BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Photo Friday: Sweeping Landscapes

As I find myself with more photos than I know what to do with these days, I thought it might be fun to institute a weekly round-up of a few favorites, sans commentary. The theme will change depending on what caught my eye in the previous days. Let me know what you think of the concept, and if you’d like to see more Photo Fridays in the future!


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Adjusting to Island Time

What do you call a trip that’s not quite a vacation, not entirely business, and lasts for a whole month? No, this isn’t a riddle, this is what I’m trying to figure out! I’ve made the leap over to Hawaii in hopes of weathering the worst of winter in a tropical paradise, and it’s wonderful, disorienting, dizzying, and exciting all at once. Never fear; regular posting will resume shortly, as soon as I adjust to island time.


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Earthly Delights at Dirt Candy

No larger than a modest walk-in closet, this unassuming storefront in the East Village is lined not with clothing racks but compact tables, hungry customers flanking all available sides. You don’t eat at Dirt Candy for the ambiance, but if you’re lucky enough to get a reservation in the first place, it’s hardly a distraction once the game of human Tetris has been played and all are snugly seated. An open view of the matchbox kitchen provides a unique sort of dinner theater, a glimpse behind the scenes, but also transfers a frenetic, chaotic energy to the whole meal. As the action spills out into the main floor, service does suffer; plates are hastily deposited without announcement or expansion, and questions are brushed off with unsatisfying half-answers. But ah well, these are reasonable compromises to be made in a chef-driven restaurant, provided that the food itself is capable of making up to these perceived slights.

And it does, for the most part, outshine the otherwise less than ideal conditions. An ambitious menu set on exploring new flavors and textures of vegetables, the entire list of dishes can be ordered in vegan format if they aren’t already free of animal products. Short and sweet, it reads like an excitable gardening catalog. Endearingly enthusiastic, that energy is contagious, making the anticipation for each coming course ever greater.

Cucumber! was my first pick of the evening, a hot and sour roasted cucumber soup poured tableside over shredded wood ear mushrooms and crispy fried rice sticks. For a clear liquid, that steaming broth was stunningly rich, enhanced with the toasted, nutty flavor of sesame oil. Fiery spices build quickly and linger through each subsequent slurp, unfortunately overshadowing the more delicate namesake vegetable. Though warm cucumbers don’t sound the least bit appealing on paper, somehow this curious combination really worked. The round sheets of cucumber gel were the stars of this show, combining a fresh cucumber flavor with a soft, jelly-like texture that seemed to melt delicately into the surrounding liquid.

A perennial favorite, mushroom! is a must order for anyone unfamiliar with the Dirt Candy perspective. So deeply and intensely savory that you can smell the umami coming at you from three feet away, the aroma of pure mushroom will reach you before the plate even emerges from the pass. Portobello mousse is the obvious star of the show, commanding your undivided attention with its impossibly dense, silky texture and deeply earthy, almost smoky flavor. Distilling the pure essence of portobello into this 1-inch cube must be some feat of alchemy, as it creates something that tastes more of the mushroom than any unadulterated fungus I’ve ever encountered. A seasonal fruit compote lends a stabilizing hit of sweetness to this umami powerhouse, the toast is a perfectly crisp vehicle for the decadent spread, but those secondary components can’t hope to rise beyond their supporting positions in the wake of that heavy-hitting mousse.

Though topped by a tempura-fried egg by default, corn! is happily veganized by request with tempura-fried watercress instead. While it doesn’t strike me as an equivalent swap, I can hardly argue with the results. Shatteringly crisp and delightfully salty, I could have happily gone to town on a plate of those battered greens for dinner. Moreover, their crunchy texture offset the luxurious pool of creamy polenta beneath. A buttery porridge of coarse cornmeal with the surprising twang of pickled shiitake peppered throughout, the whole dish screamed out “comfort food.” The promise of the highly elusive huitlacoche was a big selling point for me, so it’s regrettable that I walked away from that meal still unable to say what they taste like. Meted out in tiny dots around the periphery of the plate, it was more about the idea of eating rare corn fungus than the actual act of eating it.

When I think of beans, piles of beige chickpeas and navy beans come to mind, so the appearance of beans! was a bit of an initial shock. Towering above the other dishes in one carefully balanced stack, the beans came in the form of soybeans (tofu,) sea beans, and wax beans. Taste aside, you must know that this is the most flawless execution of tofu cookery I’ve come across to date; seared to an impossibly crunchy finish on both long sides of the white slab, it’s what every block of tofu dreams to become. The flavor is no slouch either, powered by a heavy-handed sprinkle of cayenne across the top, at times overwhelming the senses with heat. Such a blatant lack of finesse is startling at this level, preventing such a promising entree from becoming a clear winner. What really stands out in my mind was the unexpected inclusion of “savory oreos” hidden alongside the main stack. The “cookies” consisted of crispy black rice, and the filling was nothing more than yellow wax bean puree. Playful and creative, those two small bites really exemplified the mission statement at Dirty Candy.

Hands down, the best part of the meal was saved for last. I was certain that the famed Sweet Pea and Mint Nanaimo Bar wouldn’t translate into a dairy-free rendition, but it was my lucky day. Although comfortably full at this point in the meal, I’m so glad I made room for dessert, because the mint ice cream was just the light, refreshing finish to cap off a fairly decadent round of savories. Regrettably, the pea flavor was nowhere to be found, but that disappointment was short-lived. With such bright, herbaceous mint at the helm, who could complain? If only there were enough seats to squeeze in for a quick late night snack, I’d be sorely tempted to drop in for just another layered bar of ice cream delight.

Leaving the restaurant with mixed feelings but an undeniably satisfied stomach, it’s clear that the dining experience at Dirt Candy can’t be compared to any other in all fairness. A truly cerebral affair meant to inspire, challenge, and perhaps even provoke the diner at times, the food isn’t just the end product of the chef’s efforts; it’s the beginning of a whole new conversation about vegetables.


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A Meditative Meal

Not so far from the maddening crowds of Manhattan midtown, there sits an oasis of tranquility, hidden in plain sight. Prompted to remove your shoes before entering the dining room itself, this simple gesture simultaneously suggests that all other extraneous distractions be left at the door before proceeding. Adhering as closely to tradition as an entirely vegan Korean restaurant can, the experience of dining at Hangawi is almost as noteworthy as the food itself.

Presented as a modern temple of cuisine, it may be understandably intimidating at first glance, but waiters will kindly guide the curious, the clueless, and the seasoned eater all with equal grace. Even if you’ve never tasted kimchi before or couldn’t tell bibimbap from bulgogi, you’ll be able to find a meal that satisfies. Entering into this serene cocoon within the city, my most memorable prior experiences led me to believe that Korean food would taste somewhat like spicier Chinese takeout, which is to say homogenized, Americanized fast food. It was about time I got a new perspective on this previously foreign food culture.

Lightening the serious mood with a splash of iced tea, beverages are poured right at the table into purposefully imperfect ceramic tea cups, spacious enough to rival the pedestrian venti latte. Pomegranate Iced Tea, with its clear ice cubes sparkling within luscious crimson liquid, is a study in restraint. Tart without being aggressive, gently sweetened to take the edge off, and bearing a well-rounded fruity flavor, even such a generous pour goes down easily. Awareness of the sweltering heat and humidity just beyond those insulated walls vanished after a few restorative sips.

Diving head-first into the unknown, I was clamoring to try Todok Salad above all other dishes. Never before had this unusual root crossed my path, despite how common it seems to be in Asian cultures. Frequently described as “poor man’s ginseng,” todok has similar purported health benefits, but what I was more interested in was the taste. Fibrous yet still tender, the pale white shreds were very subtle in flavor- Mild, slightly nutty, and perhaps bearing an earthy sweetness, they proved to be an easy introduction for a meal outside my comfort zone. Paired with watercress, carrots, and dried cranberries, it would have been a pleasant enough start if not for the tide of dressing that washed away distinction between the vegetables. Already soggy by the time it hit the table, in hindsight, it might have been wise to request dressing on the side.

Picking up the slack for that underwhelming salad, an appetizer plate of Combination Rolls brought together a wide variety of savory samples, each one wrapped up in its own discrete nori or rice paper package. Trios of buckwheat noodle rolls, seaweed rolls, mushroom rolls and kimchi vermicelli rolls artfully adorned the plate, ideal for sharing with an equally hungry date. Easily eating more than my fair share of both the mushroom and buckwheat assortments, they both shared an unexpected depth and richness, enhanced by a lightly battered and fried exterior.

Silky Tofu in Clay Pot brings the heat, arriving in a bubbling hot broth and sizzling metal bowls we’re advised not to touch. Served with sticky white rice on the side to soak up every last drop of flavorful soup, this dish alone would have been enough for a solo diner’s lunch. So soft it practically melts in your mouth, the tofu is just as tender as promised. Stewing away in the boldly astringent, tangy, and spicy liquid, this pillowy bean curd is anything but bland.

Arriving with a plume of aromatic steam, each order of Kimchi Stone Bowl Rice comes with plenty of bean sprouts, shredded nori, and of course kimchi, with a bit of performance art on the side. After allowing us to admire the kitchen’s handiwork on the carefully composed grains and vegetables, our waiter snapped to attention and began vigorously mixing, scraping, and stirring, until every last morsel in that bowl begged for mercy. Dramatics aside, it’s easy to see why this signature dish has taken off with such ease. Well balanced, as I had come to expect from Hangawi‘s offerings, the crispy rice is truly the best part. Perfectly crunchy in a way that standard skillets can only dream of achieving, it’s the sort of dish that I could never fully replicate at home. There’s such finesse that goes into the technique, transforming plain white rice into something extraordinary, which demonstrates the mastery of the chefs here.

The spice level in the funky, fermented Kimchi isn’t hot enough bowl you over, but the burn certainly grows with each successive bite. Crazy though it may sound, the thin sheets of delicately rolled cabbage struck me as ideal palate cleansers between bites of so many wildly different dishes.

Unrivaled even in this city of unparalleled choice, there is no better place to experience a wholly plant-based Korean meal. Fine dining does come at a price, but lunch specials are much more budget-friendly, and I’ve heard that Hangawi‘s sister restaurant, Franchia, also serves similar dishes in a more casual, low-key setting. Clearly, my adventures into Korean cuisine are far from over… I can see a trip out to this second outpost in my near future, purely for the sake of research, of course.


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Back and Better Than Ever

Returning for another round in the ring, the second issue of Laika Magazine is just as hard-hitting as the first, and even more inspiring. My big story this time around would ordinarily have been a big step outside of my comfort zone, but turned out to be just the opposite. Visiting Philadelphia for the first time in my life, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It seemed like a tough place on paper, rough around the edges and staunchly resistant of outside influence. Every last person I spoke with turned that preconceived notion on its head, not the least of which being Miss Rachel of Miss Rachel’s Pantry. I had never seen a more welcoming establishment, where hugs are dispensed as freely as the coffee, nor felt more at home in a completely unfamiliar place. I won’t spoil the rest of the article for you, but rest assured, I’m equally effusive about the food.

Also included in this issue is another edition of Taste Notes, covering a few summertime staples that would be right at home at any backyard BBQ. Once you’ve got all of those promising ingredients on hand, it would be a shame not to whip up my recipe for meaty, cheesy Grilled JalapeƱo Poppers.

Those are my contributions this time around, but they’re not even the tip of the iceberg for all the material contained in this exciting new issue. You’ll just have to read it to find out the rest.


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Jay Kitchen NYC

Some experiences defy words, despite how many things remain to be said. Pop-up restaurants come and go by definition, a fleeting glimpse into a chef’s vision unleashed on the plate, but the memory of Jay Kitchen will stay with me for a very long time. Eight courses, many familiar faces, countless new friends, all packed into one evening. Even if the food had been middling it was a recipe for success, but let me assure you, conversation came to an abrupt halt with each new dish. Eating and savoring, the quiet was periodically interrupted only with utterances of pleasure.

What really gets me is the fact that Jay Astafa, mastermind behind all this, is only 20 years old. 20! Younger than me by four years, and so immensely talented, so accomplished. Now the tables are turned and I understand why so long ago, many writers felt it necessary to preface any article about my first book with a mention of my age.

Though I lingered in the kitchen quite a bit more than was perhaps helpful to the cooks buzzing about, assembling and sending out plates at the speed of lightning, the kindness and warmth I felt throughout the entire night was incredible. Never before have the staff actually raised the lights in the entire dining room so that I could get better photos. Or let me in the shoebox-sized kitchen, in the teeth of the dinner rush, snapping away amid the chaos. Any decent photos I stole should be credited to everyone behind the scenes and the lengths they went through to accommodate me. It was a simply amazing evening.

And that’s not to mention the food itself. I find myself tongue-tied trying to describe what I tasted, so unparalleled in its finesse that comparisons are impossible. Though the temptation to describe each dish in painstaking detail remains strong, I really think that the photos speak for themselves…

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Day of Celebration

Nothing motivates quite like a hard deadline, and this one certainly lit a fire underneath me. Kajitsu, temple of shojin cuisine in NYC, had been on my radar for years, but always seemed just outside of reach, despite its easy accessibility. Offering a set menu that changes each month, your only choices are between four courses or eight, with prices that match the painstakingly crafted edibles on offer. There just never seemed a proper occasion or reason to visit, never enough justification to drop that kind of cash on the experience of a single meal. As it turns out, the reason is presented right in the name: Kajitsu, translated as “fine day,” or “day of celebration,” says it all. In other words, treat y’o self, because today is just as worthy of celebration as any other.

When it came to light that the restaurant was closing up shop and moving to a new location, that was the catalyst for finally dropping by. Sure, it was due to reopen only a few weeks later in the heart of Manhattan, but I wanted the full, original experience. Moreover, I wanted an excuse, and this was as good as any.

Seated at the chef’s counter, we were privy to some of the fine details to go into composing these plates, but without seeing any of the real hustle and bustle in the kitchen. To call the atmosphere “meditative” is an understatement; there is no music, no loud chatter. Overhead lights focus directly on the food, which is the only place your attention is desired to fall. Distractions are at a minimum, right down to the tableware. Everything has a place and a purpose, including the attentive waitstaff, never missing a beat.

After the shorter kaze menu was chosen and our fate effectively sealed, the performance began.

Real, sharp, pungent wasabi grated mere seconds before hitting the plate took me by surprise. It was nothing like the colored horseradish found in most other eateries, but that was only an accent flavor to the Sashimi Style King Oyster Mushroom. Served chilled, the slippery slices of mushroom were paired with a savory sauce, a perfect compliment to the natural umami found within. Another delicious surprise came by way of the pickled celery, delightfully tender and yet crunchy all at once. That’s the sort of condiment I would buy by the jarful if only they would package it.

Daikon Soup may not sound like much on paper, but the surprisingly thick broth, enriched with a light asparagus puree, perfectly hit the spot. Concealed by a thin sheet of simmered daikon, a single piece of wheat gluten shaped like an ume blossom stood out in brilliant pink, a playful addition that lightened the serious mood. It would be a stretch to describe a bowl of soup “fun,” but that little touch brought a smile to my face.

The main course ,which was named the Plum Tree Plate, was a collage of complimentary components, displayed together on one plate. Standouts include the lily bulb puree, which is something never before seen in my world, and tasted for all the world like classic, comforting mashed potatoes. Fava beans and string beans came coated in a crispy, completely grease-free shell of tempura, adding just the right degree of indulgence into the meal.

Finally, ending on a soothing note, Baby Mountain Yam Soupy Rice gave diners an opportunity to play with their food just a little bit. Soup came in a separate pitcher, to be poured over a perfectly molded square of yam-filled sushi rice. Sheets of nori practically melted upon contacting the hot broth, seamlessly adding just a hint of oceanic salinity into the mix. Though my sweet tooth still yearned for a sphere of mochi or a small matcha cookie, I found myself perfectly full and content after that last spoonful of soup.

It was a meal worth the wait, although I certainly won’t let so much time pass before my next visit. Happily, they’re due to reopen in Murray Hill by mid-March, so there’s no excuse not to celebrate the day, for any reason at all.

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