If you found this blog by Googling my name or by following sundry noxious links (you know where), please note that all claims that I was fired from my job are 100% false, as are most of the other things written about me. I don't know the people who are libeling me, but it's clear they have some imaginary axe to grind and way too much time.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Mr. Kool@Zenkichi

I knew I wanted to eat with Mr. Kool* from the minute he offered me his fried rice at Shang. I was there with Chris, and Kool and his companion were at the table next to ours. Rather than glare at the stranger eyeing his food, he shared.

Anthony Bourdain once said that he knew he wanted to marry his wife when she wordlessly swapped plates with him on their first date. I think this is a bit lenient of him, but if a date who shares food can be a potential wife, than maybe a complete stranger who shares food from his own spoon can be a potential food buddy. Or, a prime vector of swine flu. Either way, I was intrigued.

We got to talking, the blog got mentioned, and he expressed interest in my project. A few emails later, and I found myself nestled in a cozy wooden booth at Zenkichi, surrounded by Kool and a few of his equally lively friends, which included an author, his girlfriend, and a reality TV personality.

Zenkichi's claim to fame at this time of year is firefly squid, which are thumb-long squid that gather in Japan's Toyama Bay to spawn.

Oh yeah, they also bioluminesce

Besides being completely unavailable most months of the year, these squid are highly perishable, and thus very rare outside Japan. Putting one in my mouth checked off three food boxes: things that sparkle, things that die for sex, and things that cause my carbon footprint to spike.

Kidding about that last one.

Now, I keep up on my food news, but somehow, the mating calendar of the enope squid managed to slip my notice this year. Thank Tsukiji for Mr. Kool, who knew it was squid season, AND knew that Zenkichi was one of the few places to serve firefly squid in the US.

We ordered omakase for the table, which is how Zenkichi serves up the squid. Zenkichi is worth going to even without the draw of rare expensive edibles, due to its ingenious layout: a network of hallways with individual wooden booths partitioned off. The booths come in varying sizes to accomodate your party, but you can be sure the one they stick you in is a snug fit. The whole space is all flickering lights, bamboo screens, and the buzz of laughter and conversation from booths and people that you can sense but not see. So sexy, swinger events should probably follow this model. Did I mention there's a button for summoning your waiter?

What follows now is a series of food pictures that will have less and less description as the chronology of the evening suggests I got tipsier and payed less attention.

Sakura clear soup: salt-pickled Japanese cherry flower & yuba soymilk velvet in traditional clear dashi broth

This is a simple dish with a fancy name. Clear dashi broth is miso without the clouds, the cherry flower is a cherry flower - a little sour, a little salty, and the yuba soymilk velvet is tofu skin. The whole thing was a pretty, if underwhelming, riff on miso soup.

Raw tasting plate: firefly squid, maguro carpaccio, and young bonito

The best part of this raw plate was unfortunately not the squid. In fact, the squid was probably the thing I liked least all evening. It was...pungent. Zenkichi's website says it comes with miso vinegar sauce, but it still badly needed acid. The chive it was entwined with did not help. Squeezing lemon all over it did, but then I felt like I was missing the point. The best bite of the night was also on this plate. Mr. Kool instructed me to wrap the maguro in the shiso leaf, sprinkle some of that crunchy white stuff on top, and plunk it in soy sauce. Awesome. Shiso again does wonders.

How sad, a leftover squid couple.

I somehow forgot to take a snap of the tiger shrimp citrus salad that came next, but it was yums.

Berkshire pork and nanohana tempura

I'm not sure if this was the best succession of dishes, going straight from salad to deep-fried goodness dipped in a little mound of salt, but this particular morsel was delicious, even if I did have to look up the menu just now to determine exactly what was in it. Mr Kool had spent considerable time in Japan, where apparently table etiquette demands that the considerate host makes sure everyone's sake cups are full. Mr Kool had really taken this lesson to heart. At least all I forgot was the ingredients in our dinner; the reality TV personality forgot English.

Grilled miso cod

Here I suspected the chef was getting a little lazy. Uninventive, but also overcooked for such a standby dish.

My suspicions are confirmed

Yes, people, this is grilled chicken. Nothing more to say here.

This is some kind of steamed fish served with steamed veggies in a sake broth. Again, the sequence of dishes is strange - two grilled dishes and then a steamed one? But this would have been ok if I didn't absolutely hate the sake broth. It was so harsh, it made me long for the tasteless refuge of the steamed bits. Could one of my party have spilled sake into the bowl by accident? Unclear.

Grilled Kobe beef

Mr. Kool really didn't like this, maybe because it was another sign of laziness in the kitchen. Me? Meh. Grilled beef. I'll eat it.

Some forgettable snapper sushi.

The most concise summary of the meal came from Mr. Kool's friend, the author: "This is not omakase."

How true. It wasn't meant to be an insult, but omakase to me means sitting at the sushi bar and pretending to have a personal experience between what the chef serves and what I eat. There's a sequence, there's a spontaneity, and there's a sense of being spoiled silly. In my prejudiced view, there is no grilled chicken served on a communal plate. Omakase is supposed to blow you away. During the course of the evening, as conversation spanned books, drugs, personality disorders, and whatever else you could imagine a bunch of sassy drunk people talking about, I was only thankful that the company made up for the unspectacular eats.

Luckily, the meal ended the way it began - on a high note.

Black sesame ice cream

Japanese cheesecake

I really enjoyed this cheesecake. I had wondered what made cheesecake Japanese, and apparently, the answer is a dense Jello-like consistency.

Takeaways from dinner: having Game is just telling someone things about themselves in a new way, Zenkichi is great for gaming on someone, provided you don't stink up your breath with firefly squid. Jello is underrated.

*A questionable speller who prefers to fly under the radar with a pseudonym. What can you do.

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