Having only started eating raw fish at the ripe age of 23, I would be condemned to call myself a Japanese food expert. In fact, it was not until recently that I have learnt the subtle difference between sushi and nigiri. All that being said, I beg you to listen to me on this one – do NOT waste your time going to Morimoto.
The only thing I remember coming out of Morimoto in the Meatpacking District in New York is the interesting waiting staff and a bill that broke my wallet, burning the biggest hole in it than any other Japanese restaurants I’ve been to in the city. What I mean by interesting, my friend M has the definition, “like walking into a Benetton commercial”, and she did not mean to cause any political distress with this. What she meant was actually quite the contrary - although Mr. Morimoto was doing everything in his power to create a staff body with as interesting a variety as possible in terms of height, weight, ethnicity and gender, what he has somehow forgotten to address is their attitude and knowledge of food. As bubbly and cheerful as they might appear, they exude an air of, either “I’m so cool I’m working at Morimoto, here’s your food and don’t expect me to know anything about it apart from its name,” from the tattooed, peroxide-blonde guy with a 6, 8, or was it a 10 pack?!, or “I’m at your humble service. I’m so grateful I was given the opportunity by the kind Mr. Morimoto to work here. I’ve tried very hard to remember the name of this dish so please don’t ask me anything else about it, please…” from the small, lanky Indian guy with the shy smile. We did exactly as we were assumedly told. We ate quietly and did not ask any questions. When the girl at the reception came round the fifth time asking us how everything was, we just politely smiled and nodded. We did not know what else to say.
In all fairness, the food at Morimoto was not bad at all. Tuna tartar, nigiri, wagyu beef, lobster… all the essentials, or typical, were there. But as an Iron Chef with a Tadao Ando designed interior in your restaurant and a $190 omakase menu, you better have something more to show before I’ll come back to you again.
I know it must be blasphemy to some, like the way I don’t like chocolate (please don’t kill me), but I’ve never liked Meg Ryan, or any of her films for that matter. Not Sleepless in Seattle, not You’ve got Mail, and definitely not When Harry Met Sally. In fact, I’ve never even seen When Harry Met Sally, but I’m pretty much sure I won’t like it given my distaste for Billy Crystal and the Meg Ryan-genre of films. For me, she’s your average neighbourhood woman with mediocre looks and even more mediocre acting.
Hence I was pleasantly surprised when I found myself quoting When Harry Met Sally while trying to convince PJ to come to Katz’s Deli with me.
“Forget Shake Shack! (I did not feel like queuing in the rain in Madison Square Park that day) Katz’s Deli is so much cooler, it’s where Harry met Sally! (Did he? Or did they just eat here?)
PJ, obviously a Meg Ryan fan, was immediately bought. So we raced through the rain on the Lower East Side and into the crowded dining hall of Katz Deli - forever packed, forever busy, and it is so for a reason. Katz's is the oldest delicatessen in New York City (established 1888) and the only place in town that still carves all its pastrami and corned beef by hand (apparently it makes a huge difference, but I am not one to tell). I was told that the ritual of interacting with the countermen is one of the great New York experiences, but busily trying to battle the hordes of people looking for a table I gave this grandiose task to my friend PJ, who, with his history of chatting up strangers to the point where he was invited to an ice cream date at Serendipity with a mother and her young daughter (who were customers sitting at the next dinner table), took an instant liking to the countermen in front of him. He came back boasting about free pastrami he was given to try.
One table in the middle of the dining room bears an inconspicuous paper sign taped to its surface: "You are sitting at the table where Harry met Sally." In the background the security guard is doubling up as restaurant manager, handing out tickets and rounding people up into organized lines to ease congestion that is blocking the doorway. The pastrami sandwiches are tasting delicious, with cheese and onions oozing through the soft bread, and we are feeling very, very happy.
My friend E did not remember she haggled with the Halal food proprietor outside a club on the Lower East Side that night coming out from K’s birthday party. Haggling? In NYC?! Perhaps it might help to know that she’d come straight from working too long a time in Shanghai.
“You have to have Halal in New York,” E said, half tripping over her own shoes as she tried to balance herself on the sidewalk with chicken rice in one hand and lamb on the other. Obviously, her haggling did not work, but it did not prevent her from asking, in all her charms, for “extra white sauce AND extra hot sauce”, which almost set our tongues on fire.
E did not quite remember what happened that night the day after, but I sure did, thanks to the rice. So like a good foodie I tried to track down the best of its kind, and who better to ask than my friend little K whose profile on Facebook is, conveniently, a picture of herself swimming in a bowl of Kimchi Chiggae? In all secrecy, like passing down a kung fu move in the mountains of Shaolin, little K bestowed upon me the location of her favourite Halal vendor like a true master, and added, “In general, you have to look for the big carts - the bigger the better. Even better still if they have colourful lights. And of course, if you see a long queue, that’s always a good sign.”
I did not quite guard that piece of information with my life as I had intended, and was giving myself a hard time for having left that paper at home the other day on my way out from MOMA and for letting my mouth water from the plain wondrous smell and fair sight of a Halal stall not far from it. I decide to give it a try anyway. After all, the line was pretty long for four in the afternoon.
Honestly that was one of the best things I have had in New York. The lamb was flavourful, the chicken tender, the rice cooked just right, and the mixture (in the right amount) of white and hot sauce, perfect. It came hefty in a takeaway box, like how all comfort foods should be.
I eat this all in the soothing afternoon sun at home, and when I finally managed to drag myself away from it, pulled out that piece of highly confidential paper – as it turned out, I had serendipitously found the best Halal stand in the world this afternoon.
Coming in to our 7pm reservation, the first thing I asked the Blue Hill reception was this, “I know our table’s ready, but I really want to meet Boris the Bear. Can you tell me where I might find him?”
“You mean, Boris the BOAR?” asked the manager. “I’m sorry to break this to you, but he’s no longer with us. He used to be our stud, everybody wanted to come in and see him, but he’s now several tons of Italian sausage, and they’re really tasty!”
First of all, it was kind of embarrassing to mistake BOAR as BEAR. Second of all, Boris is NO LONGER? I found that somewhat disheartening. But then again, there was something about that tone of voice, or was it something about the farm, or the beautiful barn and the multi-coloured sunset looming over it, or maybe it was just everything put together, that made it seem ok. So it is kind of scary that the star of Blue Hill got chopped up and made into sausages, but you can almost be sure that he lived a happy and much loved life before. I don’t know, is this a twisted thought?
We arrived for dinner at Blue Hill Stone Barnes, about 45 minutes away from Manhattan, at 6.30pm, and practically did not get out of there until 11.30pm – a five hour long dinner (mind you our reservation was supposed to be for 10pm, which meant that we would have been eating till 3 in the morning if not for the last minute cancellation from a fellow guest) – exhausted but perfectly happy. In short, I was ready to announce Blue Hill my favourite restaurant in the world.
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Eating at Blue Hill will completely distort your vision of what dinner at a restaurant is supposed to be like, and I am not simply talking about distortion in the sense of an egg-like creature made of carrot juice and a jelly substance a la El Bulli style. What I am talking about is the heart and soul behind restaurant cooking. There is no menu per se at Blue Hill. Instead you are given a list of fresh ingredients gathered on the day from local farms within a couple-miles radius from the restaurant, all of which practice artisanal organic farming. The result of this respect for the land is creations such as “eggs laid fresh today from free range chickens paired with mushrooms gathered by the local forager” (complete with the waiter bringing you eggs in a nest and mushrooms on a tree bark to inspect in Cantonese-seafood-restaurant-‘Here’s the fish you ordered Sir its just over a pound hope that’s ok’-manner). Did I mention that the first hors d'oeuvre we had was vegetables (amongst them baby carrots, celery and a tiny sour fruit which in fact was a baby green tomato) sitting on a bed of needles? Fresh from Blue Hill’s backyard, of course.