Arata, New York, NY

Arata is the new-ish Japanese vegan restaurant from Matthew Kenny, the famed vegan restaurateur, who is opening multiple vegan restaurants in major cities across the globe. In New York City’s East Village he has a lock on 2nd avenue between 3rd and 4th street with Bar Verde (Mexican), Double Zero (Pizza) and Arata all in a row. I have eaten at Double Zero several times and loved it, so I was psyched to try his Japanese concept. Unfortunately, Arata is not his finest work, in fact it was mediocre to poor. With over 20 restaurants spread out around the world maybe he has overextended himself.

Shitake Summer Vegetable Gyoza

We tried the Maitake Mushroom and Kabocha Tempura which was disappointing, the tempura was overcooked and slightly burned and I don’t think we got a single piece of Maitake Mushroom. The kabocha was just sweet flavored mush inside a hard casing of burned tempura. The cold Soba entree did not redeem Arata. It supposedly came with peanut sauce, shisho, pickled green onions, dried kumquat, wasabi peas, barbecued king oyster mushrooms, sticky rice, chili-soy glaze, and lotus chips, but I don’t think my bowl came with half of these items. The noodles were closer to overcooked spaghetti than classic soba noodles, and tasted mainly of peanut sauce, with no acid component from the pickles or chili-soy that was supposed to be in the dish.

Arata did have some interesting beers, I really enjoyed the Yuzu Lager

Dumplings: At $16 for five gyoza, the Shitake Summer Vegetable Gyoza Arata should be turning out an amazing dumpling, but instead they were weak – that was three strikes for Arata. I am not sure what the summer vegetables were supposed to be, but the filling was a soft mush with the consistency of overcooked sweet potato. The filling had a sweet, mildly nutty flavor with no umami you would expect from Shitake mushrooms, in fact the Shitake had no discernible presence in the filling. I think the dumplings had been sitting for a while before they brought the out to us. The fried bottom of the gyoza were a golden color but were leathery rather than crispy and the steamed top part the dumplings wrappers were stiff rather then supple.

Dipping Sauce: The gyoza came with a ginger soy dipping sauce which provided a little bit of acid to the dumplings but also added more sweetness. The sauce was not really built to complement or balance the dumplings.

Location: Arata is on 2nd avenue on the corner of 4th street in New York’s East Village neighborhood. I recommend going next door to Double Zero and getting awesome vegan pizza.

Posted in Gyoza, New York City, Vegan, Vegetarian, Veggie Dumplings | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Potala Restaurant, Jackson Heights, Queens

I flew into LaGuardia airport a couple of weeks ago when Trump was speaking to the UN General Assembly and the traffic and gridlock that day in Manhattan were supposed to be murder.  So I decided to have a cab drop me in Jackson Heights at the 7 train stop and subway it onto Manhattan.  I had been out to Jackson Heights a couple of years ago to eat momos, (here and here) but I was surprised by the explosion of momo restaurants that has happened since then.  After looking at menus at over a dozen places around the intersection of Broadway and Roosevelt Ave, I more or less randomly picked Potala Restaurant to try a serving of momos.  Tashi D. Lama, the owner of Potala, was born and raised in Kathmandu, Nepal where he became a monk, but since June 2017 has been cooking up laphing and momo in a tiny store front with counter space for about 10 diners.

Chive momos

The Dumplings:  The momos at Potala Restaurant are round precisely pleated buns, that look similar to Xiao Long Bao, and come filled with beef, chicken or vegetable.  The momos are steamed to order and so it takes 10 to 12 minutes for the bamboo steamer to be served up.  The vegetable momos are vegan and were filled solely with chives, which tasted like mild scallions.  It was a bit of a singular flavor for an entire meal but after a couple of days of food at a conference in Texas, it felt good to eat something green and healthy.  Some of the momo I got had wrappers that were split and a little damaged, so I think they had been over-steamed, but I enjoyed these momos.

The Dipping Sauces:  There were bottles of soy sauce and a yellow achar sauce and tubs of red chili paste on the dining counter.  Unlike some of the other Himalayan restaurants I have tried, the yellow achar they serve is not spicy but instead is mild and creamy.

The Location:  Potala Restaurant is in Jackson Heights on 37th Road between 74th and 75th Streets around the corner from the 74th Street-Broadway Station entrance for the 7 train.  This area is center for Himalayan restaurants in New York City.

 

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Recipe Fail – Homemade Vegan Kimchi Takoyaki

Takoyaki batter, scallions and kimchi

Takoyaki batter failing to set up

After mastering making Okonomiyaki at home I decided that I would learn to make Takoyaki.  I ordered a Tako pan and Otafuku Takoyaki flour and sauce from Amazon and watched a bunch of YouTube videos on making Takoyaki.  The Otafuku recipe calls for 4 oz of Takoyaki flour, 2 eggs and scallions and I decide to put kimchi in the middle instead of octopus pieces.  Unfortunately the batter did not set up, it stubbornly stayed liquid except the outer layer which burned and stuck to my Tako pan.

I used a lot of oil in the cups of the pan so I don’t think this was the problem.  Since I was trying to make vegan Takoyaki I used an egg replacement which has worked perfectly for the Okonomiyaki, so I don’t think that was the problem either.  I don’t have a kitchen scale, so I Googled “how many cups is 4 oz of flour” and got back an answer of 2/3 of a cup; my guess is I should have used a lot more flour than this.  If I can ever get my Tako pan clean again I will try making the batter with a full cup of flour.

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Mentoku Ramen, New York, NY

Pork Gyoza

Mentoku Ramen specializes in Hakata style ramen, a regioanl style of ramen local to Fukuoka Prefecture.  Traditionally Hakata style ramen has a cloudy white pork bone broth and thin noodles and a minimalist approach to garnishing, just green onions and char siu pork.  At Mentoku their base ramen dish sticks to this formula and then they have several options with more toppings, including a “whipped cream” topping made of potato.

The Dumplings:  Mentoku serves pork gyoza and Takoyaki, both of which are expertly prepared.  The pork gyoza had paper thin skins that were fried crispy on the bottom and were filled with a mild, finely minced pork and some scallions.  However, it was the Yuzu Kosho condiment that took this disk to 11.  Yuzu Kosho is a paste made from a mash of chili peppers, yuzu peel and salt, which has been allowed to ferment.  It has salty, spicy, citrus grapefruit flavor, with a layer of anchovy or fish sauce flavor funk, that I assume is created by the fermentation.  This is my new favorite condiment and it worked so well with the gyoza.

Small order of takoyaki.

The takoyaki were are really good, crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside.  Mentoku makes their takoyaki with larger amounts of octopus than I have seen in any other versions of this dish.  Maybe taking their cue from the restrained garnishing on the Hakata style ramen, the takoyaki were not garnished with the full monty of topping, just mayo, takoyaki sauce and slivered bonito.

The Location:  Mentoku is on ninth avenue between 50th and 51st in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, or as the restaurant seems to be trying to re-brand it, the “NYC Ramen District”.  Ninth avenue from 57th street to 35th street, and most of the side streets, is a massive restaurant row of cheap to mid-range priced dining options and is one of the major foodie destinations in NYC.

Posted in Gyoza, Japanese, New York City, Takoyaki | 1 Comment

Yu Kitchen, New York, NY

Spicy and Sour Pork Wontons

The recently opened, Yu Kitchen is clearly catering to the cravings of Columbia University’s international students for home style Chinese food, rather than to the old school Upper West Side residents who grew up on the American-Chinese food that used to dominate this neighborhood.  There is no Sesame Chicken at Yu Kitchen, but the is Pita Bread soaked in Beef/Lamb soup with Sweet Garlic and Xi’an Meatballs with White Pepper Soup.  Yu Kitchen specializes in Northwestern Chinese cuisine, with a menu that includes hot pots, handmade dumplings and wontons, and a huge selection of homemade noodles and rice.  I have written about this trend of more authentic regional Chinese restaurants opening in Manhattan Valley, but this is not a net gain for the neighborhood as Yu Kitchen opened in the old Lava Kitchen location.  While Lava Kitchen was a basic counter service joint, Yu Kitchen is a full service restaurant with tables and booths.

Shrimp, Pork & Leek Dumplings

The Dumplings:  The dumplings and wontons at Yu Kitchen are all house made and you can choose from:  Cabbage & Pork Dumplings; Shrimp, Pork & Leek Dumplings; Chicken Dumplings; Vegetable Dumplings; Fish Dumplings; Beef Dumplings; Celery & Pork Dumplings; Xi’an Beef Dumplings in Sour Spicy Soup; Chong’s Pork Dumplings with Spicy Sauce; Pork Wonton Soup; Shrimp & Pork Wonton Soup; Spicy Pork Wonton; and Spicy Sour Pork Wonton.  The basic dumplings come steamed but for an extra dollar they will pan fry them.

Spicy Sour Wonton –  The Spicy Pork Wonton and Spicy Sour Pork Wonton are not Szechuan style wontons in red chili oil, but rather are served in a light broth seasoned with chili oil, pepper, scallions and cilantro.  The sour version has a glug of vinegar added to the basic spicy broth.  The thin slippery wontons were generously filled with flavorful, savory minced pork but the broth was a little too light; I would have preferred a stronger spicy and sour kick.  This dish is similar to the dumplings in hot and sour sauce served at Xi’an Famous Food, but the sauce at Yu Kitchen is less intense.

Shrimp, Pork & Leek Dumplings –  I got the steamed preparation of these dumplings and they were excellent.  The pork filling was coarsely ground with big chunks of shrimp and a lot of chopped leeks mixed in.  The balance of the filling ingredients was perfect, the pork and shrimp each made discernible contributions to the texture and flavor – smooth, fatty, and umami from the pork and crunch, sweetness and touch of brine from the shrimp.  The dumpling wrappers were thin and delicate but held up to the steaming and kept the filling tightly packed.  I will be trying some more of their steamed dumplings soon.

Sauces

The Dipping Sauces:  Each table comes with a bottle of Sriracha sauce and a cute trio of china pots filled with sauce ingredients: soy, chili oil and black vinegar.

The Location:  Yu Kitchen is on Broadway between 100th and 101st streets in what was previously known as the Manhattan Valley neighborhood.  I have been away from the neighborhood for a couple of months and apparently in the meantime the area has been re-branded as the Bloomingdale neighborhood.  I guess gentrification is coming to the neighborhood.

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Ku Sushi and Izakaya, Seattle WA

Normally I avoid sushi restaurants advertising 50% of rolls, especially if there is a big cheesy looking banner hanging from the restaurant announcing this. To me this just screams low quality sushi. But Ku Sushi and Izakaya gets lots of really good reviews on Google, many of them saying you should not be put off by the banner.

Ku is a small Korean run Japanese restaurant with a dark bunker like interior architecture. I suspect that the west facing windows are all covered because the afternoon and evening sun would otherwise blast light into the dining area. The menu has a smallish selection of sushi pieces and a large selection of rolls and a smattering of Korean dishes. There are also pieces of paper on the walls announcing other available items, like yogurt soju. The sushi was really good, especially the Unagi and avocado hand roll.

The Dumplings: The Takoyaki at Ku are expertly cooked so they are crispy and crunchy on the outside with a creamy interior and a small piece of just cooked crunchy octopus in the middle. They are served blazing hot, so let them cool a little or risk burning your mouth. The Takoyaki are served on a bed of slivered cabbage and are adorned with drizzles of brown Tako sauce and Japanese mayo, sheets of bonito flakes and chopped scallions. The best Takoyaki have layers of toppings that bring a symphony of sweet, tangy sour, umami, and salty flavors to the dumplings. But at Ku the scallion pieces were cut too big for my taste and their strong flavor over powered the other toppings. I think they should have been cut finer and used a little more sparingly. But if you pick off some of the chunks of scallion these Takoyaki were really good. Ku also serves pan-fried gyoza.

The Location: Ku is near the University of Washington campus in Seattle, on University Way just north of NE 52nd Street. This is the northern most end of the strip of restaurants and bars catering to students on University Way.

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Vegan Italian Sausage and Pesto Ravioli Recipe

Finished Ravioli

Beyond Meat has hit it out of the park with their new vegan Italian sausages, the flavor and texture are spot on.  Technically, Whole Foods carries them but the demand is crazy and they are out of stock more often than they are available on the shelves.  Rumor has it that Beyond Meat is opening an additional factory to keep up with demand.  I prefer the Impossible Burger to the Beyond Burger, but the Beyond Sausages are the best veggie sausage on the market.

I decide to try making a ravioli out of their Hot Italian sausage and some pesto.  The ravioli filling came out amazing and was utterly convincing, but the short cut/cheat I tried by using store bought wonton wrappers did not work so well.

The Vegan Pesto Recipe is based on the one at Food52:

  1. 2 cups roughly chopped fresh basil.
  2. 1/2 cup pine nuts.
  3. 1/4 cup macadamia nuts
  4. 2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped.
  5. 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil.
  6. sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
  7. 1 tablespoon lemon juice.
  8. 3 1/2 tablespoons nutritional yeast.

Place the ingredients in a food processors or good blender and pulse until the ingredients are coarsely ground and combined.

Remove the Italian sausage from its casing. (As an aside roll some of the sausage filling into a ball, dust lightly with flour and pan fry to make some tasty meat balls)

Wonton Wrapper Cheat (doesn’t work great)

Vegan Italian Sausage and Pesto ravioli/wonton

I tried cheating and rather than making my own dough I tried using store bought wonton wrappers.  I put about one table spoon of Italian Sausage and two teaspoons of pesto on a round wonton wrapper and laid a second wonton wrapper on top.  I then moistened the edges and crimped the edges tightly closed with a fork.  The filling turned out to be amazing, the perfect pesto and sausage ravioli filling, but the wonton wrapper cheat didn’t work out so well.  The wonton wrappers were too thin to provide the right texture and I essentially made pesto and Italian Sausage wontons, but really excellent wontons.

Do it the right way and don’t slack on the dough.  Here are ravioli dough instructions from an earlier recipe.

Dough: 

4 cups of white flour
4 tablespoons of olive oil
4 pinches of salt
1 cup of water.

Put the flour and salt in a mixer and mix to distribute the salt through the flour; I use a Kitchen Aid with the dough hook attachment. Add the olive oil and then slowly add the water. A ball of dough will then quickly form.

Use a pasta maker to roll out the dough, I use a Imperia hand cranked pasta maker. I originally followed the instructions that came with the maker, but found that the settings in the instructions created too thin a sheet of dough. I recommend using a slightly thicker setting on the pasta maker.

Lay a sheet of pasta on a clean surface and place balls of filling, about 1 inch in diameter, on the dough. Leave enough space between the balls of filling so that you can seal the dough around the filling. Lay a second sheet of pasta on top of the first, sandwiching the balls of filling. Use a pastry crimper/sealer to cut and crimp the dough to make the ravioli.

Posted in Pork, Ravioli, Recipe, Vegan, Vegetarian, Veggie Dumplings, Wontons | Leave a comment

Din Tai Fun, Seattle, WA

photo jul 29, 12 49 14 pm

Dumpling production

The third floor food court of downtown Seattle’s Pacific Place mall hosts an outpost of the Taiwanese soup dumpling chain Din Tai Fun.  The entrance to the restaurant features a wall of windows that look in on the dumpling production line.  It is pretty impressive with about 20 people in chef whites and face masks continuously stuffing and folding dumplings.   This location has as long a wait as any of the others, but there is a Mexican cantina styled restaurant and a brewery pub on the same floor, so you can get a drink while you are waiting for the text message saying your table is ready.  Compared to some other locations, particularly in LA where you have to wait in a parking lot, this set-up works really well – you can grab a pint of local Manny’s Pale Ale while you wait for dumplings.

photo jul 29, 1 26 02 pm

Pork Soup Dumplings

The Dumplings: I have long argued that Din Tai Fun’s soup dumplings are over rated, they are good but they are not the be all and end all of soup dumplings that many people claim they are.  Din Tai Fun chefs do produce consistently thin and supple dumpling wrappers that stretch to contain their soup and meat filling, but almost never rupture or leak and the dumplings have a generous helping of soup.  My critiques are that the dumplings are on the small side, the pork filling is a little bland and they don’t cook them to a high temperature.  On this last point, part of the mystique and savior faire of eating soup dumplings is the technique of biting into them and drinking the soup without scalding your face.  The lower serving temperature also means that soup changes flavor and consistency as they further cool once the steamer is opened.

photo jul 29, 1 34 46 pm

Wontons in Chili Oil

On this outing we also tried the Wontons in Chili Oli and the Sticky Rice Shu Mai.  The Wontons were disappointing, while the filling had an excellent balance of shrimp and pork that was more flavorful than the pork in the soup dumplings, the sauce was under spiced and over sweetened.  It had the American-Chinese flavor profile that holds back on the heat and flavor and amps up the sugar sweetness.  My two friends and I split one order of the wontons and weren’t inspired enough to eat all of them.   The Sticky Rice Shu Mai were Shanghai style shu mai which have a thicker wheat flour wrapper and are stuffed with sticky rice prepared with minced pork.  The rice filling is like a southern U.S. dirty rice and is usually quite flavorful.  The Din Tai Fun version had a great chew to it but was blander than other versions I have had.

photo jul 29, 1 37 29 pm

Sticky Rice Shu Mai

I keep trying out new Din Tai Fun locations, hoping that I experience what everyone else claims to love so much, but my verdict of “over rated” remains.

The Dipping Sauce:  One element of Din Tai Fun that I do appreciate is that, rather than delivering a house prepared black vinegar dipping sauce with the soup dumplings, they just bring a small dish of slivered ginger and you can prepare your own sauce using the bottles of vinegar and soy sauce and tub to chili oil that are on each table.  I don’t enjoy the intensity of the black vinegar so I like being able to mix my own sauce and control the mix of vinegar.

The Location:  The Pacific Place mall is a high end shopping center in downtown Seattle near the convention center and up the hill from Pike Place Market.  The top floor where Din Tai Fun is located has a selection of sit down restaurants, with a mix of international chains and outposts of local favorites.

Posted in Chinese, Seattle, Shumai, Sichuan Dumplings, Soup Dumpling, Wontons, Xiao Long Bao | Leave a comment

Don’t Eat at Henry’s Taiwan Kitchen, Seattle

Henry’s Taiwan Kitchen served me a bowl of raw pork wontons in chili sauce, and not initially realizing this I bit into one of them and the filling was cold, mushy and slimy. Disgusting. None of the other wontons in the bowl were even warm to the touch. May be this is some obscure, regional, artisanal Taiwanese preparation using super high grade pork that I have never heard of before? Nope, it turns out the chef forgot to cook them, and I am not sure how that is possible since that is an essential part of the job title. When I talked to the manager and asked him if I had just bitten into raw pork, he responded that he “did not know what they had served me”.

Nuff Said, do not eat at Henry’s Taiwan Kitchen in the University District, or probably any of the other locations.

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China Wok Express, Northampton MA

Spicy Fried Wontons

China Wok Express is a classic American-Chinese take-out joint incongruously housed in a building with a Swiss red roof chalet type thing going on.  I was there at lunch time and the place was jammed with people waiting for take-out or eating at one of its six tables and the phone was ringing off the hook. The restaurant seems to be active in the local community, one wall is papered in appreciation certificates from local organizations. If you eat-in, the food comes served on styro-foam plates, on red plastic trays, with plastic to-go packets of Chinese mustard, soy sauce and duck sauce.

The Dumplings:  China Wok Express sells steamed or fried dumplings, crab Rangoon and spicy fried wontons.  Unless I am craving some pork fried rice or pork lo mein I normally avoid American-Chinese take-out joints, but the listing of spicy fried wontons on the menu had caught my eye.  Unfortunately these pork wontons turned out to be pretty bad.  I think they must pre-fry a large batch of wontons and then when this dish is ordered they stir-fry the wontons in the spicy sauce.  What you get is fried wontons so saturated in sauce that they have lost their crunch and have taken on a thick leathery texture instead.  I only made it through about three of my order of twelve.  The sauce is quite good and I think they would have a fine dish if they boiled fresh pork wontons and served them in the sauce.

Steamed Pork Dumplings

The steamed dumplings are large, moon shaped dumplings filled with, as the guy behind the counter put it “basically just pork”, although there was a little bit of scallion in the filling too.  Typical of American-Chinese restaurants the wrappers were thick and sturdy, and slightly sweet.  The filling was serviceable, your basic mildly seasoned pork.  But these dumplings were actually very good when dipped in the sauce from the spicy fried wontons.  My advice is order the steamed pork dumplings and a side of the spicy sauce.

The Dipping Sauce:  The steamed dumplings come with a small plastic tub of soy based dipping sauce, but the tub is really too small to dip the large dumplings in.  The spicy sauce that comes with the wontons is a thickened soy sauce, maybe with some hoisin sauce mixed in, that is sweet and spicy, but less spicy than is suggested by its red color.

Location:  China Wok Express is on King Street, which is the commercial drag that heads north out of Northampton’s downtown.  Look for the building with the vaguely Swiss chalet style red roof, on the left as you drive away from Northampton.

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