Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Dinner at Morimoto (Omakase) in Philly

When my sister was in college, she went to school close enough to where my dad worked that they often went out to lunch together.  When I was in high school, my dad told me that when I got to college we would do the same, but life likes to throw a curveball at you every now and then, and somehow I ended up three and a half hours away from home which is a bit too far of a drive to have lunch with your daughter.  But this weekend my dad came to see me for just that.

This has been a hard last semester for me, and knowing that, my dad told me he wanted to take me out to dinner.  It was so nice to see him and talk to him, especially since I haven't been home since early March.  We decided to eat at Morimoto in Philly.  Morimoto is indeed owned by the Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, and our previous two experiences dining there were very good, so we decided to return.

On the weekends, Morimoto only serves dinner, and so we made a reservation for 5pm.  Being in the city, the restaurant does offer $15 valet parking, however the parking garage right by the restaurant has a special weekend deal of $10 so we opted to do that instead.

Moritmoto is a fairly large restaurant with high ceilings, an open sushi bar area, and private dining facilities.  It is fairly low lit (great atmosphere for a date) so I had to take these pictures with flash, which I felt was somewhat obnoxious (I know some restaurants actually won't let you take flash photos because it disturbs the other diners).  But, to my surprise, no one complained about my picture taking.  I did try to keep it to a minimum, but I go to great lengths to keep this blog colorful for you readers.  My apologies to those who dine with me and have to be kept waiting before being allowed to eat their food.  To let you know what those eating with me have to go through, I took 79 pictures during this meal with my dad.  And that was only for two people.  Imagine what I put my family of four through when we all eat together.

Anyhow, my dad and I decided on what we were ordering pretty quickly.  We had never had the omakase at Morimoto before, so my dad told me to order that while he would order off the menu.  The Morimoto omakase is the “chef’s choice multicourse tasting menu.”  You aren't given a choice in what you eat (although food allergies are taken into account) as the menu features the kitchen's best dishes.  This menu also changes seasonally. There is a $80 option and a $120 option. I went with the $80 option.

My dad started with the 10 hour pork "kakuni" ($12).  This dish features a braised pork belly with hot rice porridge.  It was a little salty because of the braising liquid which had been reduced to make a sauce.  The sauce sadly detracted from the wonderful flavor of the rice porridge because it was so salty.  The meat was perfectly seasoned, vaguely sweet, and very full-bodied in flavor.  This was a very filling dish, fit for winter.  We gave it a 7 out of 10, only because this was something we had ordered before and it had been better, since it hadn't been quite so salty.

For his main course, my dad had the "duck duck duck" ($32).  This dish featured Madras roasted duck breast, which was beautifully cooked.  The duck was the perfect shade of pink, had a nice texture, and was full of flavor.  It was served with a sweet mandarin oolong reduction, braised lotus root, and curried mango.  I really enjoyed the different textures: the crunchy lotus root and the soft mango with the tender duck.  The duck was accompanied by duck confit fried rice with a poached duck egg on top.  Our waitress recommended that we pierce the egg yolk and mix it with the rice and eat the dish that way.  The rice itself was very flavorful and beautifully textured--I would be happy with a bowl of this for any meal--however the duck confit was very salty.  This was yet another meaty dish made for cold weather, and it worked well for the chilly and rainy Saturday.  It had a lot of character, and we gave it an 8.5 out of 10.

To start, I had a hamachi yellowtail tartar. This was served in a mirin, sugar, and dashi soy sauce with fresh black caviar, wasabi, and a Japanese Yomamo mountain peach.  I am not a huge fan of tartar, but the fish melted in my mouth and was flavored with chives and garlic.  It was soft, delicate, and mixed with crispy fried scallions, which added a nice element of texture.  The only problem I had with it was that the fish was a little too salty because of the soy sauce.  It was hard to control the salt content when the fish was essentially swimming in a pond of sodium.  The mountain peach was delightful.  The small red ball pictured above was bright, juicy, sweet and sour at the same time, and altogether delicious.  I could eat twenty of them if given the opportunity.  It was a very nice way to wrap the dish.  I gave the entire thing an 8 out of 10.

The third dish was a ginger-garlic rubbed Amadai carpaccio.  There were five pieces of fish, however I was so eager to eat it, it actually completely slipped my mind to take a picture.  So, I'm sorry, the lone piece of fish pictured above is all you get to see.  But trust me, it was beautifully plated.  Amadai is a white tile fish.  It was served with yuzu soy and hot chili oil which quickly and lightly cooks the fish.  It was boldly flavored and yet simple to prepared.  I like that the sauce had a slight bit of acidity to it, which worked well with the salt and spicy of the yuzu and chili.  I also really enjoyed the texture of the partially cooked fish.  I am not a fan of raw fish normally, but this was very good.  An 8.5 out of 10.

My fourth dish was a sashimi salad with saware, which is a Spanish mackerel.  The sashimi was served with a chive-soy onion dressing (hidden under the greens).  The dish was well-balanced.  I also really enjoyed the texture and flavor of the saware.  Morimoto truly knows how to compliment the natural flavors of fish.  An 8 out of 10.

After this round of dishes, I was given a pomelo mint soda palate cleanser served in a shot glass.  It was refreshing, vaguely sweet, balanced by some acidity, and very light.  This signaled the end of the raw dishes and the entrance of the hot plates.

The first hot dish was king salmon from Alaska.  As our waitress explained, this dish was made to stimulate all five tastes: bitter, salty, sweet, sour, and umami.  The king salmon was rubbed with togarashi, which is a seven spice mix that includes pepper and cumin and is thus both spicy and sweet.  The salmon was lightly seared and beautifully cooked to retain its moisture.  The umami broth was made with ramps and dried anchovies (among other things).  A few slice of pickled rhubarb were layered at the bottom of the bowl for a hint of sour.  There was also a teriyaki mushroom and fava bean pesto.  The fava bean pesto was one of my favorite elements.  This was the first thing during the meal to make me say wow during the course of the meal.   I would have been happy to have more of everything in this dish.  It was delicate and elegant and a wonderful combination of flavors.  Everything married together beautifully.  A very solid 9.5 out of 10.

For my next hot course, I had duck breast served with a scallion pancake.  A little carrot puree and kim chi also served as accompaniments.
There was not as much of a textural component to this dish as there had been in some of the other dishes, but the flavors were very well-balanced.  The duck was delicious.  I also really liked the kim chi, and this is coming from someone who doesn't normally enjoy kim chi.  The candied kombu (the black strips) also had great flavor--smoky and sweet--and texture.  The dish was a 9 out of 10.

For my last savory course, I had a sashimi tasting which included (from left to right, top to bottom) mangoro tuna, striped jackfluke fin (loved the texture), baby herring, and squid.  It would be too difficult to try to describe the tastes or textures of this dish, but I gave it an 8 out of 10.

For dessert I was given a chocolate sour cherry bavarian.  The bavarian had a very delicate cherry flavor, which was almost ethereal in quality.  It was the kind of dessert that had to be eaten slowly to be truly appreciated, since the bavarian had to melt in your mouth to release its cherry flavor.  It tasted like pink clouds.  Honestly.  On the bottom of the bavarian was a dense dark chocolate layer.  Altogether, the dessert was a 9 out of 10.

The overall experience was lovely, as usual.  We enjoyed what we ate and the waitstaff was attentive and well informed about the food they were serving.  However, I know Morimoto can and has done better and so it was a bit of a disappointment in the sense that nothing amazed me, but for any first-timer, it would have been an excellent experience, I'm sure.  Morimoto is also a nice place to take a date, if you're willing to put the money out.  The restaurant is not cheap, but the quality of food is excellent, and the restaurant has a trendy but intimate feel to it.  I would be happy to return here to try more of Morimoto's dishes, especially his hot plates.  As a note to anyone planning on coming here, one of the dishes my family tried our first time that was incredibly amazing was his Chilean sea bass.  Absolutely delicious and highly recommended.

723 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
Tel. 215-413-9070
Overall rating for the price: 8.5 out of 10

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Musing on Cooking, Baking,and this Blog

I officially now have less than a month left of college. In August I will start medical school. It is a daunting thought and I can't say that I'm looking forward to it. I am excited, but also anxious and nervous. August is when the rest of my life begins.  I don't know if I'm ready.

And what is funny about that is that after August I don't know what will become of this blog.  Will I have the time for it?  Of course I will still be cooking—I need to feed myself!—but I don’t know if I will be able to post up recipes and pictures here.  I certainly won’t be doing as many restaurant reviews (though speaking of reviews, I promise that my next post will be on a great restaurant in Philly!).  But I don't want to stop doing this.  I really enjoy writing on this food blog, and it is always exciting to see how many readers my posts attract.  I used to text or email my boyfriend whenever my visitor count was particularly high or whenever I saw a lot of people reading my blog from their iPhones or Blackberries (the stats collected by this site allow me to see such things) because it made me so happy.

I never intended on this project becoming something into which I would invest so much time and love.  I started this on a whim. It was just a fun little summer project after a birthday lunch with my cousin. I didn't even do an introductory post.  When the thought occurred to me to share a good recipe with an audience I would never meet, I posted.  And then this past summer I went to France and I collected all these great food stories that I felt that I ought to share.  So I came back to this and I earnestly wrote down everything.  And you read it.  It was so exciting to see my visitor count jump, to know that it wasn't just my mom reading it, or my sister or my dad.  I'd never had anyone to really talk to about food and recipes before, but this gave me an outlet.  And I've really liked sharing my stories and recipes with you.

Knowing that I have this blog to maintain has made me try new recipes just so I could report about them here.  It made me pay attention to what I was doing in the kitchen.  I was never a recipe follower and never a measurer before this blog, but once I knew that I would have to write about my food for someone, I began to pay attention.

They say you can tell the difference between a baker and a cook because a cook never measures while a baker is precise about amounts.  I suppose that would put me in the cooking camp, but I am a dessert girl.  When I think about coming into the kitchen, I think about baking, or about making a mousse or a tart, or throwing together a fruit cobbler.  (I still dream about getting an ice cream maker so I can start experimenting with that part of the food world)  Yet, even though I consider myself a baker, I defy the typical stereotype of serious bakers because I am not fastidious about my measurements.  In my eyes, all recipes can be altered.  In fact, I really don't think I've ever left a recipe alone before.  I always like to throw in a little extra salt, maybe some spices, a dash of rum.  I'll use what I have on hand to replace ingredients that I don't want to buy.  I decrease fat and sugar content while upping the sodium level.  And even when measuring things like flour or baking soda, I don't use precision.  I "eyeball" measurements for teaspoons and tablespoons, and with my flour, instead of leveling off the amounts, I use the "scoop and shake" measure.  And yet, rarely have my recipes ever failed me.

Perhaps that's because I've never made a souffl√© or or macaroons and while I read about it, I have yet to dip my toes into the ever expanding river of molecular gastronomy.  Or perhaps it is because at its heart, making food is about being able to feel what is right.  That's why, I suppose, I always write my recipes so loosely and that's actually why I fell so in love with food.

My little forays into the kitchen started out small.  Like many kids, when I was growing up, I sometimes made cupcakes and cake from packaged mixes with my mom.  But we didn't follow the instructions.  It was from my mom that I learned that trick of replacing some of the water with rum (no worries folks, the alcohol bakes off in the oven) and throwing in raisins or dried fruit or sliced almonds.  And when my parents cooked up Vietnamese dishes--soups and curries and stir fries--nothing was ever in exact amounts.  I watched them mix and taste and call each other into the kitchen for opinions on more nuoc mam (fish sauce) or bot cari (curry powder).  When I got older, I began to help them season.  My dad taught me the trick of cooking meat with a little bit a sweetness--pineapple juice in curries and sugar with pork for caramelization--and my mom explained to me the importance of putting salt in desserts.

In high school the one savory thing I prided myself on being able to cook was omelets.  They were simple, yes, but perfectly seasoned (the secret ingredient was Maggi) and perfectly cooked.  I was a pro at flipping them as well.  My high school boyfriend liked them so much, sometimes I actually packed his lunch to school.  From that small beginning, I've graduated to making my own chicken broth from scratch.  I'm so comfortable making risotto, I even leave my pot unattended and wash dishes while I cook.  It's amazing how these things come with practice.  I've cooked my own steak, made my own chicken, and poached my own eggs so many times now I no longer feel the need to take a thousand pictures when the results are perfect.

I'd still love the satisfaction of making my own yogurt, my own pasta, and my own ice cream, and someday I'd like to tell someone I know how to carve up a pineapple the right way (I tell my mother all the time that she will have to be the one that feeds my kids pineapple, or they won't eat any), but for now, this is wonderful.  This learning process has been fulfilling and filling, and I have enjoyed being able to share a little bit of it with you.  I hope that doesn't stop when the next chapter of my life begins.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Strawberry Cheesecake Bars

I used to hate cream cheese.  Well, really, I never gave it a chance because I had a real aversion to anything cheese.  And while cream cheese is a very, very distantly removed cousin from Gouda or Brie, I just had a mental block against it.  This mental block didn't affect my life much because when I was growing up, my house never really had cream cheese or bagels.  Those things were just for sleepovers.  I didn't even consider them "treats."  It was just what my Caucasian friends ate.  Kind of like pizza.  It wasn't something my family ate often, and it was never something I craved or wanted.

Then one day, a bunch of my friends had a movie night at my house.  It was potluck style and people brought various different things.  One of the guys brought a cheesecake that his mom had made.  No one ate much during the movie, but afterwards while we hung out to talk, someone asked if we could slice into the cheesecake.  Everyone took a slice as we sat down at the table, so out of politeness so did I.  I was only going to eat a teensy bit of the cherry sauce on top and maybe take a scrape at the crust, but then we kept talking and talking and I felt like I looked so rude, not eating the cheesecake when everyone else was, so I hesitantly took the smallest bite possible.  And to my surprise, it was good.  It was slightly tart and slightly sweet, and fluffy and creamy and much lighter than I ever though cheesecake could be.  I was hooked.  I ended up asking to keep the entire cheesecake, and I ate at it slowly over the next few days.  After it was gone, I couldn't stop thinking about it.

I bugged him and bugged him for the recipe, but he never gave it to me, and now I haven't spoken to him in about two or three years, so that cheesecake recipe will probably never be mine.  But that's okay.  I did some research and I've made my own mini cheesecakes before (delicious) and I finally decided today that it was about time I tried making flavored cheesecakes.

Of course, the first flavor I wanted to try was strawberry.  My friends who know me now understand that I have a very serious relationship with strawberry cream cheese.  Our caf√© has daily changing flavors of "special cream cheese," and I get very excited when strawberry shows up.  My roommate finally asked me why I don't just buy my own strawberry cream cheese, and so I went ahead and made my own strawberry cheesecake bars.  Not exactly the same thing, but close enough.  And very satisfying.

The recipe below is fairly flexible.  You can use it to make plain cheesecake bars if you use regular cream cheese (and omit the orange zest and strawberry sauce), and you can make strawberry cheesecakes bars using strawberry cream cheese or regular cream cheese.  I used a combination of both. Also, I like my cheesecakes a little tart, and so the sugar level is a bit lower than you normally find in cheesecake, and sometimes I actually add a bit of freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice as well. Part of the reason for this is because I tend to use heavy whipping cream instead of sour cream, but if you use sour cream, the extra acid won't be necessary.  Also, I like to have a pretty even crust to cheesecake ratio, so I don't do tall cheesecakes.  I really enjoy the taste of the crust, especially when it's made out of crumbled gingersnaps.  Delicious!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

I hesitated for a long time about sharing this recipe.  It's not because there's anything wrong with it; quite the opposite, actually.  I wasn't sure about sharing this recipe because as much as I love sharing food and knowledge, I also like to keep some secrets.  This was one of them.

Since high school this was, and still is, my most popular recipe among my friends.  In fact, my best friend (and at one point boyfriend), Josh still raves about them.  It was my go-to gift for him: Valentine's day, Christmas, and random surprises.  The majority of the time when I made these Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies, at least some of the cookies were going to him.  In fact, I still associate this recipe with memories of him and thus these cookies always make me smile.

Last summer, Josh asked me to teach him the recipe because he wanted to use it to bake cookies for someone he was interested in, and then just a couple weeks ago, he asked once more for the recipe and instructions.  He isn't much of a cook or baker, so when I came home (to Maryland), we got together so that I could show him how to make these cookies.

It wasn't until I started showing him that I realized how much more goes into making food than just the ingredients.  There are very specific things that I do that I sometimes forget to write down because, having done them so many times, the steps seems so logical to me.  For example, not using cookie dough right away.  Even before the New York Times came out with its "research" on how to make the best chocolate chip cookie (which I still haven't tried, because I like my cookie too much), I was freezing or refrigerating my dough for at least a day.  At first it was for the convenience of time.  In high school I couldn't afford to make cookie dough and bake cookies in the same night; it was too much to do after coming home from track or cross-country practice with all my homework to do as well.  But then I noticed that my cookies had a better texture when the dough wasn't used right away.  They spread less; they were chewier and more moist; they caramelized better.  I've also learned how truly important it is to cream the butter and sugar for long period of time and to beat in the eggs, milk, and vanilla until the "batter" is essentially frosting.  The lightness of the cookie depends on this step.

What is posted below makes enough dough for two tall cylindrical plastic containers (the kind you get from take-out Chinese food) of cookie dough, and makes enough cookies for at least 4 or 5 trays of baking.  These don't spread a whole lot—that’s what the refrigeration step does for you—but I also shape my cookie dough “balls” into thick pancakes, and so I can fit a good number of fat cookies on each sheet, maybe 9.

These oatmeal chocolate chip cookies are light, moist, and relatively healthy.  They don't have an over abundance of butter or sugar, and I think their texture makes them more fun to eat than plain chocolate chip cookies.  They'll keep for about a week at room temperature, in an air tight container, but sometimes I will freeze them or refrigerate them after baking.  In the fridge they will keep for about two weeks; in the freezer, about a month.  I know that sounds strange, but I like the taste of cold cookies sometimes.  Because of their airiness, the cookies never actually freeze to an icy hardness, but instead get very cold, and the chocolate chips snap in your mouth in a very satisfying way.

Also, as a testament to how good these cookies are, I couldn't even snap a picture of all of them after baking, because they were gone so quickly.  I do like the close ups, though, and the very first picture on this post gives you an idea of what size my cookies are so you can have that reference for baking times.

Happy baking!