Crunchy Bottoms

Striking the caloric balance. Barely.

Browned Butter Cinnamon Sugar Bombs

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I’ve created a monster. Well, mini monsters, fun-sized gremlins on crack.

I must admit, the only reason I’m actually punching out a recipe post after ages of my last one is because I need to quickly gush about this while I’m still high off cinnamon sugar. This is coming out now as I lick my fingers clean.

I don’t think this needs further introduction. It’s all in the name, and it’s everything that it sounds like, except better. There will be no sugar-coating (har har) in this post, because I want to get right into the crux of the batter, I mean matter.

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This.

I must have burnt the tips of my fingers a little, handling these bumpkins the moment they were birthed from the oven, dunking them into nutty browned butter, and rolling them in cinnamon sugar. After a handful of attempts at making cinnamon buns, I’m almost ashamed to say that I think I’d give that up and settle for this instead.

This is one of those situations in which I don’t know what I did right, can only speculate, but am more than content to indulge in its spoils anyway. I couldn’t be bothered with buttermilk so I threw in a couple of tablespoons of tangy Greek yoghurt as a substitute and must have stumbled upon some wonder of alchemy in the process. The result is a springy, tender inside perfumed with a hint of nutmeg, and a crusty top. That’s it. Oh, and I almost forgot – the browned butter did all the rest.

Browned Butter Cinnamon Sugar Bombs

Adapted from Smittenkitchen

The browned butter makes all the difference, as I have come to learn from any recipe that calls to melt butter. It’s a drastic change in flavour and aroma from butter that has only been melted, and requires only a couple of minutes longer atop the stove.

Yield: 8-10 medium muffin-sized bombs

Ingredients:

Topping:
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Batter:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp table salt
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 cup castor sugar
1/3 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus extra for greasing muffin cups
1 large egg
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

1/2 cup full-fat milk
3 tbs Greek yoghurt

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 180C. Butter or oil 10 medium muffin cups.

2. Prepare topping. In a small pan, melt 6 tablespoons butter and cook till the surface starts to brown a little and the butter smells nutty. Turn off the heat and set the pan aside. Combine the sugar and cinnamon in a bowl, mix and set aside.

3. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and nutmeg.

4. Combine the milk and yoghurt in a cup.

5. In another medium bowl, beat the softened butter and sugar together until pale and light. Add the egg and vanilla extract. Mix till the mixture thickens.

6. Add in 1/2 the flour mixture, stirring gently, and then 1/2 of the milk mixture. Repeat for the remaining flour and milk mixtures. Fold until just combined, taking care not to beat the mixture.

7. Scoop the batter into the cups 3/4 of the way. Bake for 15 minutes till golden brown.

8. Allow to cool for 10 minutes before removing the cups (or you can keep them on) and dipping the tops and sides lightly in the browned butter, and then the cinnamon sugar. Try not to press down into the butter or sugar to prevent uneven bits from sticking.

New York City 2012: Brooklyn Bagel & Coffee Company

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Since I started on bagels, I might as well go the whole nine yards.  I’m aware that my less-than-qualified commentary on New York’s bagels is like dancing across a field of land-mines. Naked.

But in my defense, I’m a bread-snob, so it follows that I should know a thing or two about bagels. I have tried making bagels a couple of times since I got back. Let’s just say that I will try again.

Bagels may or may not have salt and malt added into the dough, but they are almost always boiled in water (sometimes containing baking soda, the science of which I will leave for another time) before baking. The New York bagel is almost always salted and malted, giving it its characteristic chew.

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My first and proper New York bagel was at Brooklyn Bagel. To be precise, my first half bagel was at Brooklyn Bagel. I had to share. A bagel here is the diameter of a three-month old child’s head. If I threw a bagel at you (I’ve got a sexy right lob), it would at least stun you, if it didn’t bruise. These are traditionally dense New York bagels, and –  just to put things into perspective – the equivalent of six bowls of rice, or so the rumour goes. That said, I’ve been to a number of bagel shops and can assure you that the Bagel of Massive Proportions is only found here, at Brooklyn Bagel. They sell mini bagels too, which I assume are regular-sized ones, and still about two bowls of rice I’m sure.

But these bagels pack a crunch and chew that blew my mind, and the maddeningly generous fillings almost landed me in a near-catatonic state.

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They have some of the freshest and most flavourful cream cheese spreads around – sweet, savoury, tofu spreads, flavoured butters, low-fat cream cheese, hummus, peanut butter…

Go wild. But don’t hold up the line. I don’t have any particular bagel and cream cheese combinations to recommend, but sweet bagels go with sweet cream cheese, and so on. This above is a Wholewheat Bagel with White Fish spread and Sun-dried Tomato cream cheese.

Personally, toasted bagels are the way to go, but some purists insist that if you’re in a bagel shop early enough, the freshest bagels needn’t ever be toasted. The buns stay warm enough to still give the cream cheese that semi-melty gorgeous texture.

Speaking of going early, I’ll be forthright and say that no one should ever have a bagel past noon. I’m not saying this for puritanical reasons, but for practical and scientific ones.

DSC_9829Studies have shown (actually, just one, and not even rigidly scientific at that), that a bagel’s half-life is no more than half an hour. The freshness of a bagel deteriorates exponentially from the moment it leaves the warm embrace of the oven. It is aptly coined the Heisen-Bagel Uncertainty Principle by the Serious Eats team in their search for New York’s best bagel, in which “The act of transporting a bagel to a second location produces fundamental uncertainties in its inherent qualities, such that determining a true “best bagel,” in a head-to-head face-off, becomes impossible.”

Or, in simple English, that merely means that the best tasting bagel is one in which you get up early for. I can vouch for it.

Pseudo-scientific principles aside, oddly enough, this doesn’t apply as strictly to other bread products, but I’ll hypothesize outside of this post.

Oh, and one last word of warning: Stick to two filling combinations at the very most, unless you’re willing to fork out more than USD$10 for breakfast. These are delicious, but pricey, bagels.


Address: 

286 8th Ave
(between 24th St & 25th St)
New York, NY 10001
Neighborhood: Chelsea

Hours:

Mon-Sun 7 am – 10 pm

Website: http://bkbagel.com/

New York City 2012: Absolute Bagels

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I hadn’t physically spoken to anyone in two days. Not even after settling into Morningside Heights. In fact, especially after settling into Morningside Heights. It’s quiet here in the evenings. I also have a bad throat. On a normal day – when the stars are aligned – I’m a sociable, chatty person with a wicked sense of humour (pfft), that hopefully translates into my writing.

Anyway, this morning, I popped into Absolute Bagels, joined the snaking queue that went out the door, and uttered my first words of the day: “Everything bagel, toasted, smoked salmon and cream cheese. Oh, and coffee please. With milk. No sugar.” I happened to forget that if what you’re ordering isn’t listed on the menu, it’ll probably bump up the price, and it did. Mine was apparently a Nova Bagel (price listed beside the cash register, only when you’re about to pay up), and as with all cosmic, cataclysmic explosions, my wallet got nuked with $8.50 thereabouts. I did see some stars in my vision.

Absolute Bagels is probably the cheapest and best bagel joint in the Morningside Heights borough – if you stick to the cream cheeses and tofu spreads. Those go for around $3.80. Coffee is $1.00 or so.

Most people do a quick grab and go, some buying as many as a dozen bagels at a time with a tub of cream cheese spread. Bagels over the Christmas lull perhaps? I was settled into my corner table, facing the kitchen, noticing only vaguely that the line that had spilled outside had started twisting around the store.  It moves fast, even if it never really shortens. The kitchen is a well-oiled production line, with batches of fresh bagels being hauled out of a steaming metal cauldron and into the oven every fifteen minutes or so. The total time it takes for a kitchen staff to deftly slice a bagel in two quick cuts, schlop a dollop of cream cheese on, and wrap it all up averages at one minute. I would know. I was seated there pretty long in my early morning haze.

My bagel itself was perfect, lighter and smaller than the mammoth ones at Brooklyn Bagels, crisp on the outside with a slight chew. This is, on a very fundamental level, an awesome bagel. The fillings, on the other hand, were sparse to say the least. I’ll probably get a cheaper cinnamon raisin bagel with strawberry cream cheese next time. Nova Bagel aside, the length and persistance of Absolute Bagel’s queue speaks for itself.

For now, all I can say is that the stars are aligning, and if my throat is willing, I’ll be speaking more too.

Absolute Bagels 

Address: 2788 Broadway, New York NY 10025

Koh Grill & Sushi Bar – Eye on the Maki

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Rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated.

I am alive and well, much to the disappointment of many, I’m sure.

This writer’s block of mine, however, I have underestimated. I had likened it to passing a brick out my behind, among other unsavoury metaphors, and have woefully declared to all unfortunate enough to listen to my rants that I’d much rather endure physical pain. My friends have gotten the brunt of my frustration.  They still love me though, I hope.

I realise I need to start small. So this is me, attempting (once again) to sit myself down on my metaphorical ceramic throne, and do the deed. It’s a small consolation for me if you happen to find this hilarious. It turns out that I’m still capable of entertaining.

Over the past few months, I have been frequenting Koh Grill & Sushi Bar at Wisma Atria. It’s a gem of a place within Food Republic. A friend had insisted that I needed to try this, and that, in spite of knowing of my sky-high benchmark for Japanese food,  she was still willing to place a huge bet on this place. Well, thank you Joyce. You have ruined me.

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It’s impossible to dine at Koh Grill & Sushi Bar without ordering the Shiok Maki ($16.80 – first picture). This maki is not to be trifled with. Make fun of its name only once, and never again after you’ve eaten it. It has been named appropriately.

Its core is stuffed with unagi and avocado, and then wrapped in a thin layer of rice, draped in thick slices of salmon, drizzled with mayo, and blowtorched to a sizzling marvel. I have not come across another maki with all my favourite ingredients. Admittedly, I could do without the mayo, but that mound of tobiko (flying fish roe) is almost too good to be true, and I suspect that they must have very chummy ties with their suppliers. There can’t be any other possible explanation for being that generous! I’ve thought very deeply about it.

This is a maki that has been thoughtfully created and balanced with much textural deliciousness. It’s crunchy, gooey, moist, and incredibly flavourful. I have brought many friends along for a meal there, and I have seen them being reduced to slobbering messes in front of me.

Contrary to its name, the Crappy Maki ($18.00 – second picture) is another wonder. It’s stuffed with crispy soft shell crab, crunchy seaweed, topped with layers of swordfish belly, and finished with the mandatory shower of roe. The Pi Tan Maki ($15.00 – not pictured) is another crowd-pleaser, and if the thought of century egg sauce makes you cringe, then all I can say is…well, get over yourself and eat it. Take my word for it.

There are plenty of other dishes on the menu, but due credit must be given to what I think are the rockstars in this sold-out concert. It’s obvious that the makis have been lovingly crafted and contemplated on in both the flavour and textural departments. I adore such attention to food.

I also wanted to keep this a secret. There may well be a death warrant hanging over my head by now, but it’s helping the brick on its way out.

Koh Grill & Sushi Bar

Address: 435 Orchard Road, #04-21 Wisma Atria Shopping Centre

Tel: 91803805

Le Bistrot du Sommelier – Reliable Bistro Fare

It’s been a while.

I’m aware that I’m not quite done waxing lyrical about Dario Cecchini, but I recently had great French bistro food, so this bears much gushing. Brace yourself. If I were to let it wait any longer, I fear that it may end up the way of all my other posts – abandoned or forgotten in a sad heap on my dashboard.

Now let’s just say that while bistro food in France is of unparalleled quality, Le Bistrot du Sommelier comes pretty darn close. I take my hat off to them.

I’d been here once, back when they were still at Prinsep. Dinner that night was cloaked in darkness, sitting at an outdoor table, with the only lights coming from the ghastly orange street light nearby and the pink neon sign from the next-door tenant. While I would have preferred to view my food in their natural colours, the food was spectacular. I vividly remember the unctuous, maddeningly tender joue de boeuf (beef cheek), garlicky cuisses de grenouilles (frog legs), and les profiteroles the size of my fist. Each.

Their new restaurant at Armenian Street now has two storeys and an alfresco area, and might I add that the second storey houses a rillette bar. When I first got wind of it, I swore I could have spasmed in sheer joy. Think of it this way: You can’t serve rillette at such affordable prices if it’s not homemade. These cured meat mixtures can be imported, but it’s easier to make a large batch to store – the longer the better. You can’t deny the appeal of homemade French charcuterie.

So, I mentioned its affordability. Now hold on to your seats, because you’ll be hard pressed to find anywhere that serves charcuterie at such a price.

We ordered the Duck Rillette, as pictured above, at 100g for $10. I know! What sorcery is this?! Rillette anywhere else could run upwards of $15. It’s everything a good rillette should be. Salty, creamy, slightly chilled, and chunky. We schmeared it on bread, shovelled it in our mouths, and if we had ordered any more, I would have face-dunked in. Should you think that 100g is pricey, well, consider that it comes with a bowl of the cutest petits cornichons (baby gherkins), and imported French bread (I assumed so since they tasted like they were frozen before). 100g was sufficient for two people, and why would you want to order more when they have such a large variety of charcuterie?

Other than duck, they’ve got pork, rabbit, mackeral, and salmon rillettes. As if things couldn’t get any better, they have terrines and pâtés and saucissons. I was thrilled to spy an interesting Piegeon Mousse with Port Jelly (but alas, it was pricey), and wild boar sausage. 

Speaking of saucissons…

Iberico Ham. Cured for 18 to 24 months. $13 for 50g.

I’ve never seen Iberico at such a price. But wait! That’s not all! They have the option of Iberico de Bellota, cured for 30 to 36 months, at $20 per 50g!!! The questions that ricocheted off the walls in my head were something to the effect of, ‘How is this possible?!’, and ‘Where did they get it from?!’, but eventually settled on ‘You know what, I don’t care! It’s Iberico! Bring it on!’.

Cue the dramatic fanning and subsequent fainting.

I’m aware that all this gushing is a bit unbecoming, but the exclamation marks are only apt, for a fullstop would not give proper glory, laud, and honour to Iberico ham. I promise I’ll sound more proper onwards, now that I’m done hyperventilating.

I went almost giddy with delight when I saw that they served Pâté Lorrain, a mixture of meats baked in puff pastry. But it happened that they were sold out, so we got the Smoked Pork Bun Pâté ($6.50), which came as a palm-sized round of brioche, encasing a ball of pâté. It was moist, and was definitely tasty, but I was more enamoured with the thought of the Pâté Lorrain that we unfortunately couldn’t have.

Le Bistrot du Sommelier is known for their beef dishes, with an entire side menu of beef specialties on top of their already extensive charcuterie and main menu. The classics would include the côte de bœuf (a thick, bone-in rib steak), joue de bœuf (beef cheek), and tartare de bœuf (beef tartare)

That said, we got a Cassoulet Canard ($34) instead, a duck leg stew with a massive slab of tender pork belly, pork sausage, and white beans. I can’t quite think of anything else that could embody rustic, hearty French fare than a stew. The portion was generous, and the meats just sublime. It wasn’t out-of-this-world, but it was an excellent execution for sure.

Through the course of our meal, we had ginormous soufflés, fist-sized profiteroles, and deliciously burnt crème brûlées floating by our table, but we decided on a Gateau de Crepes ($14), essentially a stack of crepes filled with subtly sweet chestnut cream in between its layers. It’s not quite a powerfully sweet Mont Blanc, but it certainly was delicate and fluffy and had an adorable tumble of roasted French chestnuts.

So there we go – bistro fare at its best. Bistro ambience too if I should mention. The walls are a warm yellow, painted on brick, and it’s noisy and bustling with the clinks of wine glasses floating above raucous laughter and (if you listen hard enough) the gentle lilt of occasional French exchanged among the wait staff. Although we didn’t have any wine, it’s safe to say that for a bistro named after a wine steward, their wines should be exceptional.

Le Bistrot du Sommelier gets packed most nights, so reserve in advance. But if I wasn’t looking for a full meal, I could easily step in, head up to their second floor, and sit myself down at their Rillette Bar. It’s amazing, and that’s something to head back for, if not for the fact that it’s a road away from where I’m usually at every day. I don’t say this often about most places, but this is a reliable restaurant, and perhaps as authentically French as one could get. So, well, the gushing won’t end here.

Le Bistrot du Sommelier

Address: 53 Armenian Street

Tel: 63331982

Opening Hours: Mon- Sat, Lunch 12 to 3pm, Dinner 6 to 11pm

Dario Cecchini – The Dante-reciting, Rock-star Butcher of Italy

One step into Antica Macelleria Cecchini and I’m already gaping.

It’s all marble, oaken butcher blocks, hanging meat hooks, crackling rolls of porchetta, links of aged salami suspended over platters of Tuscan bread, mounds of creamy lardo, and – behind the glass display – a staggering amount of meat, meat, meat.

This clearly is no ordinary butcher.

This macelleria (butcher shop) awes with its idyllic Italian charm, and I remain rooted in the doorway. I don’t quite care if I’m blocking the entrance because I’m having a moment here, where I’m processing that I’m standing where the shoes of people the likes of Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Bruce Springsteen, and Jamie Oliver have tread.

I am, of course, rendered useless as I spy Dario Cecchini, famed owner of the macelleria, striding towards me. I don’t even have time to gasp.

“Vino?” he offers, a bottle in one hand already tipping the mouth towards an empty glass.

Startled, I shake my head sharply in slight panic, partly because I was aware of the time of the day (morning), and partly because I had already been acquainted with the potency of Chianti wine. “No, no. Grazie.”

“No vino?!” is the incredulous reply, Dario’s voice booming within the small confines.

I cringe, feeling curious stares turn on me, and I offer a sheepish smile in return, “No.”

His eyes dart to the bottle of water I have in my hand, “No acqua! Si, si, vino!”

And he proceeds to pour a healthy amount of deep, dark liquid into the glass, piercing blue eyes fixing firmly on me till I finally take it.

Dario smirks as I sip the heady wine in embarrassment, and I make a quick mental note-to-self to never, ever decline a proffered invitation to wine – especially from an Italian, and especially if it’s Dario.

Dario Cecchini is the 5th generation owner of the Antica Macelleria Cecchini, a butcher shop in the humble Tuscan town of Panzano. His macelleria draws droves of tourists, all clambering for a taste of his quality meats, or just to see the man himself in his culinary Mecca. He is best known for holding a ‘funeral’ for the bistecca alla fiorentina (Florentine-style T-bone steak) in 2001, back during the mad cow scare when a ban was imposed on eating meat served on the bone. To serve the bistecca without its bone was sacrilege.

The name Dario goes beyond the person itself. It’s immediately clear that the bold strips of red and white paint on the shop’s façade, the bottles of olive oil and Chianti wine emblazoned with stickers of his side-profile, the jars of salts and marinades stamped with the name of his shop, are all Dario.

The man is a brand.

Standing next to me, he is decked out in a white long-sleeved shirt, with a bright red vest thrown over and a matching pair of red pants. He has a white ‘Antica Macelleria Cecchini’ apron on top of it all. In his left arm he cradles a bottle of wine in a straw basket, and it is with no small amount of amusement that I learnt that it is traditionally called a fiasco – probably attributed to the very merry-making the wine induces. I know that for a fact, because I am starting to feel a little too happy from my first sip of Chianti.

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Japan, Tokyo 2011-12: Ichiran Ramen

Ramen.

It’s the one dish to nuke your diet so far out of the water you’re going to need binoculars to see where it went.

It’s the one dish that, in my opinion, throws the entire Japanese diet into disequilibrium – one that most would consider the epitome of health and longevity. Ramen singlehandedly manages to shake all preconceived notions of the Japanese diet. It seems to exist to be a reminder that, underneath the glimmer and rosy-hued tint of squeaky cleanliness, an oddity lies, quite like Tonkatsu and Curry Rice, but none more sinful.

I shall call it the Japanese Paradox – inspired from the French Paradox (of a diet high in saturated fats but a lifespan among the top ten in the world).

Think about it. It’s a paradox! It’s baffling! The only ingredients that look remotely like dietary fibre in a bowl of ramen are the slivers of spring onions. That’s all! There should be a fourth level to the food pyramid, above all the sugary, fatty criminals. Ramen should be there – at the top.

But then there is Ichiran. And all I can say is thank heavens it’s all the way in Japan or I would bugger off the side of a building in self-despair and wanton gluttony.

I’m only saying this because, if Ichiran didn’t exist, keeping Ramen up there wouldn’t require much discipline. There just isn’t any other ramen that would make me tell my reasonable eating habits to have a vacation and never come back.

So, the usual situation: Freezing cold weather, and the prospect of having piping hot soup blipping away in the tummy.

The poison of choice: Ichiran Ramen.

I had it on my list, but with no address and barely any research on it. So when we stumbled across it on the way to Harajuku, we immediately spun around and made the detour up its steps at 11.30am before the lunch crowd poured in.

Now there is a process to Ichiran, but it’s not too difficult. Trust me.

1. Vending Machine: Choose your ramen, and any additional toppings you wish to have. (Please pick the tamago (egg). It was to die for.) Slot in your money, collect your ticket, and head on inside.

2. Direction Board of Vacant Seat (it is named as such, do not mock it): Check the board for seat vacancies. Green lights indicate vacant seats. Red indicates occupied seats.

3. Cubicle: Yes, you have a cubicle, do behave. You may unfold the partitioning if you must see your dining partner. Customise your ramen with the order sheet. Ask for an English one if it is not given to you.  Choose your Flavour Strength, Richness, Garlic, Green Onion, Roast Pork Fillet, Secret Sauce (chilli), Noodle’s Tenderness. I would recommend one full clove of garlic, and firm noodles. Cross your fingers with the chilli. I liked mine Regular.

4. Hand Order Sheet Over To The Disembodied Hands Behind Your Screen: There are wait staff scuttling back and forth behind the screens. If that unsettles you, the appearance of your bowl of ramen should appease you.

I loved every bit of my bowl of ramen. It had one of the best – if not the best – creamy tonkatsu-based broths I have tasted. My noodles came completely submerged in a generous portion of spicy soup. I was tearing and sniveling, and was probably a hideous sight to behold, but that’s what the partitions in your cubicles are for. They will not, however, give you privacy from the chorus of slurping all over the restaurant, so as with any other choir, you are expected to contribute to the chords.

Also, the tamago is served separate from the ramen, and still in its shell. I will let the picture speak for itself.

I was surprised that you can get additional noodles (buttons to order more are at your cubicle), but if you’re like me and found the broth absolutely divine, then you would have practically inhaled all of it. They do not give you additional broth, unfortunately. I polished off my bowl, and let me tell you that I do not polish off bowls of noodles. Ichiran was an experience of many firsts. I could rave, but I shan’t. Needless to say, this is ramen you mustn’t miss – not even on pain of death – when you’re in Tokyo.

Waddling out of the restaurant full and replete, we smugly squeezed past the snaking queue into the cold, stumbling down steps and feeling mightily invincible with the furnace in our bellies. Like I said previously, you can’t have this daily. Because feeling this luxurious every day would render the mysterious Japanese paradox void, and just be boring ol’ reality instead.

Ichiran Ramen

Address: Jinnan, Shibuya, Tokyo Prefecture, Japan

Tokyo, Japan 2011-12: Sushi Zanmai

24-hour chain restaurants are deigned to be viewed with no less disdain as mass-produced pink slime.

Such places don’t seem to possess any redeeming factors. You don’t need intricate knowledge of the restaurant industry to know that the food will have been sitting limp and listless since morning, and that ‘freshness’ can – at best – only be something of a foreign concept, a level simply unattainable by chain standards.

But as with all things normally distributed, you will have the outliers, the daredevils, the reality-benders – those that are allotted the tiniest of probabilities of ever being good, but are. They exist, says statistics.

Sushi Zanmai is possibly the only 24-hour, 365-days a year sushi restaurant, with over 30 outlets scattered about.

The numbers alone inspire cynicism in me the likes of no other. But as luck would have it, I knew nothing of their business, only that its name sounded vaguely familiar, and that we were beside ourselves with hunger at 10pm, on the verge of withering in the bitter cold, and that the warm lights past the restaurant glass front was salvation.

Sushi Zanmai proved that there is hope in life, if only in Japan. This calls for rejoicing.

The menu has both Japanese and English, and although there is a kaleidoscope of unfamiliar fish, as long as you can read Pictures, you’ll be well on your way ordering up a massive amount of sushi. Don’t bother with portion control. Unless your idea of portion control is multiple orders of ten sushi at a time, then you have my green light. Other than the main menu, there is a set menu on the side entirely in – no not Pictures – Japanese, for sets that span a range up till ¥3,000. But figuring out what each set has to offer is only a matter of matching the words to the pictures on the main menu. Child’s play, I say.

Sushi is not cheaper in Japan. Sorry to have to break it to you this way. Unlike how coffee in Italy, bread and cheese in France, dim sum and congee in Hong Kong are at least half the price and double the quality, dining in Japan is at a cost only slightly less expensive than Japanese restaurants here, but at an unbeatable quality.

I had the ¥2,500 (around S$40) set of 12 nigiri that came with a bowl of miso soup. Every piece of nigiri, with the exception of the lacklustre sea urchin and rubbery herring roe, was beautifully draped atop the rice and fresh.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I have the sneaking suspicion that the waters around Japan have mystical properties, ancient mumbo jumbo happening below the surface, producing not merely fish, but creatures of the culinary Atlantis. It’s easy to forget that you’re eating seafood.

The girls got themselves heaps of maguro (tuna), shake (salmon), ika (squid), hamachi (yellowtail), and waved a waitress over for another round because, much to their own surprise, they absolutely adored the tuna. While clearly not from premium maguro (usually coloured a vibrant ruby), it tasted very clean.

So yes, while I will still keep my reservations on dubious-looking 24-hour chain restaurants, Sushi Zanmai has cleared my radar with an exceptional score. I should emphasize though, that its winning element lies in how much bang for your buck you get – at any time of the day.

Although the original outlet is located at Tsukiji, the one we stumbled into was in Asakusa, where we were staying. It’s safe to assume that the Tsukiji outlet is trustworthy, but there are plenty of other outlets as listed on their website 

Sushi Zanmai

Address: Sushi Zanmai, 4-11-9 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku

+81 (0) 3 3541 1117; open daily, 24 hours.

Tokyo, Japan 2011-12: Toritsune Shizendou – The Holy Grail of Oyakodons

 

There are worse things in life than a writer’s block – physical pain, for instance.

But while I am sure that physically throwing myself at a wall (repeatedly) would feel infinitely more excruciating than the mental equivalent of encountering the dreaded writer’s block, life sucks anyway.

Clearly I’m not going to be able to spit out a beatific ode to Dario Cecchini, butcher extraodinaire, and the gorgeous Italian meats we had in Chianti anytime soon, so I better kick start my other posts lest I crumble in self-pity and shrivel up in a corner.

Where were we? Right, Japan.

I know that it has been about eight months, but let’s rewind to the start of the year, the fourth of January in Tokyo, where shops and restaurants still threatened to remain closed from the New Year festivities. It was a time of great uncertainty, and the fear that Toritsune Shizendou would be closed was very, very real.

Their Oyakodon was highly praised by The Dirty Stall, and he had all but ordered me to find it because it was that good. He also ordered me to traipse all over Tokyo in search of other things, like Toriki, but I suppose it should suffice that I even managed to find Toritsune Shizendou.

The girls and I did find it, going around buildings in the morning chill, slipping through a deserted alley and stopping outside its shuttered door. Amidst worrying about the possibility of it opening, a Japanese businessman calmly strode up to the door, and stood with his hands in his pockets, staring straight ahead at the wooden sliding door, unmoving, and resolute in stance. That was as good an indication as we could get. We also, obviously, got sniped from being the first customers.

While we were the second customers through the door on the dot at 11am, the restaurant very quickly filled up, first with the locals, and then with a handful of other tourists, walking in bleary eyed and having to wait in line.

The menu is entirely in Japanese, but we knew that we wanted the Tokujo Oyakodon (¥1,600), a large bowl of rice topped with an omelette with chicken strips and the runniest eggs of a blinding, vibrant orange. I am not adept at Japanese, unfortunately, so for a better description of the other dishes, this blogger does a thorough job of it. By ‘thorough’, I really mean Eaten-Every-Single-Thing-On-The-Menu-Because-I-Can.

We weren’t seated at the counter, but the tiny table in our quiet corner yielded an excellent view of the chef at work, effortlessly handling at least three individual pans of omelette at a time on high flame, cracking eggs and lightly whipping them up before sliding it deftly into a bowlful of rice and serving.

What you get from the moment your bowl is set down in front of you is a moist omelette of chicken, scallions, sweet dashi, soy sauce, and gorgeous eggs with their yolks literally running all over the place, soaking into the rice, staining it a bright, oozy orange. It took about five seconds of revered silence on my part as I watched the yolks trickle out before face-diving in all my glory.

The eggs are what make this dish. I’m not sure what chickens they came from, but I’m guessing they must have been very happy chickens. Those eggs are a wonder of nature. To be reasonable, I don’t doubt that there is someplace else with oyakodon so sublime that will top this. I’m not certain, but all I’m saying is that there may be. In the spectrum of things, there are such leeways, but whatever the case, this is the best oyakodon – a shining example of a humble dish done well – I’ve ever had.

Take my advice and googlemap/googleman the address, just so it’s easier to find.

 Address:

鳥つね自然洞 (Toritsune Shizendou)
5-5-2, Soto-Kanda, Chiyoda-ku

Japan, Nagoya 2011-12: Atsuta Shrine Kishimen Noodles

I realise that punching out posts from my recent trip to Japan will very probably unleash a rabid desire for Asian food, seeing as how I’m stuck with European food here in Switzerland, St Gallen, for a summer study. This is a bad idea, surely. Cheese, bread, and yoghurt? I love you all very much, I promise that I do. It’s just that you aren’t the same as sushi and – oh how I swoon – a piping hot bowl of kishimen noodles whipped up à la minute in a tiny stall at the Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya.

It’s not quite as cold here as it was back in December in Nagoya, but I’d give anything to have this gurgling happily in the recesses of my stomach right now.

This is, by all accounts, a highly affordable bowl of noodles. It starts from ¥600 to ¥850, which is about S$9.60 to S$13.00. This one above is the kakiage one.

Kishimen is a flat type of udon, typical of the Nagoya region. The consistency of these flat noodles are mind-boggling and truly exceptional – bouncy, with a slight chew, and simply cannot be eaten without slurping. Of course, the broth itself was faultless, which was hardly surprising really.

The stall was a little hard to find at first. We were pressed for time, famished, and chilled to the bone from the cold. It’s hard to give directions now, but trust me when I say that you’ll eventually stumble across it. It’s an open-air area, with benches and tables, and the stall behind. The noodles are exceedingly popular among the locals as well it seems, but though they crowd the tables, they leave pretty quickly.

Tempura version was wonderful as well, and … sigh … oh I am beside myself right now.

I probably should stop gushing and get on moving with the rest of the posts, because hammering out a post at night when there’s barely anything in the fridge (save for a lonely slice of cheese, some eggs, and shriveled zucchini, mostly), is excruciating. And if the past week was any indication, the posts on breads and cheeses will help themselves onto the pile of drafts that I already have.

If you are in Nagoya, please, you must go out of your way to the Atsuta Shrine. I’m not sure if it was because of the soothing reprieve from the bitter cold that a bowl offers, or just that the noodles and soup were utterly simple yet done exceptionally well, but whatever it is, you’ll know when you eventually try it. It’s so comforting you could cry.

Atsuta Shrine, Nagoya

Nearest train station: Jingu-mae