Saturday, August 30, 2008

Soba Out, French In

Owariya Soba

Today we went a little ways north and tried Honke Owariya (本家尾張屋), a soba restaurant that's been open since 1465.

I first learned about this place from Kyoto Foodie, where you can find some lovely pictures that more than make up for the lack of quality in mine.

Sam, of course, suddenly decided that he wanted chicken instead of noodles, so he had an oyako donburi (親子丼), which is chicken and egg (oyako: mother and child) on rice. It was excellent. I must say that I do not usually like this dish all that much. It's fine, I guess, but I've never really understood why it's so popular. Owariya's version—hardly their specialty—made some of this clear to me. The chicken was juicy and tender, the egg just barely cooked and thus beautifully soft and moist, and the rice perfectly complemented the whole.

I had Kyo-yasai Ten Seiro (京野菜天せいろ), which is cold soba (zaru soba) with tempura-fried Kyoto vegetables. Kyoto has these special vegetables, known as Kyo-yasai (京野菜), which are slightly different—and in some cases really a lot different—from their counterparts elsewhere in Japan. As you can see in the tempura dish, I had (clockwise from the front) myoga (茗荷), local peppers, a mushroom cap of a type I didn't recognize, lotus root, some kind of yam, and some local variety of sato imo (里芋), which is a sweet white taro that's a bit mealy-textured by comparison to what we call a sweet potato in the U.S. All were really excellent: crunchy but not excessively so, moist and flavorful on the inside. The soba was spectacular, but I cannot possibly explain why: I simply don't have the vocabulary for it, not having eaten enough decent soba in my life. This will change, I assure you, especially since Owariya doesn't charge noticeably more than any other decent noodle shop: my elaborate lunch set me back about $14, I think, and a more ordinary dish like Sam's or my wife's was more like $9. All I can say intelligently about the soba is that it had its own flavor, it was firm and bouncy but yielding, and it didn't seem to collapse in the mouth the way some soba does (because of the lack of gluten, I think). Since there is a free playspace nearby for little kids, I will probably be taking Maia fairly often on days when she doesn't have daycare, and we will probably eat lunch at Owariya. As you see from this photo, she's a big fan of soba... and I assure you, this is in no way a posed photo, but rather a fat little hand reaching into a photo.

Sarah had soba and egg in soup (玉子とじ), and thus got to try the famous dashi. It was certainly very good, but I really have not developed the sort of palate that can tell that this was as spectacular as the Kyoto Foodies say (and I believe them). I apologize that this picture is a little blurry.

All in all, I'd say Owariya is wonderful. You can see what the room we ate in looks like in this photo, and there were many other rooms with ordinary tables. We chose to eat on tatami mats at a low table because this allows Maia to crawl around rather than be strapped to something. A bit of a pain chasing her sometimes, but it wasn't crowded (as you see) and she had a great time.

Thanks, Kyoto Foodies!

Bocuse At Home
For dinner, I decided to make use of things on sale at my local grocery store: potatoes, cod roe, chicken bits of various kinds (as I think I've mentioned before, you can't readily get a whole chicken around here), tomatoes, local green peppers. I decided to make some recipes I found on Paul Bocuse's website. I figure if Bocuse likes it, it must be good.

First, classic Vichyssoise, the cold potato-leek soup invented at the New York Ritz a long time ago. I won't give recipes for this or anything, because they're posted for free. Here's the soup recipe. I used negi, the giant Japanese scallions, instead of leeks. They were mysteriously expensive today, so I didn't use as many as I should have, and so it came out more of a negi-potato soup. But it was certainly good. Needed more salt. That's one thing about cold soups: you have to salt them while they're hot or the salt won't dissolve easily, but salt loses its savor when it's cold so you have to oversalt. I didn't do enough.

Second, I did Basque-style chicken (poulet basquaise), which is a chicken fricassee cooked with garlic, flavorful green pepper (mild poblanos would work much better than the usual supermarket green peppers), ham, with a tomato-onion sauté base. If you like chicken fricassee at all, it's very good. I did have a little trouble with my pans, because my range is so small that I couldn't readily get the pans to sit on their burners at the same time, which made tossing the contents more than a little tricky. But it worked. Sam liked this, although he didn't touch the green peppers (as I knew he wouldn't).

Third, herbed fresh cheese (cervelle de canut). I used most of a package of Australian cream cheese and a little cream to make the fromage blanc, and I used every herb in the house instead of the ones he recommends. Thus I used shiso (紫蘇, perilla), shungiku (春菊, a parsley-like herb), a little negi scallion, and basil, as well as all that garlic, of course. I did not use a garlic press as suggested here; I think these recipes must be dumbed-down a little, because I've very rarely seen a serious European chef recommend one of these things. I used a technique I got from Jacques Pépin: you chop the garlic pretty finely with a knife, sprinkle with a little coarse salt, and then essentially spread the garlic on the board with your knife. After each spread, you scrape up all the garlic on the inside of the knife-blade and do it again, and again, and again, pressing down hard. Very quickly, you have perfectly pureed garlic. Incidentally, when you chop garlic fine, the trick is occasionally to wipe the outside and then the inside of the knife-blade (the right and then the left, if you're a righty) on the pile of garlic on the board. If you do this right, the two passes leave you with a tidy pile of garlic in the middle and just a little still attached to the inside of the blade, which is where you want it anyway. With practice, you can do this very fast, and it is very close to the spreading motion that makes garlic puree, so you can have the one flow into the other with just a left-handed sprinkle of salt (which helps bring the moisture to the surface and make the stuff spread, in case you were wondering). I cut some of the local pseudo-baguette into sticks and toasted them in the toaster oven, and they dunked in the cheese very well. I recommend this recipe highly.

Finally, I did a little cod roe persillade, for which I got the recipe from Jacques Pépin's website. I did not use fish liver, as it wasn't available without a search, whereas cod roe is pretty ordinary stuff around here. I think his recipe is intended for much larger roes than I was using, because it was just a little tougher than I'd have liked. But the flavor was excellent, and given that roes are constantly available and often very inexpensive this is certainly a dish I will experiment with. I think these little roes ought to have been poached in beurre monté rather than cooked brown on the outside first, and then you'd pour off most of the monté sauce before adding the garlic and parsley. I used a local citrus instead of lemon, but as the thing I used (sudachi, I think) is quite sour and good-tasting, it was a minor and positive adaptation.

Those with small children may be interested to know that Maia liked the roe, and that Sam pretended not to like it because (being 3) he was in one of those moods. Maia also liked the Vichyssoise, which Sam did not. Both of them liked the cheese—in fact, at one point we couldn't figure out why Maia was being such a pain, and it turned out she wanted to be fed more cheese.

All in all, I'm rather proud of myself doing all this in about 3 hours flat, much of which time I was doing other things as well. All the dishes were good, and in every case I can see pretty clearly how to improve the next time. Of course, it helps to be using recipes from two immensely respected world-class French chefs, but hey, I'll take the credit.

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