabbed a seat.

Tacos Al PastorDominic Armato

A few minutes later, he dropped two tiny tacos in front of me with a smile. And they were *hot*. In a move that I expect was meant to compensate for the lack of char, as he finished filling the tacos he'd invert them on a nearby flattop for a few seconds, to heat and sear them a little. It helped, but it was no substitute for the carbonized bits of pork that, for me, define the form. Still, these were tasty little morsels (I stress little -- like silver dollar pancakes). Later in the trip I'd be informed by our hosts that despite the reputation, there's far better than El Tizoncito in the city. I was... less than surprised. But still, I'd finally established a baseline. I'd now tasted a benchmark taco al pastor in the heart of Mexico City, and on subsequent visits I could search for the standouts. After inhaling the first two I ordered and adding a couple more, I hoofed it back to the hotel, took a five minute shower, and headed off for the ritzy Polanco neighborhood, and one of Mexico City's premiere fine dining restaurants.

Baby Corn AmuseDominic Armato

It's a business dinner, after all. But while a street corner comal was my primary goal for the trip, I can't say I was broken up over the prospect of hitting someplace with a reputation like Enrique Olvera's flagship restaurant, Pujol. Unlike Patricia Quintana, whose Izote we checked out last trip, Olvera is one of the young turks of upscale Mexican cuisine, only in his mid-30s but already with a ten-year-old internationally acclaimed fine dining restaurant under his belt. Going in, I knew the name, I knew the food was upscale, and I knew that I could probably expect something special. Beyond that, I opted not to do any research, preferring to go in without any preconceptions. The restaurant was recently redesigned, and it was evident from the get go that if the decor is any indication, Olvera is doing his utmost to contemporize the cuisine. It's a food paparazzo’s dream, dark, blank grey walls surrounding 15 tables with white tablecloths and brilliant spotlights, stark and modern and obviously intended to put the focus on one place -- your plate. Our hosts were kind enough to indulge our desire to try the full tasting menu, and the first item to hit the table was an amuse of skewered baby corn that I believe had been pickled, grilled and then slathered with a completely unidentifiable (to me) mix of creamy and earthy elements that may or may not have included huitlacoche and/or escamoles... ant eggs. Since I've never sampled escamoles before, I can't say. I only know that I think one of our hosts said something about ants before suddenly becoming reluctant to translate the dish's description for me. Or he may have been referring to one of Olvera's signature dishes that serves escamoles like caviar, I can't say. Too bad... he needn't have feared. But in either case, the corn was vinegared, lightly grilled and had a sort of smoky, earthy flavor that was a great way to warm up. Excitement was building.

Cebiche pescado a la VeracruzanaDominic Armato

Olvera's famous playfulness was immediately evident at the top of the menu. He took the traditional pescado a la Veracruzana and made it cold, serving lime-cured salmon (Arctic char? I should've taken notes) with the traditional accoutrements, except in cold fashion. Slivered raw onions, fresh sprigs of micro herbs, pickled capers, tiny halos of sliced green olive... the elements were there, but completely repackaged in a cold ceviche. I'm honestly unsure whether this was brilliance or tradition, but to me it was a fresh idea that I greatly appreciated. The ceviche itself was very understated, a subtle combination of flavors anchored by perfect ribbons of fish that had been only barely cured, leaning almost more towards sashimi than ceviche. It was a perfectly elegant beginning.

Aguacate rellenas de camarónDominic Armato

With the second dish, Olvera remained in the seafood realm, but started to kick things up a bit. Creamy, cool shrimp sat atop a clean and simple cilantro pesto, and both were hidden beneath an avocado canopy arranged so artfully that it looked like it could have been constructed by Frank Gehry, and topped with a punchy dollop of mayonnaise spiked with fruity puya chiles. Shrimp, mayonnaise, avocado, cilantro, chiles -- it's as common a combination of flavors as they come, and that he was able to elevate them to such a level that they didn't feel the least bit out of place in a fine dining restaurant is, I think, a testament to his technique, which is impressive. I was surprised to find that I enjoyed this dish even more than the ceviche, cool and creamy with the herbal notes and just enough punch from the chiles to slice right through. Delightful.

Tamal de cuitlacocheDominic Armato

When the third dish arrived, I briefly considered the possibility that we'd received the wrong item, but you can rest assured that there's a tamale in there. It was a small one, composed of masa and huitlacoche, the corn fungus that routinely makes lists of challenging foods for reasons I'll never understand (it tastes like a particularly earthy breed of mushroom -- what's the big deal?). It was buried, however, in a somehow perfectly-shaped foam bubble that was made with a fresh, sour farm cheese. That the dish was visually arresting goes without saying, but for me this was a great example of non-gratuitous foam use, because it allowed him to integrate that very naturally sour cheese while at the same time lightening its impact so that it didn't kill the huitlacoche and natural sweetness of the corn tamale which, incidentally, was beautifully warm and tender.

Sopa de chicharrón y tortillaDominic Armato

The fourth dish was tortilla soup. Tortilla soup! Now it was almost as though he was showing off, taking the most basic foods he could come up with simply to prove that he could turn them into fine dining material. And he did admirably. Though this was one of the evening's humbler entries, it was nonetheless atypically delicious, a velvety, spicy stewed tomato concoction that tasted as though the flavor of two bowls of tortilla soup had been compressed into one. For an extra dimension, both in terms of flavor and texture, he served the soup with crunchy chicharrones, their airy pockets soaking up some of the soup while still maintaining their crunch. I wouldn't call this dish a highlight of the meal, but it took tortilla soup to unusually refined heights, and on that basis alone it was very, very successful.

Escolar en adobo OaxaqueñoDominic Armato

The next dish, another fish course, was an absolute joy. It had been a long time since I'd had escolar, and I'd forgotten just how wonderful this fish can be, but it's possible I've never had a piece as perfect as this. Glazed with a spicy and ever so lightly sweet adobo, it was served alongside an herb puree (missed it -- buried in the fish), small pieces of squash blossom leaves, and huitlacoche "nixtamalizado," which I believe means it was somehow treated with lime (the alkaline kind, not the citrusy kind), in a manner similar to how corn was historically treated to loosen the skins and prepare it for grinding. The huitlacoche arrived as small, almost dumpling-like chunks with far more body than its previous appearances in the menu. But this was all about the fish. And oh, was it all about the fish. Escolar has an incredibly distinctive flavor that I'm not sure I know how to describe, and it's a wonderfully firm, meaty fish that's incredibly satisfying to eat. Here, it was treated just perfectly, dense with body but simultaneously so tender and so flat-out juicy that it seemed as though we could have squeezed a full shot glass worth of essence of escolar out of every serving.

Frijol con lechónDominic Armato

The final savory dish? Pork and beans. Really. The pork was a sizable braised cut, with deeply colored skin and tender flesh that still maintained some resistance. Though some smashed beans were present, they mostly served to create the broth, a bold and earthy but still very clean and refined consommé that, if you still haven't caught onto the theme here, took a very classic and humble flavor combination to an unusual level of refinement. Spicy shaved radish, avocado and micro oregano rounded out the garnishes, and though I loved the dish and thought the pork was spectacular, this was the only one that left me wanting a bit, for some salt or acid or something to add a little bit of sharp contrast to the very deep, earthy, base flavors of the main ingredients. Spicy pickled radishes were, I think, going in the right direction, just not quite far enough. Still, a very good dish.

Cremoso de limónDominic Armato

Dessert, though not quite so high-concept, was done with the same amount of precision. We received three spoonfuls of a tangy, cold lemon curd topped with a sort of meringue brittle that had been concocted from jamaica -- Mexican hibiscus and ginger tea. It was plated alongside a quenelle of frozen yogurt, situated atop a pile of coconut "sand." I loved it. The lemon curd was unapologetically sweet and sour, the brittle provided textural contrast as well as wonderful floral notes, the frozen yogurt was lush and creamy and possessed of a very strong natural tartness. There's no traditional touchstone I'm aware of that served as the genesis of this dish, but no matter. If Olvera had set out to prove a point, it was already proven.

MignardisesDominic Armato

Some mignardises, chocolates, pates de fruit and a third item I didn't taste, gave me time to digest and reflect. Needless to say, I felt it was a truly wonderful meal. Unlike our previous experience at Izote, which ran the gamut from wonderful to awful, our dishes at Pujol ranged from outstanding down to merely very, very good. Pure, bold flavors just work in a minimally-presented fine dining context, and that's exactly Olvera was doing. Though his dishes were almost exclusively classed-up versions of downscale foods, the irony is that in many ways the application of complicated, refined technique actually made the dishes simpler. In terms of presentation, of course not. But the flavors were clean and distinct and pure, as though the dishes he was emulating in his personal fashion had been distilled down to their basest essence before being prettified for an upscale table. In searching online, it was clear that "Izote or Pujol?" is a very common question for food geeks en route to the D.F., and while I generally try to avoid such comparisons and would need to apply the caveat that all bets are off during chiles en nogada season, I know where I'm going nine times out of ten. Pujol is definitely one of the year's dining highlights for me.

Mexico City - Day I   |   Mexico City - Day II   |   Mexico City - Day III

September 27, 2010

Nobuo at Teeter House

Nasu Bacon Miso Dominic Armato

One of my favorite local chefs, even long before we moved to Phoenix, has always been Nobuo Fukuda. A number of years ago, while visiting for spring training, I had a hankering for some raw fish and Googled up Sea Saw, which was just a few blocks from our hotel. And though the "Japanese Tapas" tagline gave me pause, I'd quickly discover that Fukuda was one of the exceptions to the rule that fusion cuisine is clumsy and overdone. After a couple more spring training visits, I finally brought my ladylove to Sea Saw two summers ago for my first crack at the omakase, which turned out to be a dynamite meal that ended with me being thisclose to ordering a second helping of miso marinated foie in lieu of dessert. Fast forward to early this year, we're now officially Phoenicians, we're leaving the kids with family and getting a night out and a return to Sea Saw is on our short, short list. It was then, with crushing disappointment, that we discovered Sea Saw had closed, and no announcement had been made about what, when, or where Fukuda would be cooking next. The waiting game had begun.

Ebi SaladDominic Armato

Thankfully, we weren't waiting long. Nobody with even a toe in the water of the Phoenix restaurant scene needs to be told that Fukuda's new venture, Nobuo at Teeter House, opened just a couple of months ago in Heritage Square. He's taken over the historic Bouvier-Teeter house, and to call the digs unusual would be a bit of an understatement. A restaurant in a small century plus old residence would be uncommon enough, but the marriage of modern Japanese decor in rooms with late 19th century Victorian trim, added to the fact that there are so few tables spread across two small rooms, makes for a setting that is nothing if not unique. But in some ways it's the perfect space for Fukuda, casual and intimate and an extension of his style. You are, quite literally, being welcomed into a home, where you can grab a bite, have a drink, socialize and chill. This isn't your grandfather's izakaya, but Fukuda's izakaya, a home where East and West cohabitate with sometimes curious but usually delicious results.

Onsen Jidori Egg & Long BeansDominic Armato

Since this is an izakaya, we're talking about small plates with a healthy selection of booze. I'll leave the discussion of the libations to those more versed in the liquid end of the spectrum, but it's clear, even to the largely uneducated observer, that the liquor is not playing second fiddle to the food. There's a lengthy drink menu, particularly for a joint so small, completely dwarfing the available eats multiple times over. A dozen beers, a score of sakes, even more wines and a handful of specialty cocktails, there's no fear of going thirsty. Multiple flavors of Ramune, the Japanese soft drink, even make an appearance in the soda section. Meanwhile, the eats are primarily divided into hot and cold, with a few small bites and a few desserts for good measure. I was a bit disappointed to discover that I'd already sampled almost every single item on the cold half of the menu, most of them represented in the sashimi course of our omakase at Sea Saw a couple of years ago. But the hot side of the menu was almost completely new to me, so that's where we focused our efforts. Our server recommended four to six dishes for two, but the infrequency of our nights out together coupled with a desire to sample as much as possible resulted in us... um... getting more. Too much, really. But I have no regrets.

Tempura Squash BlossomDominic Armato

Though I hesitate to even use the word lest it give the impression that there was something wrong with it, our first dish was the lone disappointment of the evening. The Ebi Salad is neither Japanese nor European, but rather straight Vietnamese, fish sauce-soaked grilled shrimp atop a rice noodle and slivered cucumber salad with sesame, peanuts, basil, mint and a decent chile kick. I didn't find it problematic so much as I found it puzzling, an almost unadulterated classic from a cuisine that I'd never seen him work with, completely devoid of his usual cross-cultural twists. It was good enough, if less than memorable. I suppose I just didn't see the point of its inclusion. But this was both the first and last dish with which I'd be less than tickled.

Pork Belly BunsDominic Armato

The next two dishes brought the umami in full force, starting with one of the small bites, the Nasu Bacon Miso. One of the most elegantly understated presentations I've seen in quite some time, ten slices of supple Japanese eggplant were artfully arranged like irregular paving stones, topped with dollops of a dark, salty, intense (red?) miso cooked with minced bacon and punctuated with a touch of raw scallion. The eggplant is moist and meltingly tender with only the barest hint of bitterness from the skin, and the bacon miso, despite its formidable potency, somehow manages not to get in the way of the subtler flavors of the eggplant. It's a minimal and delicious dish for which I doubt any serving size would feel like enough. Best to have just a fleeting few tastes and move on.

Soft Shell Crab SandwichDominic Armato

Moving on took us to the Onsen Jidori Egg with Long Beans, which is in the running for my favorite Fukuda dish ever. The "onsen" refers to the Japanese onsen egg, an ancient analogue to MG's sous vide variants where an egg is poached in its shell at low temperatures so that it takes on an almost custardy consistency, before it's cracked into a dish and typically served with a splash of dashi. "Jidori" refers to the intensely flavorful Japanese chickens that are the new hotness in restaurant proteins. So what arrives in your bowl is a beautiful custardy egg with a deep orange yolk, surrounded by crisp-tender long beans and bathed in dashi and a funky seafood element -- perhaps some kind of fermented shrimp? -- that takes the intensity over the top. This is not a subtle dish. It's aggressively salty, an explosion of flavors foreign to the Western palate, including... what's that... a little citrusy tingle on the tail end... could it be my old, dear friend Sichuan pepper? I have to ask, our server confirms. It's finished with a touch of numbing Sichuan pepper oil. Yet with these fireworks, Fukuda somehow creates harmony and still keeps the focus on the egg. Granted, I'm a sucker for a soft-cooked egg. But this one is special.

OkonomiyakiDominic Armato

Squash blossoms are similiarly honored, though with a much subtler treatment. Stuffed with a mild goat cheese, dried shrimp and shiitake mushrooms, tempura fried and served with a curry-spiked dipping salt, it's another East-West presentation where the fusion is never distracting. The choice of cheese is key, so as not to overpower the blossom, and it's beautifully fried -- still connected to its miniature squash -- with a light crisp and creamy interior. An excellent and creative take on a classic. Less creative, though perfectly delicious, was another dish that -- like the Ebi Salad -- seemed a near-traditional take on a cuisine not normally so well-represented in Fukuda's repertoire. The pork belly buns, served with pickled mustard greens, slivered cucumbers and hoisin sauce, are just a tick to the right of straight-up Chinese. The braised belly is fabulous, and I love that Fukuda uses just a light brush of hoisin rather than the abundance of sickly sweet glaze that most restaurants would employ. Like the Ebi Salad, it seems a bit of an odd departure from his norm, but I can't walk away from this dish disappointed because that thick slab of braised, fatty pork belly is just so damn good.

Grapefruit & HamachiDominic Armato

Another sandwich we sampled was the Panko-Fried Soft Shell Crab. It's a great way to treat the crisp crab, with an herbal shiso leaf, crisp and cool cucumber slices, and the spicy, citrusy tang of kanzuri aioli. But not to be overlooked is the housemade focaccia upon which it rests, moist and supple and almost barely crisped on the outside, with great flavor. The bread didn't need to be that good, but that fact that it is speaks to the attention to detail embodied in these dishes. And rounding out our hot dishes was traditional pork and seafood okonomiyaki, with crisp vegetables, shredded aonori, a very tart okonomiyaki sauce and the requisite squirt of tangy mayonnaise. Okonomiyaki is Japanese booze food at its best, and Fukuda's is no exception.

Shiromi CevicheDominic Armato

Slipped in near the end of our meal were the pair of cold dishes we'd ordered, just as a reminder that Fukuda rocks the creative sashimi. The first was an old favorite my ladylove wouldn't be denied, cool hamachi wrapped around a grapefruit segment and a slice of cool, creamy avocado, finished with a tiny sliver of ginger and a white truffle ponzu oil. It's clean and refreshing and I love that Fukuda chose to feature it near the end of the meal, where I often enjoy raw fish as a way of winding down. We also tried the only sashimi dish that was new to us, and I consider it a new favorite. Shiromi is wrapped around shiso and shredded pickled miyoga, a type of wild ginger, and topped with crispy fried taro threads and a touch of kanzuri oil. The flavor is tart and refreshing, but even more compelling is the texture, which between the crunchy taro, crisp miyoga and creamy shiromi is absolutely delightful.

Chocolate Tofu MousseDominic Armato

Room for dessert? No, but we're going to eat it anyway. A nearly heaping help of chocolate tofu mousse had a little more body than its pure dairy counterpart, the green tea ice cream on top was both dense and intense, and accompanying candied orange peel was not only bright and flavorful but almost crisp with a textured sugary coating that lent a little interest to an otherwise exclusively creamy dish. What earned my allegiance, however, were the light and crisp orange and almond fritters -- more airy and doughy than fruity -- with caramel and jasmine ice cream. Textural contrast, temperature contrast, strong, sweet flavors, it was a winner.

Orange and Almond FrittersDominic Armato

Part of what I enjoy about Fukuda is that while most of the rest of the dining world has moved on to subtler integrations of flavors from disparate cultures, he isn't afraid to take the bull by the horns and wrestle with bold flavors, finding a way to make cross-cultural dishes work in a very brash fashion. This is dangerous territory. We've all been burned by so many godawful fusion dishes over the years that the very word "fusion" has been all but banned from the culinary lexicon. But there's a beautiful, if loud, harmony to Fukuda's dishes, and not only do I appreciate that he's unafraid to go there, but I love that he manages to get results where so many fail. The new place isn't yet offering his omakase, but I'm told it's right around the corner, I expect to be there shortly after it launches, and though it's probably only a month away I'll write about that too. I'm jazzed. Because every time I step into Fukuda's restaurant, something surprises and delights me. Usually a few things. And this visit was no exception. Welcome back, chef.

Nobuo at Teeter House
622 E. Adams Street
Phoenix, AZ 85004
Tue - Sun11:00 AM - 4:00 PM5:30 PM - 10:00 PM

September 22, 2010

Menu Planning - Part I - The Concept


Notes Dominic Armato

As mentioned last week, I'm now officially in the throes of menu planning for my Chef For A Day date with Posh Restaurant, and I figured it'd be fun to keep a running journal of the process of bringing this thing to fruition. It all starts, of course, with the idea. These things rarely end up the way they start (for me, at least), but half the fun, and half the effort, is in deciding what to serve.

So what to serve when you have a crack at a full-fledged restaurant kitchen? Play it safe with things I've known and done forever? Treat the access to the equipment as an opportunity to try out things that are difficult to do at home? What's appropriate for a restaurant like Posh? My first thought was that I really, really don't want to screw this up. Maybe I should do what I know best. But then I thought that it'd be a shame to do simple pasta and such for an evening at one of the more creative restaurants in town. Which is about the time it hit me.

On more than a few occasions, I've hammered people for making a mess of contemporary Italian. But I'm also of the belief that it can be done. So why not do it myself? I can put myself out there by making the cuisine that's always felt like home to me, while at the same time doing something that feels appropriate to a place that stresses creativity with a healthy dose of MG techniques. So after kicking around a bunch of ideas, here's the plan for a three course prix fixe with amuse, very, very subject to change:

Carbonara Egg
It’s kind of ripping off Passard and Vongerichten – in terms of presentation, at least -- but what the hell. Why should the French have all the fun when it comes to elegant egg amuses? The Carbonara Egg is Spaghetti Carbonara without the spaghetti. We'll top the eggs, drain the guts, separate whites from yolks and clean the shells for presentation. We'll then render finely chopped pancetta or guanciale with a touch of garlic to release the fat and crisp the little bits. We'll drain and reserve the bits, then cool and mix the rendered fat with the egg whites and a bit of grated pecorino and parmesan. A yolk goes in the bottom of each eggshell along with as much white mixture as will fit. To fire it, we set the filled eggshell in a water bath controlled with an immersion circulator to get that perfect just barely cooked but still nice and soft texture. Once done, the egg is topped with the crispy bits and a little more cheese and served in an egg cup or something along those lines with a demitasse spoon.

Sausage Tortelli in Squash Brodo
It’s going to be fall. Squash time! Even in the desert (I hope). Everybody everywhere fills tortelli with squash and dresses it with butter and sage. So why not refine it by turning it inside out? We'll fill the tortelli with finely ground sausage, pecorino, just barely enough ricotta to keep it light and together, and maybe a touch of cinnamon if I don’t think it’ll get too busy. We'll place the tortelli in a shallow bowl filled with a very intense, clear squash broth – maybe cut with some chicken stock to give it a slightly meatier body – top it with fried sage and float a little bit of melted, very salty butter on top of the broth.

Crispy Chicken and Apple Napoleon with Fennel
This is the one that still needs the most conceptual work of the four, but it’s close enough that I ought to be able to hammer it out over the next few weeks. I want to do a very Italian chicken dish, but I want to amp up the textural contrast. So we do it with thighs and separate the meat from the skin. The thighs get simmered or braised in stock with a lot of herbs and a little wine, such that they're considerably more tender than something pan-seared. We also braise some apples – probably separately to keep them from going mushy – with a similar flavor profile, maybe a touch (I stress a touch) of sweetness. Maybe the apples get a touch of juniper. Then the skin is seasoned and crisped on its own on the flattop under a weight to keep it flat. We layer the braised chicken, apples and crispy planks of chicken skin to build a savory Napoleon, and serve it on a rectangular plate alongside some simple grilled or roasted fennel.

Fall Spice Gelato with Caffe Corretto
We start with a spiced gelato done with cinnamon, clove and star anise. Then we mix in bits of candied orange peel and freeze it a little colder than you'd typically serve gelato. We then serve it alongside a shot of espresso spiked with a premium orange liqueur, and encourage diners to pour a bit of the coffee over their gelato.

So there it is! It remains to be seen whether what we serve in four weeks will in any way resemble this, but that's the plan at least. And as these dishes are honed and revised (hopefully not scrapped and replaced, though you never know), I'll continue writing about them right up until we serve the final menu on October 18th. It's Italian, contemporized not by throwing in fifty different flavors and making everything a mess, but rather by using some modern techniques and presentations to draw attention to the pure, simple flavors that typify Italian food. It's a good theme, it's a good progression, and I like the idea of taking something that's so often butchered and doing it my damn self. If it works in reality the way it works in my head, I think it has the potential to be a great dinner.

Now I just have to figure out how to make it.

September 21, 2010

Regional Hazards

Chocolates. Sort of. Dominic Armato

"Is that the raspberry?"
"No, I think-- oh, you might be right."
"Well this one's the caramel."
"No, that caramel's from this one."

September 19, 2010


Battuto Dominic Armato

I don't really have any evidence that a perfectly uniform fine dice on the battuto makes for a better Bolognese. I just believe it as a matter of faith.

September 17, 2010

Turnabout Is Fair Play

The Kitchen at Posh Dominic Armato

Some exciting goings-on here at Skillet Doux.

See this kitchen? It's going to be mine for a day. Well, not really mine. But we're going to kind of pretend it is. Call it fantasy camp for food nerds, call it chef for a day, call it what you will, but on October 18th, the sixteen-year-old with the learner's permit is getting the keys to the Ferrari.

Posh has become a regular stop for me since landing here in Phoenix. On Thursdays, it's a great place to come hang out after ten, have whatever the chef, Josh Hebert, feels like throwing at you, and hang out with restaurant folks who are knocking off of work at their own places. When you're somebody who's thrilled by the restaurant industry but never actually got involved, it's a fun place to be. And I've spent a good deal of time hanging out and screwing around with Josh, so when he decided to launch a new event for every other Monday night, starting this Monday, I was one of the lucky folks he asked to participate.

Though it still lacks an official title, we'll call it Chef For A Day for now. Josh is asking folks who are food-obsessed but who aren't directly involved in the restaurant industry to design a three course menu, subject to his approval, which will then be put on for one night. Cooks, servers, reservations... the whole deal. The only thing disengaged will be the part of Josh's brain that normally designs the menu.

It sounds like a ton of fun, and to say I was an easy sell would be grossly understating my reaction. So on October 18th, myself and the folks at Posh will be serving up the prix fixe menu that I'm currently working up. I'll post the full details as we hammer them out, but during the next three weeks while I work out the recipes (setting aside the final week for sourcing and tweaking), I thought it would be fun to keep kind of a running journal of the process of getting this thing ready for primetime. And around this time next month, if anybody who's been reading and lives in the Phoenix area thinks the menu looks good, I hope you'll come over to have some dinner and hang out. It should be a ton of fun, and I really couldn't be more jazzed. Plus, you never know. If anybody feels compelled to critique the dinner online, it could end up being an educational experience on a couple of levels, which would be awesome. I figure I ought to be able to take it, no matter which side of the counter I'm dishing it from.

Menu journaling starts next week!

September 15, 2010

Foodie Fight!

The Field of Battle Dominic Armato

It should be fairly well-established at this point that I loves me a good food battle. So when two food-obsessed friends throw down the gauntlet and challenge each other to a no-holds-barred cookoff to the death, not only am I obligated to attend, I'm obligated to do everything in my power to ensure their fate is in my hands.

But let's back up a bit. After a little bit of internet mudslinging, Joel LaTondress of One For Dinner and Ty Largo of UP Agency, both folks I'm pleased to call pals, made it official. They'd be facing off, each wielding three courses and a more than capable sous, at an event sponsored by Foodies Like Us. And lest you think this was some casual get-together, oh no... this was a culinary battle ready for primetime, hosted at the Wolf and Sub Zero showroom, emceed by Robin Miller of FoodTV, and catered by The Mission and others. Oh, and those sous chefs? Eugenia Theodosopolous of Essence Bakery and Matt Carter of Zinc Bistro. All of which made for a truly high-stakes experience, because really, the only thing more painful than losing a cooking competition is losing a cooking competition with production value.

Winning the raffle is easy!Sherilyn McLain

The fates of these valiant competitors would be entrusted to three individuals. Andi Barness, of Sonoran Living Live. Joe Johnston, who I understand is on the verge of conquering Gilbert en route to complete domination of the valley's restaurant scene. And a third judge, determined by charity raffle, representing Foodnerdia, your humble servant, myself. ... Okay, the truth is that I wanted to wield absolute power over Joel and Ty, if only for an hour, and it seemed like a brilliant idea right up until I realized that no matter what happened, one of them would soon be seeking revenge. And you'll have your chance, sir. Soon, in fact. But that's another post for later this week, perhaps. In any case, let's just say I bought some raffle tickets. And then I bought a few more. And by the time the drawing took place, I had secured roughly a 40% chance of landing the third seat. Hey, it's for charity, right? So I took my place front and center at Judges' Table, shook hands with Andi and Joe, and once the theme ingredient -- avocado -- was unveiled, the competition was underway. I confess to watching very little of the actual cooking. I mostly spent that time chatting with Andi and Joe (exceptionally swell folks, both), but it was immediately evident that this would be a battle of contrasting styles. On Team UpAgency's (Largo/Theodosopolous) end of the kitchen, a bounty of farm-fresh product. On Team Hotdish's (LaTondress/Carter) end of the kitchen, soy lecithin and alginate (and plenty of farm-fresh product... let's kill this notion that MG chefs don't also respect their ingredients).

Red Snapper CevicheDominic Armato

About midway through the hour, food started arriving. The first dish from Team Hotdish was visually striking, a red snapper ceviche wrapped in paper-thin strips of avocado and dressed with lime foam, microgreens, and a little bit of spherified heat -- tomato and Tabasco served in "caviar" form. So the dish was essentially an MG repackaging of a very classic flavor profile, which could work except that Team Hotdish encountered two problems. The first, completely out of their control, was that I'd just recently sampled spherified Tabasco at Alinea, and while Joel's version was quite good, I trust he won't be insulted to discover that I preferred Achatz'. So not only was the wow factor lost on me (though my judging compatriots seemed quite tickled by that element), I'd also just tried a version that popped in your mouth, gushing tiny amounts of Tabasco sauce. These were solidly gelatinous all the way through, and while delicious, didn't have that surprise punch and textural delight. The larger issue, however, was that the balance of flavors was off. The lime was too aggressive and the avocado was wanting somewhat for salt, and as a result the ceviche didn't work. There's a great dish in there, I'm sure, it just didn't quite come together on that day.

Goat Cheese TartDominic Armato

And that was the last time I tasted an unsuccessful dish that day. Team UpAgency's first followed shortly behind, and the promise of contrasting styles was realized. Here, a very simple and elegant puff pastry tart, layered with goat cheese, zucchini blossoms, slices of avocado and tomato, seated alongside a pile of greens tossed with a simple vinaigrette. I thought the blossoms, while lovely, were lost among the other flavors, but that's the extent of my complaints. The pastry was beautifully light and crisp, and while the side of my tart with thinner slices of avocado had me questioning what the theme ingredient was adding to the dish, the side of the tart where the avocado was cut thicker made it clear. It was a gentle, creamy counterpoint to the pungent cheese -- an understated but delicious and unconventional use of the fruit. And lest all of this cheese, avocado and buttery pastry get too rich, a bite of bracingly acidic greens refreshed in between (or atop) bites of the tart. A strong and confident start from Team UpAgency.

Turkey Meatballs with Avocado FriesDominic Armato

Though I wondered if Team Hotdish's early stumble would make it impossible for them to come back, this question was quickly answered by their second dish, which was flat-out awesome. Pan-seared meatballs -- a blend of ground turkey, avocado and assorted seasonings -- was served with a grape gastrique and set next to tempura-fried slices of fresh avocado. Though turkey can be wonderful, it's one of those proteins I always regard with suspicion. When its most common selling point is that it's lean, I don't see that as a positive. But what Joel did here was actually quite brilliant. To keep such a lean meat from drying out, he blended in avocado, adding both fat and a creamy element that was also a great flavor complement. I can't say enough about these meatballs. They were outstanding. With an intense sweet-tart gastrique and perfectly executed crisp on the outside, creamy on the inside avocado fries, it was a perfect dish. Maybe bring the sweetness on the gastrique down a touch, cut the fries a little thicker to better highlight the crispy/creamy contrast, but these are thoughts so minor that I feel dirty even bringing them up. Killer dish, great use of the theme, and on my scorecard at least, the afternoon's winner.

Bacon-Wrapped Shrimp with Fruit SalsaDominic Armato

Team UpAgency came back with another strong dish, however, grilling bacon-wrapped shrimp and plating them with whole roasted fingerling potatoes, a fresh fruit salsa and huge slabs of avocado. The potatoes were beautifully salty, the shrimp perfectly cooked, the salsa a fun blend in which I got peach and strawberry (though I suspect others as well), and all of the elements worked great as a whole. On its own, I really don't know that I can find fault with it. The only downside was that in the context of the competition, the flavors -- particularly the use of avocado against a fruit salsa -- struck me as somewhat conventional. So while I thoroughly enjoyed the dish for what it was (though it didn't have the knee-buckling quality of Joel's meatballs), I thought the previous dish was a more creative and delicious use of the theme. Score round two to Team Hotdish.

Avocado Ice Cream & CannoloDominic Armato

As time expired, desserts made their way to our table. Avocado crosses over into a sweet context quite well, but it requires a little care owing to the fruit's green, vegetal quality. Team Hotdish chose to put the avocado front and center, plating a pair of desserts -- a bacon avocado ice cream and an avocado cannolo. To ensure I got it at its peak, I started with the ice cream, and the avocado wasn't just for color. It took to the sweet beautifully, crispy bits of bacon making for a nice textural contrast and salty counterpoint (sweet and creamy always does well with salt). The cannolo, meanwhile, took a surprising and appreciated tack. Once you got past the chocolate on top and the shell itself, the filling was barely sweet at all, or at least it didn't come across as such in comparison. So the dish ended up being a nice contrast of creamy avocado, sweet and not-so-sweet, and both halves of the plate were quite tasty.

Crepes with Blood Orange SabayonDominic Armato

Largo's dessert, meanwhile, tucked the avocado away, at least in terms of presentation. Technically, this was really a beautiful dish. Crepes were filled with avocado, fruit and mascarpone and tied into beggar's purses, which were then floated in a foamy blood orange sabayon. Though hidden, the dish certainly wasn't lacking for avocado, large chunks of which were present inside the purse. Citrus and avocado is a natural combination, but unlike their previous dish was done here in a less conventional manner. The textural range on the crepes was particularly nice, warm, soft and pliable below the purse's string, lightly crisped edges above, and saturated with the sabayon beneath the waterline, so to speak. And the flavors worked, even if I wished the focus was a little more squarely on the avocado. Another very successful dish.

When it came time to judge, each dish received scores of 1-5 for flavor, presentation and use of the avocado. And for those unaware of the result, when everything was totaled up, Team Hotdish prevailed by a single point... a result that I think accurately captures the relative strength of these two menus. At the risk of needlessly putting myself on the firing line (the judges' individual scoring was not announced), I scored it narrowly for Team Hotdish (though I don't recall the precise numbers). Their starter may have been the day's lone failure, but they came roaring back. While Team UpAgency's menu was a more evenly strong experience from start to finish, what allowed Team Hotdish to come back on my ballot was what struck me as a more creative and effective use of the theme, and the fact that those meatballs were made of turkey, avocado and pure awesome. But it was close enough that not only could the result have swung if they re-fired everything and let us judge a second time, but also I couldn't argue for a moment with a judge who scored the other way. I really was impressed by the dishes these folks put out, and I consider it an honor to have held their fates in my hands.

And now I'm in *so* much trouble when it's my turn.

September 14, 2010

Birrieria Zaragoza

Tortillas Dominic Armato

The first time I heard about Birrieria Zaragoza was December of 2008. Visiting home for the holidays, I grabbed lunch with a couple of fellow food nerds who told me that whatever I did, I had to get down to Archer Heights to check out this birria place. "The real deal," I was told. "Absolutely perfect," they assured me. I'm pretty sure "One of the best restaurants in the city" was thrown in for good measure. Of course, it didn't happen. It never does. But it went on the short, short, short list for future visits.

Fast forward to this past July. Back in Chicago for two weeks, I'm looking for an excuse to truck down to the south side from Park Ridge, where my family lives. When it's decided that we'll be heading down to Hyde Park to visit some dear friends, I figure that's close enough and start angling for a goaty lunch stop. I'm distracted by old friends and little kids. We're running behind and in a hurry. The visit isn't nearly long enough and I don't get to sit and chat with the owners for details about their process -- details I'm told they're all too happy to share with anybody who expresses an interest. But the trip is nonetheless completely worthwhile, because there's this goat, you see, and it's everything it's been made out to be.

CondimentsDominic Armato

Birrieria Zaragoza is everything you could possibly ask for in a little family-run operation. They're passionate and obsessive devotees of birria who learned their technique back in the mother country -- Jalisco, to be more specific -- later perfecting it in a backyard cinder block pit before finally opening the tiny and incredibly welcoming storefront that now houses their operation. It's humble and spartan but meticulously maintained, brightly painted and staffed by some of the friendliest folks you'll meet. After a car trip that runs far longer than anticipated, we're just trying to settle the kids down, so I immediately order the only item on the menu other than the birria, a cheese quesadilla. It's up on the small whiteboard nailed to the wall, beneath birria by the pound, birria in a taco and birria on a platter. They're all about the birria, you see, and I can already smell it. Having just completed a little birria survey of my own, I can almost taste it. Or at least I think I can. Because I'm about to be shown that the dish can be better than I'd previously imagined.

My ladylove, who good-naturedly humors these Quixotic excursions from time to time, is done before our food hits the table. I don't think she's so much into the goat to begin with, but even if she were, it's hot, she's exhausted and both kids are cranky. Still, she puts the game face on and the fact that we're catching up with a dear old friend helps immensely. And then there's this goat, you see.

Birria TatemadaDominic Armato

The folks at Zaragoza take a bit of an unusual tack in preparing their birria, and it's what makes it so special. It's a multi-step process here, a far cry from the run-of-the-mill approach that ends up as spent stew meat in a greasy, acrid broth. Sometimes that spent stew meat in a greasy, acrid broth can hit the spot, but one wouldn't typically classify birria as a refined dish. At Zaragoza, however, they serve birria tatemada, which is first steamed and then roasted, taking on a light coat of a chile-based mole in between. The roasting adds texture and depth, creating caramelized char on the edges that contrasts with the more tender, succulent bits within. Rather than doctored drippings, the broth doesn't contain any goat at all. It's a light, spiced tomato affair designed to enhance the character of the meat without getting uppity, and indeed, it knows its place. The tortillas, freshly pressed, slightly puffed on the flat top and piping hot are a worthy accompaniment, as are the sliced limes, chopped onion and cilantro, whole dried chiles de arbol and a housemade hot sauce, not the least bit tangy or sweet but very, very minimal and expressive of the mix of dried chiles contained within. The whole package almost makes you forget that this is a dish so often horribly out of balance. Instead, Zaragoza's birria evokes a sense of refinement that transcends the humility of the dish's origins and the converted corner diner where it's being prepared for you.

Birria aficionados know all of the cuts, don't hesitate to request their favorites, and the Zaragozas are all too happy to indulge them. I'm not a birria aficionado, though this meal makes a strong case that I should become one. What cuts of meat did I receive? I have no idea. I'm trying to sink into my goat while ensuring that more of my kid's quesadilla ends up in his mouth than on the floor or, just as likely, his hair. That looks like a rib, there. But that aside, it looks like meat. Beautifully caramelized, tender, succulent meat. I should be on edge. The little ones are on the verge of a meltdown. My ladylove looks ready to attempt an escape by throwing herself through the plate glass window. But I'm sucking down chivo and a little lost in my own world, because there's this goat, you see, and it's something very special.

Birrieria Zaragoza
4852 S. Pulaski Rd.
Chicago, IL 60632
Mon10:00 AM - 7:00 PM
Wed - Fri10:00 AM - 7:00 PM
Sat - Sun8:00 AM - 4:00 PM

September 11, 2010

Moral Imperative

Tagliatelle Fiori di Zucca Dominic Armato

Here's the thing about zucchini blossoms:

Sometimes you find a pile of them that's completely irresistible. And sometimes you build your dinner plans around them. And sometimes your dinner plans fall apart. And sometimes you come across them in the fridge at 10:30 at night. And sometimes you know they just won't be quite the same tomorrow. And sometimes you just have to make some fresh pasta for them on the spot.

This happens, right?