March 15, 2012

Visit to Flushing, Queens Chinatown

Touring Chinatowns with Buddakan Co-Executive Chef Yang Huang has become a habit that we can't seem to break. Since we've already visited those in Brooklyn and Manhattan for Edible articles, Yang suggested we check out their Queens counterpart, centered on the terminus of the Number 7 line at Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue.

So along with his new bride Christy (they were married in September before 400 family members and friends) and Buddakan wok chef Mr. Lee, we took our empty stomachs to Flushing.

At our first stop, the humongous Grand Restaurant, on the third floor of the shiny New World Mall, we sampled a selection of dim sum, including some perfectly prepared shrimp hargow, my favorite pork wrapped in yuba skin, and beef siu mai. There were also marinated and steamed chicken feet and beef tripe in a soy-based sauce, which Westerners and Japanese almost never order, and which I consider a rare treat when I'm with an all-Chinese group.

The most novel dishes to me, though, were three desserts that Christy ordered, a silky sweet pumpkin and corn soup; a red bean, coconut milk and rice flour squares that were in texture like a cross between flan and chiffon pie, and an amazing lao sa bao. The white bao look like pert Japanese azuki-filled manju, but are instead filled with a rich, oozy yellow filling made with butter, sugar, and custard powder, according to Yang. They are served steaming hot and because of their grainy texture, are known as "running sand" bao in Chinese.

The happy newlyweds, Yang and Christy.
(Retiring Mr. Lee had momentarily disappeared.)

After admiring the extensive seafood tanks at Grand Restaurant and meeting CEO Tim Cheng, we headed downstairs to a different kind of diner's paradise, the New World Mall food court. There, the highlight was a bowl of hand-pulled noodles swimming with beef in a dark broth from Lanzhou Handmade Noodle. Named for the capital city of Gansu Province in Northwestern China, where they are a specialty, these amazing noodles are endowed with an addictively perfect chewiness, a bite-to-resistance ratio that, on first taste, solves the mystery of the shop's renown.

And as if that weren't enough, Yang was determined to hit one more Flushing favorite, Corner 28, where we sat upstairs, watching bustling Main Street traffic below and crunching our way through the crispiest and most delicious version of this dish I've ever had.

Now that we've successfully invaded and taste-conquered three major Chinatowns in New York City, we've decided on our next goal: a Japanese izakaya, for rustic pub food and beer.  

March 9, 2012

Confession of Error: Justice Department Finally Admits it was Wrong in Hirabayashi v. United States

 In May 2011, Neal Katyal, then Acting Solicitor General of the U.S., issued a “confession of error” on behalf of his office for defending the mass government roundup and imprisonment of U.S. citizens and immigrants of Japanese descent during World War II.

Last night Katyal, who is now a law professor at Georgetown University and a partner in the firm Hogan Lovells, LLP, spoke about this confession of error in a talk at Fordham Law School. He described how in 1943 Solicitor General Charles Fahey had to defend the government’s actions when the appeal of conscientious objector Gordon Hirabayashi, who had been convicted of violating curfew during the earlier forced roundup, reached the Supreme Court. Although Fahey was aware of intelligence reports that found that the vast majority of Japanese Americans did not pose a security threat, he papered over that evidence, leading to the Court unanimously uphold  Hirabayashi’s conviction in June 1943. You can read a blog post Katyal wrote on the confession of error here.

In a way, Katyal’s talk was a tribute to Justice Department lawyers Charles Ennis and John Burling, who fought hard to “challenge the system from within” and urged Fahey not to fight Hirabayashi’s appeal and those of Fred Korematsu and Minoru Yasui, even as Fahey made “arguments that were products of their time.” After Assistant Attorney General and Columbia law professor Herbert Weschler drafted a footnote to the government’s brief fudging Justice’s position in order to prevent any accusations of suppression of evidence, Ennis and Burling reluctantly signed their names to it.
Katyal told the audience his “greatest regret” was that Hirabayashi did not receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom during this life time, as Korematsu was able to do. Since posthumous awards are sometimes given, Katyal added, “I would very much like to see that.”

The talk, directed at a hall full of law students and law professors, was a footnote to the story of the World War II incarceration, yet poignant and relevant as well. Katyal’s advice to current Justice Department officials prosecuting the war on terror: “Because the courts lack institutional competencies in war matters [Justice Department lawyers] have to make the most accurate briefs and have to explain their reasoning…their duty of candor means they have to be absolutely sure to tell every part of the story.” Let’s hope that the current staff in Washington heeds Katyal’s message.

March 1, 2012

Brustroke Kaiseki, Chef's Pass at Bouley

Two nights ago, I had the chance to visit Brushstroke, the very Japanese Tribeca kaiseki restaurant from chef David Bouley, in collaboration with the Tsuji Cooking Academy in Osaka, Japan. The joint effort goes back 18 years, when Bouley first met Tsuji presidentYoshiki Tsuji, whose father founded the school and authored the seminal Japanese cookbook Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art. In order to bring the spirit of Japanese cuisine to New York, professors from the academy, kitchen equipment, ingredients and ideas have wended their way from Japan to Tribeca, making Brushstroke possibly the most authentic Japanese dining experience you can have in New York City at the moment.

Bouley says the collaboration is an extension of the way he’s always thought about cooking. The Japanese like him, he noted, because he’s a farmer at heart and he’s been doing seasonally driven kaiseki-style dinners since 1985, when he served 12- and 15-course small plate dinners on  custom-made Limoges china.

The Brushstroke space (formerly Danube), designed by the Japanese firm Super Potato and its lead designer Takashi Sugimoto, is a honeyed, mellow space, one wall of which is composed of the page-ends of 2,500 books stacked in criss-cross patterns and tinted to mimic the natural striations of wood. Chef Isao Yamada and mixologist Gen Yamamoto are creating exciting dishes and drinks that feel cutting edge modern but with the fanatic attention to detail and technique of the best Japanese restaurants. Among the dishes we sampled: “stinky” and creamy fermented tofu; truffled chawan-mushi (savory egg custard) with sea urchin; lobster claw tempura with two kinds of salt, curry and green tea, and a selection of pristinely fresh sushi. 

The clean, clear flavors extend to Brushstroke's cocktail menu as well, where heirloom tomatoes, grapefruit, ginger and green peas have all found their way into Yamamoto’s inspired cocktails. My grape tomato concoction was a beautiful shade of pink-red, subtle and delicious.

Chef's Pass, photo by Nicole Bartelme

Back at Bouley, I got a peek at a room called the “Chef’s Pass.” In the process of expanding his kitchen space, the chef created a wondrous, salon-like room decorated with the kinds of gorgeous antique, artisanal and one-of-a-kind finds that he seems to amass in his sleep (he and chef Jody Williams are alike that way). The novelty is the 65-inch flat screen TV, where private dining groups can partake of their dinner while conversing, via Skype, with the purveyors who supply Bouley: master sak√© brewers in Japan, vintners and cheese makers in France and farmers in the Catskills or the Berkshires. Tours cheese maker Rodolphe Le Meunier, Meilleur Ouvrier de France (the highest honor awarded artisans in France), is such a good sport he’ll get up at 4 a.m. to chat with Bouley diners and explain his methods.

Chef's Pass allows Bouley to educate his patrons while feeding them in style, to introduce the hard-working farmers and craftspeople who make his kind of restaurant possible. Yet the chef takes a jaundiced view of the current “farm-to-table” movement, saying, “it’s what farmers have been doing for ten generations where I grew up in New England." While this "reinvention" of age old practices is nothing new, "it's a good thing," he adds, because it brings home the message that "people should not underestimate the value of the farmer."