Thursday, September 29, 2011

Ben's Chili Bowl (Washington, DC)

Ben's Chili Bowl
1213 U St NW, Washington DC, 20009
Thu 09/29/2011, 08:10p-8:50p

Ben's Chili Bowl Exterior

This time around, my travels to the nation's capital brought me to none other than Ben's Chili Bowl, perhaps the most iconic restaurant in all of DC. Housed in the space of a former silent movie house (Minnehaha Theater), Ben's is the brainchild of Trinidadian native Mahaboob Ben Ali and Virginia Rollins. The couple debuted the eatery on August 22th, 1958, and were married just weeks later. The Bowl soon became a neighborhood favorite, but the restaurant's fortunes waned in the wake of the 1968 race riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

The surrounding area fell into decline, but was later revitalized and gentrified after the completion of a Metro Green Line station across the street from Ben's. Since then, the restaurant has witnessed steady growth, and in 2008, Ben's even opened an outpost at the nearby Nationals Park baseball stadium. Ali, however, would pass away on October 7th, 2009 at the age of 82, his death being mourned by many across the city, and the country. The Chili Bowl is now run by sons Kamal and Nizam, who debuted a more formal eatery, Ben's Next Door, in 2009.

Ben's Chili Bowl Interior
The interior retains much of its 1950's charm, and indeed, a good portion of the furnishings and fixtures date from that era. Orders are placed at the counter, but food is brought to your table (think Carl's Jr). Diners can sit in the main dining area pictured above, or in a smaller room in the back.

Ben's Chili Bowl Menu
Ben's Chili Bowl's menu is actually fairly varied, but not surprisingly, you'll probably want to stick with something that has chili on it. Click for a larger version.

Ben's Original Chili Half-Smoke
Ben's Original Chili Half-Smoke [$5.45]
We began with the item that started it all, Ben's signature Chili Half-Smoke. Known famously as Bill Cosby's favorite dish (as well as what president-elect Barack Obama ordered during his visit with mayor Adrian Fenty back in 2009), it's a quarter-pound half-beef/half-pork smoked sausage that's grilled and served on a warm steamed bun with mustard, onion, and of course, spicy housemade pork/beef chili. It was pretty much all that you'd want from a chili dog. The combination of pork and beef made for a more interesting eating experience, with a somewhat more complex meatiness highlighted by just the right amount of smoke. The chili, meanwhile, added further layers of richness to the dog, while the onion and mustard providing some offsetting flavors.

Chili-Cheese Fries (The Works)
Chili-Cheese Fries (The Works) [$5.45]
I'm a sucker for chili-cheese fries (my favorite is still at Volcano Burger), so this was another must-order. It's hard to screw up fries, chili, and nacho cheese, and certainly, this was all about that simple, straightforward, satisfying goodness. Yum.

Thick Creamy Milk Shake - 16oz
Thick Creamy Milk Shake - 16oz [$3.25] | Strawberry
Ben's is also known for its thick-ass shakes, available in vanilla, chocolate, cherry banana, pineapple, and piña colada flavors. I went with strawberry this time around, and had no complaints. This was a classic milkshake experience, with a delectably sweet berry relish backed by the luscious, creamy weight of ice cream.

Ben's Fresh 1/4lb 100% Beef Chili Burger
Ben's Fresh 1/4lb 100% Beef Chili Burger [$5.15]
We ended with Ben's 100% ground beef burger, cooked to order and topped with mayo, lettuce, and more of that famous chili. The burger patty itself was fairly humdrum--nothing to write home about really. The key was, naturally, the chili, which really amped up the flavors at play while tying everything together.

I came into Ben's expecting some tasty "drunk food," so to speak, and that's pretty much exactly what I got. The cooking is certainly nothing revolutionary, but for what it is, I couldn't complain. If you're in town, definitely try to swing by for a little taste of history, in chili form.

Ben's Chili Bowl Interior

Monday, September 26, 2011

Kaz Sushi Bistro (Washington, DC)

Kaz Sushi Bistro
1915 I St NW, Washington, DC 20006
Mon 09/26/2011, 07:20p-10:30p

Kaz Sushi Bistro Exterior

Over the course of my numerous business trips out to the DC area, I'd failed to enjoy me some sushi, even once, thanks to the various dietary constraints of my traveling companions. This time, however, I made it a point to convene a like-minded group of coworkers to hit up the best sushi in the City, the choices of "best" being Makoto, Sushi Taro, or Kaz Sushi Bistro according to most diners. We obviously visited the latter selection, which isn't even necessarily a traditional sushi bar, but rather, a "bistro" of sorts that features Chef/Owner Kaz Okochi's European-inflected "freestyle Japanese cuisine."

About the Chef: Kazuhiro Okochi hails from the city of Nagoya, Japan. Somewhat surprisingly, he started out studying fine art, in Oklahoma of all places, but after finishing his degree in 1982, returned home to Japan to pursue his interest in cooking at Osaka's Tsuji Culinary Institute. Here, in addition to honing his skills in Japanese cookery (including the art of sushi and even fugu preparation), Okochi was also exposed to French cuisine, which he instantly fell in love with. In 1988, he relocated to Washington to take up a position at Sushiko, DC's first ever sushi bar (founded 1976). During his stint there as Executive Chef, he was able to experiment with melding Western flavors with traditional Japanese cuisine.

On April 14th, 1999, the Chef debuted his long-awaited first restaurant, Kaz Sushi Bistro, in Downtown DC. The eatery was a smash hit almost from the start, quickly becoming one of the City's hottest dining destinations and thrusting Okochi into the upper echelon of DC area chefs. As such, he helped kick-start the DC Chefs' Club in 2002, following the death of the legendary Jean-Louis Palladin the previous year (other members include Jeff Buben, Roberto Donna, Todd Gray, Ris Lacoste, and Michel Richard). In 2009, Okochi started Masa 14, a Latin-Asian fusion restaurant opened in partnership with Richard Sandoval (of Zengo fame) and helmed by Chef de Cuisine Antonio Burrell. His latest venture, is Oh Fish, a casual build-your-own maki sushi place inspired by Subway (yes, seriously!).

Kaz Sushi Bistro Interior
Inside, things are fairly subdued. You'll want to grab a seat right in front of Kaz at his small six-seater sushi bar.

Kaz Sushi Bistro Specials Menu Kaz Sushi Bistro Menu
Kaz Sushi Bistro's menu features a large selection of both nigirizushi and rolls, as well as a good assortment of small plates. Of course, there's also an omakase option in the form of "Kaz's Kaiseki," though we opted for the "Ultimate Sushi," in which the Chef dishes out the best cuts of sushi until you beg for mercy. Click for larger versions.

Kaz Sushi Bistro Special Drinks Kaz Sushi Bistro Sake List Kaz Sushi Bistro Sake Tastings Kaz Sushi Bistro Wine List Kaz Sushi Bistro Beers & Soft Drinks
To drink, we're talking about a nice selection of sakes, a smattering of wines, beer, and various sundry items. Click for larger versions.

Orion Premium Draft Kaz Premium Red Ale Echigo Koshihikari
A trio of biru to begin: Orion Premium Draft [$11], Kaz Premium Red Ale [$11] (specially made for the restaurant by Echigo microbrewery in Niigata), and Echigo Koshihikari [$12].

1: Flounder [$5.50] | with Ume and Shiso
Flounder, in two forms, greeted us as the first course. The first, on the left, was your typical cut of hirame, and showed off a delicately fishy relish that worked well with the tart, tangy, and minty notes from the ume-shiso combination. The second piece, however, was flounder fin, otherwise known as engawa, which had a much chewier consistency.

Japanese Sweet Scallops
2: Japanese Sweet Scallops [$7.50] | with Apple and Lemon
Raw Japanese scallops were paired with a commixture of apple and lemon, the tangy smack of which seemed to heighten the mollusks' inherent brine initially. The midpalate, however, more forcefully conveyed the creaminess of the hotategai, and the bite was finished with a pleasant, countervailing burn from the wasabi.

3: Tuna [$7.50] | with Italian Black Truffle
Tuna, though normally a somewhat boring sushi fish, managed to be one of my favorite courses of the evening thanks to the truffle. The subtle, somewhat lush taste of the maguro actually went pretty much perfectly with the earthy, heady essence of the toryufu, which, surprisingly, didn't overpower the fish at all.

Walu (Hawaiian White Toro)
4: Walu (Hawaiian White Toro) [$8.50] | with Wasabi Leaf
Next up was a relative rarity in the sushi scene: escolar, a.k.a. butterfish, ono, waloo, or white tuna. It was delightful, a tasty mix of creamy, sweet, and yes, buttery flavors that worked well with the slight piquancy from the wasabi leaf. Another favorite.

Sweet Botan Shrimp
5: Sweet Botan Shrimp [$7.00] | with Yuzu-Tapioca
Sweet shrimp were delectable--fresh, snappy, and wonderfully crisp. They easily stood alone, but were deftly amped up by the sour smack of the yuzu as well.

Big Eye Chu-Toro
6: Big Eye Chu-Toro [$12.00]
Chu-toro, meanwhile, was one of the better versions that I've had. The fish was super melty and fatty, with a dare I say unctuous character and a great bit of sweetness on the close. Very nice--no accoutrements needed here.

7: Salmon [$8.00] | with Crème Fraiche and Ikura
Salmon, usually a ho-hum fish, was superb too. It had a lovely creaminess to it that paired beautifully with the lush, lactic tang of the crème fraiche, while the salmon roe served to brighten up the bite a bit.

8: Yellowtail [$6.50] | with Olive Oil and Sea Salt
Yellowtail was nicely fatty, and kicked up a notch by the weight of the olive oil. At the same time though, the lime zest and sea salt provided sharp, offsetting flavors that balanced out the dish gorgeously.

9: Scallop [$6.00] | Seared, with Lemon and Sea Salt
Our next preparation of scallop, meanwhile, really showed off the natural creaminess and salinity of the bivalve. I loved the tanginess of the lemon and salt combo, as well as the focused heat from the wasabi. Yum.

Smoked Saba
10: Smoked Saba [$5.50] | House Smoked, with Celery and Herb-Miso
An unconventional presentation of mackerel, one that expertly conveyed the smoky, fishy essence of the saba while moderating it with the sweetness of miso and the astringent zest of celery.

11: Lobster [$10.00] | with Wasabi-Mayo
Lobster was snappy, supple, and sweet, pairing perfectly with the creamy mayo all while the wasabi provided undertones of spiciness to the mix. Absolutely delicious--think of it as a lobster roll in sushi form!

Salmon Belly
12: Salmon Belly [$6.50] | Seared, with Sweet Soy and Lemon
Salmon belly was arguably the most decadent piece of sushi all night, with the palpable fattiness of the fish playing off the sugary soy, bitter char, and tangy lemon beautifully.

Foie Gras
13: Foie Gras [$10.00] | with Plum Wine Gelée
I believe that this was the first time that I'd had foie gras in sushi form, and I'm happy to report that it worked out quite well. The plum wine gelée, fortunately, wasn't overwhelming at all, and actually paired wonderfully with the liver-y essence of the foie.

Eel Roll
14: Eel Roll [$5.25] | with Basil and Pickled Chili Pepper
A masterful variation on the classic sushi presentation of eel. I quite enjoyed how the fish was elevated by the fragrant, heady heat of the pepper and basil combination, making for an almost Thai-inspired taste.

15: Yamaimo [$4.50] | with Ume and Shiso
We ended our gauntlet of sushi with a version incorporating yamaimo. The mountain yam was mucilaginous in consistency, with a crisp, tangy, and slightly saccharine flavor that was nicely set off by the ume and shiso. A refreshing change of pace.

Yuzu Sake
16: Yuzu Sake
A complementary yuzu sake was provided at the end of the meal, reminding us of a Japanese version of Limoncello! It also made me think of the yuzu juice that's served as the conclusion of meals at Sushi Zo.

Kaz (Kazuhiro) Okochi
Chef Kazuhiro "Kaz" Okochi.

Going in to this meal, I was a tad concerned that Okochi's use of Western flourishes would seem trite and uncalled for. Fortunately though, that was not the case. The Chef was able to elevate the classic sushi experience with his incorporation of non-traditional ingredients. The various cuts of seafood were enhanced, accented by the various accompaniments, but their inherent, natural character was never lost or overshadowed, and most importantly, the food was almost universally delicious. Best sushi in DC? I can believe it.

Friday, September 23, 2011

San Shi Go (Newport Beach, CA)

San Shi Go Sushi & Asian
205 Main St, Newport Beach, CA 92661
Fri 09/23/2011, 06:30p-09:25p

San Shi Go Exterior

Over the course of the past few months, I've been trying to hit up some of the more notable sushi joints in OC (e.g. Ikko, Nana San, and Shibucho), and my latest stop brought me to San Shi Go on Newport's famed Balboa Peninsula. The name translates to "3-4-5" in Japanese, and the restaurant is actually part of a mini-chain, along with the original San Shi Go in Laguna Beach (which has been around for over 20 years) and three izakaya-style Oki Doki eateries in Costa Mesa (next door to Anjin), Tustin, and Osaka, Japan.

San Shi Go Sushi Menu San Shi Go Sashimi Appetizer Menu
San Shi Go's menu features all your usual sushi selections, as well as a good number of cooked appetizers (more than what's shown above), though we opted for their omakase tasting, priced at $100 per person. Click for larger versions.

Shishito Peppers
1: Shishito Peppers
We began with a plate of blistered shishitos topped with katsuobushi. It was actually a pleasant start to the meal, and one of the better preparations of the peppers that I've had. I enjoyed the subtle, sweet heat of the shishitos, and how they were nicely accented by the umami-rich essence of the bonito shavings.

Giant Clam with Mozuku
2: Giant Clam with Mozuku
Up next were slices of geoduck sashimi, topped with plum sauce and yuzu zest, in a bath of vinegar and mozuku (a type of seaweed). I quite liked the crisp, clean salinity of the mirugai, and how that played with the saccharine, tangy, gelatinous character of its various accompaniments.

Crab Chawanmushi
3: Crab Chawanmushi
A chawanmushi of crab, salmon roe, ginger, and yuzu was delectable, easily one of the better versions that I've had in recent memory. The combination of sweet, salty kani and lush egg was spot on, with the crab deftly highlighted. At the same time, I really appreciated the counterpoint of brine imparted by the ikura.

Red Snapper Sashimi
4: Red Snapper Sashimi
Two slices of beautiful snapper sashimi served as topping to a mound of shungiku (Garland chrysanthemum), dried tofu, and shimeji. The fish itself was top notch, with a remarkably delicate taste adroitly amped up a notch by the inclusion of tangy yuzukosho. Meanwhile, the greens and tofu served to temper and ground the dish.

Kumamoto Oysters
5: Kumamoto Oysters
Next up was an appearance by my favorite type of oyster, done up here with French rock salt and lemon. It was a classic set of flavors that showed off the inherent nature of the Kumamotos nicely. I especially enjoyed slurping them down with a bit of the included seaweed.

Momotaro Tomatoes with Shrimp
6: Momotaro Tomatoes with Shrimp
Ever since having them at Totoraku, I've been enamored with momotaro tomatoes. Here, they were paired with raw shrimp, shiso, and some sort of fried topping. The tomatoes themselves were unabashedly sweet, succulent, and wonderful as expected, and they actually linked up beautifully with the fresh, snappy shrimp and minty shiso. The icing on the cake here were the little fried bits, which lent a lovely crunchy and saltiness to the fray.

Albacore Sashimi
7: Albacore Sashimi
At Japanese restaurants, albacore tends to be presented in seared form, so it was great to see it completely raw here, served with a sesame dressing, onion, and fried garlic. I was afraid that the sesame would be overpowering, but it actually went swimmingly with the creamy, lush fish, serving as a piquant contrast to the albacore's mild ocean-y relish. I also quite liked the garlic chips, which mixed things up texturally and added a further layer of savoriness to things.

Sashimi Selection
8: Sashimi Selection
Time for sashimi. A shrimp was dispatched right before us, its head still twitching on the plate. Not surprisingly, the amaebi was bracingly fresh, with a wonderfully crunchy consistency and a slightly metallic finish. Amberjack, meanwhile, was creamy, with a nice bit of bite and a subtle flavor perfectly accented by a dollop of wasabi. Next up was bluefin tuna, which was undeniably lush and surprisingly flavorful for mere maguro. Finally, we had toro, which was expectedly fatty, melt-y even, but with a slightly tendonous consistency.

Skate Wing Sakamushi
9: Skate Wing Sakamushi
Skate wing arrived prepared in a sakamushi manner--meaning steamed in sake and rock salt for 12 minutes--and was accompanied by ponzu, radish, and chili. The fish was super soft, almost a bit gelatinous even, and had a slight ocean-y flavor augmented by a bit of sake flair. It was quite mild and indistinctive alone, and thus the tangy paired ponzu was key in bringing out its flavor.

Shogo-san Stripping the Skate Wing
Our itamae, Shogo-san, stripping the skate wing bare.

Freshwater Eel
10: Freshwater Eel
A non-traditional preparation of unagi included avocado and fig jam. It actually worked for the most part, with the fig complementing the inherent sweetness of the eel nicely.

Spanish Mackerel
Spanish Mackerel [$5.50]
A supplemental course of aji showed off the fishy nature of the mackerel in concert with salmon roe gorgeously, all moderated by the astringency of scallion.

Sea Urchin
Sea Urchin [$8.00]
An extra dish of sea urchin roe came to us not from Santa Barbara, but from San Diego. The uni was stupendous, with a perfect consistency (like a cat's tongue) and wonderful sweet brine that was perfectly balanced by a sprinkle of rock salt.

Melted Chocolate Cake w/ Mascarpone Cheese Ice Cream
11a: Melted Chocolate Cake w/ Mascarpone Cheese Ice Cream
For dessert, we were given our choice of items from the standard menu. Shogo-san recommended the molten chocolate cake, and it certainly wasn't a bad version of the now clichéd dessert, with a nice counterpoint in the form of mascarpone ice cream.

Sesame Ice Cream
11b: Sesame Ice Cream
Goma no aisukurimu, meanwhile, was much more interesting, with an intense note of black sesame that I was rather fond of. Reminded me of Chinese tangyuan!

Given San Shi Go's location and prototypical Newport crowd, I was a bit apprehensive going in. However, the kitchen really delivered, serving up a serious, and delicious suite of dishes that belied the restaurant's environs. I'd say that San Shi Go more than holds its own with Orange County's best, and I'd love to go back and experience a more sushi-intensive menu next time.

San Shi Go Interior