Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Luke's Lobster

93 E 7th St

I have mixed feelings about lobster in general and lobster rolls in particular. I get the appeal of eating an "expensive" product. And it does have an impressive presence on a plate. But somehow I can't shake the feeling, every time I see someone with a plate of lobster, that in all probability the Broadway show will be amazing and the commute back to _______ (fill in the blank) will be a breeze, and after this wonderful dinner we can all relax and go back to eating crap again.

But if you're going for the flavor, I'd have a crab or a longoustine any time. The meat is so much more flavorful and texture is so much more gentle. Of course there's a way to make good lobster, to balance it's meatiness and to once and for all take it out of it's attention grabbing whore of a shell.

Enter Luke's Lobster. A smallish store front in East Village. Again, not being a huge fan of lobster rolls which in my previous experiences tended to be an uninspiring combination of rubbery meat and cheap tasting mayo, it's hard for me to claim proficiency in the art of roll making. But this is as close to the work of lobster roll perfection as one can get. First of all, the lobster is fantastically fresh. An obvious point you'd think, but an important one nevertheless. Shell fish tends to acquire a slightly metallic after taste, which these rolls lack entirely. Secondly, the meat is cooked expertly - it's juicy, succulent and flavorful. And finally, it's perfectly dressed. There's barely any mayo, and its taste does not overpower the lobster. Oh yes, the rolls are filled "to the brims" with large chunks of meat, so you can really taste and enjoy the main ingredient.

I do have a gripe though. And it's with Luke's buns. I am not sure what butter they use, but its taste is overbearing. It's too sweet with a slight whiff of artificial flavoring and it competes with the delicate flavor of the lobster meat. So just ask the dude (or dudette) not to butter them. Just try it.

And by the way, you can get wonderful crab salad and crab claws as well. Awesomeness.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Leek Soup-Purée

Leeks are great. Let me explain why. First - the taste; it's sweet, with light onion aroma and gentle spice. It adds dimension and depth to dishes without being overpowering. Second - the color; it's a mix of vibrant greens, yellows and whites that becomes even more verdant when heated. Finally, the onion's texture is truly wonderful. It can be crunchy, silky, or disappear all together blending with the main dish.

Leeks are fantastic in soups, in pies or sauteed to accompany fish or meats. Another plus is that leeks are available pretty much all year round. Early autumn being the best time to get them. I came across a fresh bunch of young leeks in my local vegetable shop just recently. These were grown in Guatemala and were much thinner than your usual leeks. Actually they looked more like thick scallions. Whether they were just young or a different type, they had gentler flesh and a wonderful subtle sweet flavor with with just the right amount of bite.

The verdict - a season appropriate soup-purée. Extremely easy to make and tasty as hell. Here's the recipe as interpreted by Julia:

What you need:
1. A nice bunch of leeks, about a pound. If of a regular thick kind, you'll need 3-4 stalks. If a younger thinner kind you'll be OK with 8. Of course depending on your taste preference, you can make it more or less "oniony". In either case pick firm, compact stalks with bright white roots and green un-wilted ends.
2. A cup of cubed carrot (half of a large carrot)
3. Two large potatoes
4. 3 Tbs of olive oil
5. 4-5 cups of water ( enough to cover the potatoes in a pot)
6. Coarse Kosher salt, crushed black pepper, whole white and black peppercorns, mustard seed, coriander seed and crushed bay leaf to taste.

In a large pot bring water to a boil and add cubed potatoes. Place whole spices in a canvas spice bag and place in the pot.

Clean leeks. If necessary, remove the top dead layer and trim the top edges. Cut the stalks lengthwise and wash thoroughly. Cut the leeks in pieces about 1/2 inch wide. Transfer cut leeks in a bowl, add a pinch of coarse salt and squeeze lightly with your hands to release the juice. Let stand for a minute. Heat about 2 table spoons of olive oil in a large pan and saute the leeks until bright green, about 2 minutes. Add carrots and salt and crushed black pepper to taste and saute until carrots start to soften.

Check the potatoes, they should be almost done. Add leeks and carrots. Return the pot to heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and cook for about 5 minutes. Turn off heat and remove the spice bag. Let it cool for 5 minutes. Sieve the stock and reserve.

Carefully puree vegetable mixture in the processor in small batches, adding reserved stock to control thickness. Ideal puree shoudl be not too thick, silky and viscous. Transfer the puree back into the pot and return to heat. Add salt, adjust for spices and bring to a boil while stirring. As soon as it boils turn the heat off.

Plate, drizzle with some olive oil and serve with a slice of crusty rustic bread. For extra kick I like to butter the bread and toast it untill just golden brown.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Ramen NYC

Ramen cauldrons at Totto Ramen

For over three years now, there has been an explosion of ramen joints in New York. Ramen - a Japanese comfort food, is a dish of noodles in a hearty broth that is traditionally served with a variety of toppings such as sliced pork belly, seaweed, sprouts, green onions and flavored with soy or miso.

Up until recently my favorite has been a ramen from Sun-Chan, a divy place on 103 St. and Broadway. Their ramen is a simple, light yet flavorful dish with a generous slice of roast pork. The only drawback is that the broth tends to be salty and pork is a bit dry. Still it is a great dish and goes well with Sun-Cha's other specialty - yakitory (skewers of bacon-wrapped quail egg is excellent). And while on the subject of Sun-Chan it's a great place to get sushi and sake as well. Everything is extremely fresh and surprisingly creative for such an under-the-radar joint. Also a nice, truly Japanese touch, is that when sake is served you get to choose your own cups from an array of mismatched options.

After Sun-Chan came Ippudo. This hipped up ramen emporium on the lower east side, which looks a bit too much like a night club, produces extremely hearty and flavorful version of ramen. But their broth, which is pork-based, is extremely heavy. It's a tasty choice, but frankly I couldn't handle a third visit. To me it's a proof that too much of a good thing is not necessarily good. But that could be just my liver talking.

So that brings us to Totto Ramen, on W 52nd. Here you find a perfect balance between all flavors and ingredients. The broth at Totto is chicken-based which lends a certain lightness to the flavor. The noodles are expertly cooked al dente, and the slices of pork belly with stripes of translucent velvety fat melt in your mouth and are crisped by a torch before landing in your bowl. Additional toppings include soy marinated hard boiled egg, sprouts and green onions.

The menu is pretty bare bone and features only a handful of choices - you could get a plain ramen, a spicy ramen (that's regular ramen + a spoonful of chilly oil) or miso ramen. If you order one dish and one dish only - order the miso ramen. The bowl of creamy broth comes with a fragrant scoop of ground pork and fermented miso paste. The broth is so fantastic is almost addictive. The noodles are wavy and chewy and miso adds a level of earthy complexity to the dish. They sometimes serve the soup with diced white onion instead of the green onion, which makes the already sweet broth a bit too sweet for my taste. The pork belly which in itself is a work of art rounds up all flavors with its smoky perfection.

Miso ramen at Totto Ramen

Another nice thing about Totto Ramen is that it's modeled on authentic Japanese ramen joints (so I heard). You don't go there to spend time. You go there to satisfy your hunger or a craving as the case may be. You go in ( that's actually is not entirely true, as the lines outside usually stretch out the experience by extra 30 min), you eat your noodles and get out. The best place in the house is at the counter where you can watch chefs boil noodles, check the fat content of the broth and torch the pork belly and joke with each other at the expense of dinners they find entertaining.

Chef crisping pork belly with a torch

Sorry for the crappy photo quality (thanks for nothing iPhone)