April 5, 2015

Happy Ritual Spring Holiday!

I'm a sucker for spring flowers and holiday decor, as some of you may have gathered. Since spring break often means travel, I've collected spring photos from a number of different cities.

This year it was Amsterdam and London. In Amsterdam, we came across an alluring sign that read Urban Cacao, and found colorful chocolate eggs (above) that look like they've been spun by an ecstatic cult of yarn artists. Actually they are the playful work of Dutch chocolatier Hans Mekking.

Here's another one of his avant garde Easter egg works:

In London, it was all bunnies, chocolates and pastel treats at Fortnum and Mason, though since my family is partial to hot cross buns, we were all eyes for these specimens:

Back in New York,  the great Upper East Side bakery William Greenberg Desserts is Passover Central for those in search of unleavened kosher desserts. Greenberg carries an array of sponge cakes, special Passover lemon tarts and many varieties of macaroons. The demand for these items is so pressing they're placed under wraps in big metal carts that block the bakery's storefront windows, and pre-boxed to keep up with demand.

I did, however get this shot of freshly baked and bagged macaroons.

In true New York fashion, you can get both Passover and Easter desserts at Greenberg, and many tips on how to serve sponge cake, as I did. 

After such a long, bitter winter, I long to see more spring crocuses, daffodils and tulips. This London flower display was an early harbinger of spring in March:

Whatever spring ritual you are celebrating this month with family and friends, I hope it's festive, delicious and fun. 

March 19, 2015

One Soup Three Dishes: The Foundation of Japanese Cuisine

Five of the six courses that made up lunch at Fujita Japanese Cooking Studio
For all the incredible variety to be found kaiseki, the traditional multi-course Japanese meal that evolved from the tea ceremony, when you break it down to its  fundamentals, you'll arrive at ichiju san-sai, or "one soup, three dishes." Mentions of this meal-making concept can be traced back in literature over 1,000 years, and many attribute the healthiness and nutritional soundness of Japanese cuisine back to this ancient concept. The packed Japanese breakfast tray is an early morning riff on the concept, as is many a dinner on Japan Airlines, where the miso soup is poured from a plastic pitcher into paper cups.

An example of the packed Japanese breakfast tray,
this one at Tokaitei in the Dai-Ichi Hotel, Tokyo.

Learning about these basic building blocks of Japanese eating were part of a crash course in Japanese foodways that I participated in as a member of an eight-day food fellowship trip sponsored by the Foreign Press Center/Japan.

Fujita-sensei working on fresh sea bream.
We spent one morning in the small kitchen of Takako Fujita, a cooking instructor whose school, Fujita Japanese Cooking Studio is tucked away in the unlikely Tokyo business district of Toranomon. We watched, agog, as Fujita-sensei and her assistant Naoko Sugiyama, both dressed in traditional kimono, conjured up an excellent six-course lunch with a minimum of movement and no fuss. It was a technically understated yet flawless performance that evoked the tea ceremony, only with more utensils and a foundation of kelp and bonito instead of matcha tea powder.

Fujita-sensei salting pork back rib slices for her rice dish. 
Fujita-sensei, now in her twenty-first year of teaching, says she knew nothing about cooking when she was in her 20s. It wasn't until she married that she took up the study of cooking as part of her "bride's training," she adds. For our lunch, she started by working on a dish of rice cooked in stock. It was a traditional takikomi-gohan, or seasoned rice cooked with mixed vegetables, but with a twist--the addition of thin slices of pork back rib meat. It's a dish Fujita-sensei created recently for for a Japanese cooking magazine. Rice, like pickles, is a standard accompaniment to the soup and three dishes of  ichiju san-sai  and so much a given that it goes without mention.

The "soup" in this iteration was an unusual one, centered on hanpen, a cloud-like version of fish cake that has  been pounded and spongified with grated mountain yam and beaten egg whites. The hanpen slices floated in a clear dashi made with konbu (kelp) and katsuobushi (grated dried bonito) and garnished with mitsuba (a parsley-like green). As if it weren't light enough, Fujita-sensei added beaten egg whites at the end to up the lightness ante.

Simmered yellowtail with ginger and pickled plums.
The san-sai, part of the meal, or "three dishes," usually consists of a main dish and two side dishes. The main more often than not involves fish. In our lunch, it was a beautiful dish of yellowtail simmered with ginger and umeboshi (pickled plums) with just a little added mirin, sugar and salt. The secrets here were to employ the traditional Japanese method of sprinkling a little salt on the fish to draw out impurities, and to add ginger skins to the broth. In addition to adding flavor, the ginger skins balance the broth and take away any overly strong fish flavors, Fujita-sensei told us. As in this dish, she often uses milder, Kyoto-style seasoning in her class, she says, "because lighter seasoning is more popular" among her students.

The two secondary dishes of ichiju san-sai usually include a vegetable dish and a legume or soybean-based dish, rounding out a balanced meal with plenty of fermented foods. Long before the start of the fermented food craze that is sweeping certain artisanal corners of America--touted for its probiotic-promoting goodness--the Japanese had build a nation on miso, soy sauce, sake, mirin and pickled and preserved products.

Fujita-sensei and her assistant Sugiyama san bidding us farewell.
For a savory dish of stewed taro dressed in a mix of sesame paste, white miso, sugar and mirin, the tips Fujita-sensei gave us were to boil the taro very quickly in water used to wash rice and a splash of mirin. This keeps its color light and also hastens cooking. The dish was called "Rikyu-style," after the famed sixteenth-century tea master Sen no Rikyu, who apparently loved sesame seeds.

Fujita-sensei says that as in other developed countries, fewer and fewer young Japanese are learning to cook from their mothers or grandmothers, adding that not many young people are interested in cooking traditional dishes. After Japanese-style washoku cooking was named a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, however, interest in their native cuisine has revived somewhat among young people, she says.

For more on washoku, and how the Japanese government is working to spread its techniques, flavors and spirit around the world, check out my Discover Nikkei article on the Washoku World Challenge 2015.

March 13, 2015

When Cheese Met Sake: The New Franco-Japanese Alliance

Hakkaisan Sparkling Nigori sake with (clockwise from
top left, Bleu d'Auvergne, Brillat Savarin,
 and 18-month old Mimolette cheeses.

The Japanese brewed beverage sake seems to be everywhere now...or is it just me?

Probably a little bit of both. Ever since I started writing about sake I seem to have entered a parallel sake-loving universe. Last night was a good example. The French Cheese Board hosted a sake and fromage pairing at its storefront on West 39th Street near Bryant Park.

For all of you cheese lovers, the space includes a small cheese store with a well-curated selection of French cheeses that rotate on a monthly basis as well as French butter. There's also a handsome kitchen and a gallery. Charles Duque, managing director of the FCB, and Akiko Katayama, a Japanese food writer and culinary diplomat, were our hosts.

In Japan, sake has been steadily declining in popularity since the mid-1970s, and so venturing into foreign markets (the U.S. and France are two top targets) is paramount for the industry. What I didn't know is that the same is true of artisanal cheese in France. The encroachment of cheaper mass-produced and foreign products has put small cheese-makers on a similar quest to open or expand foreign markets.

The cheese store at The Cheese Board.

Necessity may have driven French cheese and sake together, but as sommelier Keita Akaboshi first showed me, sake and cheese can make a beautiful combination. Katayama, our teacher for the night, explained that one reason is that the high umami content of sake matches well with the umami in cultured cheeses. Japanese researchers have discovered 700 to 1,200 different flavor compounds in sake, compared to approximately 600 in wine, and around 400 in whiskey and other spirits.

She also taught us how to read a sake label. Most premium sakes will include what's known as Nihonshu-do, or a sake meter value, which tells you the sweetness or dryness level; the higher the number the dryer the sake. The first of three Hakkaisan Brewery sakes we tried was a sparkling nigori (unfiltered) sake, with a sake meter reading of -25, which is quite sweet. Acidity levels are also given, in this case a 1.7, higher than average to mask or balance its sweetness. Amino acid levels are also noted, with higher number indicating a richer-tasting sake and a lower number a lighter sake.

The sparkling sake was paired with a triple creme brie Brillat Savarin, the idea being that its high acidity would cut through the fat.

Next, a tokubetsu junmai, a smooth, much less sweet bottle, was paired with an 18-month-old Mimolette, the hard, nutty, orange cheese that gets its color from annatto seeds. Our favorite pairing, though, involved a Bleu d'Auvergne and an ashed chevre from P. Jacquin and Son, both of which were paired with a very sweet kijoshu sake. The blue is classified as a PDO, or Protected Designation of Origin, meaning it can only be produced in the region of the Auvergne by specially designated cows who've been raised on equally specific grass.

The high acidity of the kijoshu (made by adding more sake instead of water to the mix to give it a more viscous quality) balanced its extreme sweetness (sake meter value of -30). On the cheeses, it had the effect of taking the edge off their pungency while pulling out their umami. As Celia, my companion in tasting said, "It was our 'aha moment.'"

To learn more about what I've learned about sake, take a look at this article, on the rise of sake's popularity in New York City, and my most recent story, on a Japanese sake yeast expert who is pinning his hopes for the industry on the discovery of new yeasts taken from native flowers.

The French Cheese Board
26 West 39th Street
New York, NY 10018
(212) 302-3390
Web site: http://frenchcheeseboard.com/

February 6, 2015

Notes on Sake: New York, Tokyo, Hiroshima

The bar at Saikai.
Photo: Paul Wagtouicz

An article I wrote on the growing sake scene in New York City appeared this week in the drinks issue of Edible Manhattan, which, confusingly enough, contains stuff about Brooklyn, too.  In it, I describe how the rice beverage from Japan is enjoying an unprecedented surge in quality, refinement and experimentation.

I happen to be in Japan now, on a sake brewery tour of the Fukuoka region of Kyushu island, and will tell you more about that. Firtst, though, I'll  mention a few sake-serving establishments in Manhattan that didn't make it into my last article. All of them are on the Lower East Side, which must mean I need to get down there more often. There's Sakamai, on Ludlow Street, though the sake there is not the only star on the drinks menu; it's got serious competition from the dazzling cocktails of bartender Shingo Gokan. A few other places come via one of my sake brewery tourmates, Vancouver sake educator Elise Gee. She loves Azasu and its sister restaurant Yopparai (which means "drunk" or "drunkard" in Japanese), so I'll be checking those out soon.

Saikai chefs Xiao Lin, left, and Wing Chen, right.
Photo: Paul Wagtouicz
In the West Village, at Saikai Dining Bar, Masa alumni Wing Cheng and Xiao Lin offer their elevated version of pub or izakaya-style cuisine. Saikai's beverage list, the work of general manager Paul Lee (also formerly of Masa), is similarly impressive. Since chefs Cheng and Lin change up their menu often, Lee ends up rotating his beverage selection frequently.

This means that the sakes on offer at Saikai exceed the 25-label published list. You might want to inquire about several premium junmai daiginjos: the aged sake Yume wa Masayume, the gently fruity Miyosakae Tenmi, and the elegant Niigata Prefecture sakes Kubota Senshin and Kikusui Kuramitsu. Come spring, says Lee,  Dashichi brewery's Houreki, a limited production kimoto style junmai from Fukushima that's richer and earthier than daiginjo sakes, will return to the list. For those who look for bottles bestowed with awards, this is the only kimoto-style junmai to have won gold in the Japanese Brewing Society's national competition.

For Valentine's Day, Sakai will be offering a special six-course, $80 menu, $120 with sake pairings. While the menu may change slightly since the chefs never stop tweaking it, they are sure that the theme of the dinner will be the ocean's bounty. You can expect Kumamoto oysters (which, I was told as we drove through Kumamoto Prefecture today, came from there ages ago but now has no connection to the region), a seafood sashimi selection, a seasonal, truffle-enhanced Japanese grilled fish, live king crab legs with yuzu whipped cream, and a lobster pasta with saffron sauce.

The charming and adorable Marie Chiba
at Nihonshu Moto, Tokyo

At Koishi Sake Bar in Hiroshima,
 Imada Shuzo's Fukucho junmai ginjo.

I have to mention two great sake bars I've visited on this trip, Nihonshu Stand Moto in Tokyo, which was recommended to me by Rick Smith of the East Village sake shop Sakaya, and Koishi (Pebble) Sake Bar in Hiroshima, the sake maker Miho Imada of local brewery Imada Shuzo likes. The first is a tiny yet polished bar that is standing room only, and the second a larger two-story establishment with a cozy bar on the lower level. Both are real and pressing reasons to want to return to Japan.

December 29, 2014

Yana Gilbuena's SALO Series: Bringing Pinoy Cuisine to all 50 States

Yana setting the table for her Minneapolis pop-up.
Among Asian cuisines, Filipinos think of their food as the overlooked stepchild of the family, getting no respect and looking in from the outside as the popular siblings hog the limelight and field prom invites. Given its underdog status, the act of taking a moveable Filipino feast on the road to all 50 United States--the mission of Pinay pioneer Yana Gilbuena--is an act of patriotism, daring and possibly craziness.

As a people, Filipinos are passionate about and justly proud of the foods of their homeland: every one I've met has regaled me with stories of grandmas, aunties, mothers and fathers who live to cook and eat, preferably surrounded by hordes of relatives and often packed into small spaces. 

"Oh man, food culture in my family," says Gilbuena, a Brooklyn-based chef who grew up in Iloilo Province and arrived in America in 2004 at age 20.  "Every day, every hour revolved around food. We'd have breakfast at six, merienda (the light repast that fills the yawning gap between regular meals) at nine, lunch at noon, then siesta from one to three, wake up just in time for merienda, and then dinner at six, no excuses." Dinner came after angelus, the devotions and Hail Marys that, for Yana, meant it was almost time to eat again.

Des Moines, Iowa, meet real Filipino cuisine.
With such an upbringing, it's not surprising that Yana eventually found her way back to food and cooking, though only after working as a behavioral therapist, antique hardware specialist, and furniture maker and marketer. 

In 2011, she quit her job, loaded all her belongings in a van and drove across country to New York. Landing in Greenpoint, she found a day job, and on her off hours pursued her hobby of cooking tapas for friends. The Pinoy restaurant Maharlika had just opened, showing Filipinos that their beloved food could hold its own in the East Village; Brooklyn's ground-breaking Purple Yam was another beacon of Filipino food. Yet despite these options, Yana realized that if she had a late-night hankering for Filipino in her neighborhood there was nowhere to turn.  She wanted to see even more of it available. 

Living in a borough crawling with food artisans and entrepreneurs, a pop-up seemed like the natural next step.  Yana wanted to incorporate the emerging farm-to-table movement into her pop-up while injecting her own culture into the mix. She did extensive research on the varied regional cuisines of her homeland: Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao,  and began throwing  parties and pop-ups. Through the bartering site Our Goods, she found a guy with a loft space seeking someone to design a table for it. She contacted him, offering her furniture design expertise in exchange for his loft for her first pop-up. Both had been members of the now-defunct 3rd Ward art collective in East Williamsburg. "We ended up making the table together," Yana says, then used it for a pop-up dinner for 45. 

In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan hit the region of the Philippines where she had grown up. In response Yana hatched a plan for a Greenpoint fundraising dinner, raising $1,200 for typhoon victim relief funds. To keep the momentum going, she conceived of doing pop-ups in all fifty states. She had met Ayesha Vera-Yu, the founder of the relief organization ARK (Advancing Rural Kids) and bonded with her over the fact that Vera-Yu's home province, Capiz, and Iloilo were both hit hard by Haiyan.

The two formed a partnership, and the SALO 50-states series of pop-ups was born. A portion of the proceeds of each dinner will to go ARK to help build a school in the Visayas devastated by Haiyan. So far Yana has held 41 dinners, including a spread for 80 at Christ Church on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., a whole pig feast in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and enthusiastic support from local farmers and producers in Des Moines, Iowa and Omaha, Nebraska. During
Christmas week, Yana could be found cooking at a private residence in Atlanta and a hunting resort in Alabama.

She plans to wrap up the series in Hawaii in April, though she's not sure exactly where on the islands her grand finale will take place. After it's all over, she says she'll return to the Philippines to see the school she's helped build, tour islands she's never visited before, and do more culinary research. Next up: SALO Europe, an ambitious 50 countries in 50 weeks. 

Oh, and if you happen to be in New Orleans this New Year's week, Yana welcomes you to local Philippine cuisine hotspot Milkfish, where her next pop-up is slated to be held on January 4. Good luck, Yana!

November 15, 2014

Juri Dreams of Bringing Japanese Deliciousness to America

When you travel in Japan, one of the things you notice is how much extraordinary food there is, and how so much of it never makes it across the Pacific to our market shelves.

I realized this anew while researching this article about the wonderful products of Saga City, Japan. Yuzu kosho, a beautifully aromatic form of preserved citron chili pepper, is one of Japan's most distinctive condiments, and I tasted the best I'd ever sampled in Saga. There were fantastic sesame seeds, oils and biscuits, delicious green tea, nori, and kasuzuke: clams, squid and udo (a root cousin of ginseng) that had been marinated and pickled in a sweet, pungent and addictive paste made of sake lees.

Although the makers of these products have traveled to New York several times to showcase their goods at food shows, none have yet to appear in stores here, or are even available online to international customers. The versions of them that do exist tend to be wan substitutes made by large food corporations.

This is where an intrepid young woman named Juri Kumagai comes in. She's working toward her masters in the NYU Food Studies Program, and one of her goals is to promote Japanese foods in America through market research and branding expertise.

One of the barriers to the import of Japanese artisanal foods, says Juri, is that often Japanese producers don't understand food trends in the U.S. and so are unable to adapt their products sufficiently. For example, the demand for gluten-free products in America has reached the point where, according to one survey, as many as a third of Americans are trying to avoid gluten. Juri points out that there are many Japanese products, such seaweed (nori, hijiki, wakame and kombu) or rice crackers, whose makers could brand them as gluten free to attract some of that large market.

Another example of the potential benefits of branding expertise for artisanal Japanese food producers came up recently when I spoke to sake sommelier Chris Johnson. He pointed out that sake is free of gluten, sulfites, histamines and congeners (byproducts of fermentation that can cause hangovers). For certain customers, many who might otherwise have no interest in sake, knowing this is what will make them try sake.

Juri's interest in promoting Japanese foods began when she became aware of the power of Japanese food to serve as a cultural bridge. As exchange student at the University of British Columbia she discovered that all her friends loved Japanese food. She became the go-to person for supplying sushi rolls for parties. Back at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, she wrote her graduate thesis on cultural interactivity and the sushi boom. She returned to the States and took a job at the Japanese consulate handling scheduling for visiting ministers and Diet members. Here, she saw Americans' interest in the foods of Japan expand to include expensive ramen (an oxymoron in Japan) soba and even vegetarian kaiseki cuisine.

As an aside, while she loves that ramen has become another cultural bridge between the two countries, Juri shares her compatriots' surprise that Americans will happily fork over $15 plus tax and tip for a bowl of would typically cost 700 to 800 yen ($6-7) in Japan.

For an NYU course on food and culture, Juri wrote a paper on the Japanese school lunch program, and how it is an important tool in teaching young children Japanese values and social skills, from group harmony and loyalty to how to serve food to others. Kids learn about table manners and expressions of gratitude, and traditional seasonal foods are incorporated both into school lunch menus and class lessons.

Today, fewer and fewer Japanese school children are learning about such traditions at home, Juri says, and in fact "school may be the only place they learn about it." Parents are busy working, and perhaps not interested in the ways of older generations. The tradition of multigenerational extended families is also breaking down, so there are fewer families in which grandparents might pass cultural traditions down to the children of the family.

This is true of other traditional skills, too, such as brewing green tea or washing and cooking rice. Many young Japanese children have never even seen a teapot in the home, since canned and bottled teas are sold everywhere, and so much more convenient.

When I asked Juri if she was worried that, in order to cater to perceived American tastes, Japanese artisanal producers might end up turning their products from superior to average or mediocre goods,  she responded, "I think Japanese producers need to make their products somewhat palatable for the U.S. market if they want to make a profit. But I do not think they have to make their products fully 'Americanized'" in order to be successful here.

This reminded me of a conversation I had with chef Yuhi Fujinaga about his former restaurant on Sixth Avenue, Bar Basque. When he made his plancha-grilled Chatham cod with pil pil the way he loved having it in Spain, his Spanish customer were thrilled, but his American guests less so. You can guess which version won out.

Though I hate the idea of any great dish having to be watered down to suit the masses, if much wiser and more practical marketing minds than mine (that's you Juri!) can help small Japanese producers find a market here, I'm all for it. Many of them see expansion overseas as a dire imperative, and we need to do what we can to help.

I hope that Juri is successful in her endeavors and that one day we will see more of the thrilling variety of regional, artisanal and unusual food products of Japan in our favorite markets in New York and across America.

October 17, 2014

San Francisco Asian American Soul Food: Hog & Rocks, Kin Khao

Chef Robin Song's housemade Korean pickles
at Hog and Rocks

Living in New York City, we’re pretty spoiled when it comes to food. But after a long weekend in San Francisco, it’s clear the hilly city by the bay gives even Brooklyn a run for its money in any DIY/small batch/pop-up/locally-sourced throw down.  Add the unfair advantage of year-round great produce, and all of New York City (of the bleak mid-winter farmers market) is really on the ropes.

You can barely turn around in the Bay Area without bumping into something good to eat. You walk into a store to get change for San Francisco's annoying parking meters (only about a quarter of them accept credit cards) and it turns out it’s Gourmet and More, home to a pop –up fresh pasta shop spread out in the back patio room. Just the fact that there is a “back patio room” is enough to make me want to live in SF. 

A small portion of the cheese cave at Gourmet and More,
in the Hayes Valley neighborhood.

Mattarello's uova da raviolo: if only there had been
a pot of boiling water in the back patio!
Then the Mattarello pasta people, John Pauley and Anna Li, who learned how to make San Domenico-style uova da raviolo from a Bologna master, tell you you have to walk across the street to taste one of the best cakes in the city, 20th Century Cafe’s Russian honey cake. Hypnotized, we did just that. At that point we felt like we had to get off the street fast or the hand-crafted food would never stop flying at us.  

20th Century Cafe baker-chef-proprietor
Michelle Polzine's Russian honey cake.

So we had much stand-out food and drink of all varieties, but I’ll fill you I on just two more places, since they fall into that most beloved (by me) of categories, Asian American soul food. Since writing this story about that stinky, spicy and delicious category I’ve seen the trend get bigger and more ubiquitous. 

Technically, though, I don’t think that one of the two places, Pim Techamuanvivit’s Kin Khao, really qualifies, since the proprietress of this self-described “Thai eatery” was born and raised in Bangkok, and her food shows no signs of Americanization. But after tasting the restaurant’s burnt eggplant salad with soy lime dressing, toasted coconut, shallots, mint and cilantro; its elegant green curry with rabbit loin saddle and meatballs, and a gutsy pad kee mao with ground pork, bird’s eye chili, bell peppers and holy basil, we begged Pim to bring her show to New York. I’m saying it again, Pim. Please.

Looks like confetti but it's really delicious sashimi.

The next night there was no doubt we were in AA soul food territory at chef Robin Song’s Hog and Rocks in the Mission District. You might think the place is a run-of-the-mill, albeit handsome, sports bar until you taste the grub. Excited Giants fans watched their team shut out St. Louis for the first game of the National League’s championship series, so the mood was festive to begin with. We relied on Song’s unerring aim for the spicy-sour-sweet pleasure receptor zone to put us right there alongside the stoked Giants fans, but in a baseball-free way. The first clue that we weren’t in the Double Play Bar and Grill came when a dish of freshly caught Channel Islands yellowtail sashimi showed up accompanied by roasted purple yams and dressed with, among other things, sudachi, the mouth-puckering citrus fruit that originated in Tokushima Prefecture, Japan.

Song sprinkles his food with a hiker’s backpack full of interesting fruits, vegetables, herbs, and says his plates are designed to complement bartender and Brooklyn native Michael Lazar’s exciting cocktail list.
One of my favorite dishes at Hog and Rocks:
hay smoked beets with buttermilk avocado
 dressing, on one of Song's hand-thrown plates.

The yellowtail, for example was also dressed with yuzu, jalapeno, radish and wild coastal agretti, a bitter/salty accent that served as a bridge connecting the dish with a super-herbacous Coastal Collins. The ultimate locavore cocktail, the Collins is made with Alameda-based St. George Terroir Gin (distilled with an assortment of botanicals gathered from nearby Mt. Tamalpais), lemon, pickled huckleberries and bay laurel. Song does spicy well, too: his salt and pepper wings, which pack a delightfully punishing lime and pepper-laced wallop, found their cocktail counterpart in Lazar’s version of Carter Beats the Devil, the potent mescal, reposado tequila, lime, agave and chili tincture mixture. 

Highly addictive: Chef Robin Song's spicy fried rice cakes
 and Korean blood sausage. 

Besides the menu’s “hogs” (country pork pate, jamon serrano, prosciutto and the tater tots-with-attitude that Song calls “trotter tots”) and “rocks” (oysters including Kusshi from British Columbia and Church Points from Washington), the chef has been experimenting with a weekly Korean pop-up menu that starts after hours on Thursdays. We sampled an array of pickles that he makes for the pop-up, including napa cabbage, beets, anchovies and turnips, and a delicious plate of spicy fried rice cakes, blood sausage and fermented chili topped with a slow-cooked egg. The glutinous rice for the cakes is made with dashi to add extra depth, and the spicy, sweet, sour, sticky and addictive dish possessed all the attributes of Asian American stoner food.

A cook who found his path in life after trial runs as a successful drug dealer (until, he says, “I grew a conscience”) and apprentice sound engineer, Song says it was a stint with chef Daniel Patterson’s Plum Bar + Restaurant in Oakland that made him realize he wanted to find a truer expression of himself in food. He also gave up bicycle racing and now throws clay on a pottery wheel instead. Plans are afoot to open a new, two-part Korean establishment: one portion called Junju, an extension of his pop-up serving fast, casual Korean pub fare, and a smaller counter serving Song’s take on Korean barbecue in the form of a tasting menu.  

My one regret: not making it to Thai American chef James Syhabout's Oakland side of the bay, where his mini-empire of restaurants has doubled in size since my last visit. Next time!