RAKU: Our Neighborhood Japanese Joint

Joanne and I live in the downtown Edina area, within walking distance of the movie theater, the grocery and liquor store, and of course SALUT and the other restaurants that populate the neighborhood – Edina Grill, Arezzo, Beaujo’s, Coconut Thai, and D’Amico.

We frequent them all, but the one we dine at the most often (other than SALUT) is RAKU…tucked between Lunds’ parking lot and the Edina Movie Theater, at 3939 W. 50th Street.


“Why?”, you ask.

Well, it’s a cozy space – stylish but not chic, with a muted color palate, and just plain comfortable. Now, I’m not a HUGE fan of Japanese cuisine…but I do like it from time to time. It’s a refreshing change of pace.


RAKU feels REAL, not contrived. In fact, the restaurant has a pronounced home-spun quality that suggests it’s family-run – and, by and large, run well. Even the occasional slips are endearing; a reminder that this isn’t a well-oiled corporate chain (“Hi, my name’s Sally and I’m going to be your server tonight…”). A few weeks back, Mama (who doesn’t speak English) gave away our coveted (and reserved) window booth, but who cares? It’s obvious they mean well.

Since we don’t dine often at Japanese restaurants during our travels, I can’t really judge how their food compares to other Japanese restaurants around the country. Raku calls itself “MODERN JAPANESE.” And I suppose that the closest I’ve come to a restaurant along those lines is MORIMOTO in Honolulu.

All I know is that I like it.

Joanne and I always start with a $5 order of well-salted Edamame Beans and frequently Miso Soup ($3. Yes, just $3). On occasion our entire evening meal will consist of appetizers, including Shumai, Steamed Shrimp Dumplings with a little Asian slaw and Ponzu dipping sauce ($6). Don’t miss the pork-filled Gyoza Dumplings, either. They can be ordered either steamed or fried (also $6).


Duck Springs Rolls are a treat for me, though not for Joanne; she prefers the sushi Ginza Roll (rock shrimp tempura and asparagus topped with a crab mix) or the Captain Crunch Roll, stuffed with shrimp tempura, avocado, cucumber and crab, all rolled in crunchy tempura flakes and served with a slightly sweet sesame sauce.

Joanne basically loves the Alaska Sushi Roll, packed with salmon and avocado, rolled up in brown rice (right up her alley), and touched with tobiko (flying fish eggs, which definitely AREN’T up her alley).

It’s about now that we start washing down our food with a chilled bottle of white wine…usually Ferrari Carano Fumé Blanc – reasonably priced at $45.

Salads are not a Raku strong suit. They’re frequently over-dressed, but that’s easily remedied by ordering your dressing on the side. Our 12-year-old grandson recently had their Steak Salad, which is quite good with sliced filet mignon and – at $14 – a real bargain. Our favorite starter salad, by far, is the Seaweed Salad ($6).


Sashimi Plates are pristinely fresh. Expensive? Yes, but who wants to eat cheap raw fish?

Here are some other favorites, in no particular order:

Rock Shrimp Tempura, Veggie Tempura, Sesame Shrimp and Sesame Chicken, and the Chicken-Fried Rice (a highly complementary side dish). I recently tried the Crispy Tuna atop crispy eggplant with smoked eel sauce and spicy mayo. I’ll have that again.


If you find yourself up for a main course, by all means try the Toban Yaki. The name means “cooked on a ceramic plate” and this dish arrives HOT, so be careful. A while back Joanne had the mixed Seafood Toban Yaki, redolent with scallops, shrimp and other seafood stuff. I’m not sure if they still do this dish; it might only come in a beef version now.

Finish up with Green Tea Tempura Ice Cream – deep-fried and full of antioxidants. Healthy? Uh, sure.

Well, this posting probably won’t mean much to readers outside of the Twin Cities, but WTF – Raku deserves a shout-out!

Phil

START YOUR DAY RIGHT

Remember the TV commercial that told us, “The best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup”?

Whoever wrote that never ate at my favorite breakfast places. Here’s just a sampling of can’t-miss destinations for your morning meal.

There’s no better place to start than with New York’s world-famous iconic delis. The king of them all, the CARNEGIE DELI, is no longer in business, so if you haven’t had their legendary Eggs & Corned Beef Hash by now, you’re SOL. But you can still go KATZ’S for lox and bagels, BARNEY GREENGRASS for Eggs with Sturgeon or a Salami Omelette, and RUSS & DAUGHTERS in Soho for Shakshouka, a concoction of red peppers, tomatoes, onions, paprika and cumin topped with fried eggs and accompanied by thick-sliced Challah Toast.


Also in New York: the incomparable NORMA’S in Le Parker Meridien hotel. This Midtown hotspot serves breakfast and lunch only, and yes, you WILL need a reservation. But you’ll also be rewarded with gargantuan plates and platters of beautiful, witty, and delicious morning treats.

Next time you’re in Los Angeles, head to ROSCOE’S in Pasadena, where I first encountered Chicken & Waffles. For a complete write-up on it, read my April, 2016 blog post about Roscoe’s.

Once in San Francisco, a colleague told me that I needed to try SEARS for its Silver Dollar Pancakes. At the time, I was designing commercial interiors for department stores (including Sears), so I figured, why not? Sears was an institution, right downtown, and packed to the gills every morning. In fact, we had to wait 30 minutes for a table. So were San Francisco’s breakfast cognoscenti onto something? Not really. But here we are nearly half a century later, and I’m talking about it, so they must have been doing something right.

In Germany, we had to make do with hard bread, cold cuts and cheese. However, it was pretty good hard bread, cold cuts and cheese.

In Sweden, and recently in Reykjavik, Iceland, breakfasts are quite similar. Hotels offer smorgasbords – sometimes quite lavish spreads – while restaurants and cafes lean toward simpler offerings like open-face breakfast sandwiches, often featuring clever combinations of ingredients – probably an ode to the famous OSKAR DAVIDSEN restaurant in Copenhagen.

In Italy, on the other hand, breakfast is almost always simple and traditional. You’ll enjoy sweet rolls with your espresso every morning, and in the South, around Naples, SFOGLIATELLE. Italy’s answer to the croissant, it features layers and layers of puff pastry formed into a clamshell shape, and it can be loaded with all sorts of fillings, like ricotta, honey, prosciutto, figs, you name it. A couple of those with a glass of blood orange juice? I like starting my day that way.

Paris? Here you have your choice of simple or spectacular. At the upscale hotels, things can get pretty fancy. Eggs Benedict isn’t just carefully composed, the Hollandaise is formally napped tableside with a flourish unique to the French. Ever had Baked Eggs in Truffle Cream? Me neither. But if someone else is paying, you can try them for breakfast at the Plaza Athenée.

Sophisticated folks, I’m told, have breakfast radishes. Hmmm?

I’ll take a pass, though. Just give me some steaming coffee, fresh squeezed juice, and freshly baked overnight croissants, slathered with butter and apricot jam. Check out Joanne at L’Avenue on Rue Montaigne with the Herald Tribune “havin’ fun now.”

And then, of course, there’s England…

Now, England has the distinction (some would call it dubious) of some internationally renowned meals ranging from Shepherd’s Pie and Bangers & Mash (sausages and potatoes), to Fish & Chips and Sunday Roast. But perhaps they’re best known for their hearty, rib-sticking English Breakfasts.


To quote W. Somerset Maugham: “To eat well in England, one should have breakfast three times a day.”

A place that we love for breakfast is THE WOLSELEY, right on Picadilly, near Green Park and the Ritz. It’s crowded and it’s good.


Hotel breakfasts in London can be delightful. Smoked Scottish Salmon and Blini…or Smoked Haddock (Finnin Haddie) (a favorite of mine, not Joanne’s) with Poached Eggs … or Avocado Toast … or Baked Beans and Chorizo Toast. Joanne had a Dosa once, a southern Indian sort of thin pancake made from a fermented batter of rice and lentils, served with a chutney or sambar (tamarind dip). It was okay, just okay.

A basic English breakfast of poached eggs and back bacon (Canadian bacon) is hard to beat. And hotels can be very accommodating. For example, my 10-year-old granddaughter does not tolerate gluten very well. When we mentioned that to our waiter, he immediately went to the kitchen and returned a few minutes later with gluten free croissants. Okay, okay, I know: Gluten free frequently doesn’t taste so hot. However, with the amount of butter and marmalade that she lathered on…well, I think they tasted pretty good, after all.

Here’s a couple of English touches that I love: the toast caddies with the diagonal half slices standing at attention. Also the miniature jars of marmalade, honey, jam and jellies. How many of those little “cuties” find their way into people’s purses?

At any rate, I’m told that the origin of the proper English breakfast dates back to the 1300s and eventually morphed into a favorite of the wealthy British gentry, always as a breakfast feast before a hunt. It’s been interpreted by the Irish with the addition/substitution of white sausage and fried soda bread, and by the Scots with Scotch eggs and often haggis (sheep’s liver and lungs along with oatmeal encased in the sheep’s stomach). Yuck and double yuck. (Ever wonder why you never hear much about Scottish cuisine?).

But then there’s this: the “mother of all English breakfasts”….the Full Monty.

Think about The Whole Enchilada.

The Whole Shebang.

The Whole Nine Yards (said to refer to the length of ammunition belts in the war).

No, the Full Monty refers to World War II British General Bernard Montgomery, Monty, who in battles against the German General, Erwin Rommel, in North Africa, was reported to start his day with a Full English Breakfast, including blood sausage, baked beans, mushrooms, back bacon (not the streaky bacon we’re used to), grilled tomatoes, hash browns and occasionally Bubble & Squeak (fried cabbage, bacon fat, potatoes and onion).


Take a look at HAWKSMOOR STEAKHOUSE in London (listed with Manny’s as one of the world’s Top 10 Steakhouses). They serve up the best Full Monty Brunch I’ve ever seen. They even add pork chops.

I’ve always said, “If you’re going to fire a gun, fire BOTH barrels.”

HAWKSMOOR fires both barrels.

WTF

Phil

GASTHAUS ÜBER ALLES

Joanne and I have been to GASTHAUS BAVARIAN HUNTER on about four occasions in the last few years, mostly recently with our grandkids to introduce them to one of Minnesota’s foundational cuisines. I’d always teased the kids about how bad German food is, and how I, being of mongrel ancestry and therefore not “contaminated” by German food, have a much keener palate than their grandmother – who, according to ancestry.com, is 87% German.


Our son, David, from Boston, was in town a few weeks ago and along with our daughter, Jennifer, we made the trip to Stillwater for lunch at the GASTHAUS.

So what is it that I like about this place?

GASTHAUS BAVARIAN HUNTER is over 50 years old…The place is REAL. It’s a “pure play” – no German tacos or burritos here. The Pine Forest wood-veneer setting is evocative and believable for a Bavarian gasthaus, too. David, who travels to Germany often, said this place feels like it could actually be in southern Germany. They even raise goats out back of the restaurant, something APPLEBEE’S and RED LOBSTER do not do.


We settled in for what became about a two-hour lunch – starting, of course, with German beer…even had a second glass.

Breads were dense, dark and chewy, and we followed up with a Herring Sampler Trio – all pickled: one plain, one in red wine, and one bathed in mustard ¬– complete with raw veggies, which provided a nice counterpoint crunch. It came with a half-dozen Ritz Crackers, which actually worked quite nicely ($11.95).

Jennifer ordered the Kaese Spaetzle – sort of a German Mac & Cheese with caramelized onions; so big and so rich that we ended up sharing it ($ 8.95.)

Although I’ve always thought of Goulash as Hungarian, I guess it isn’t too big of a step to imagine it migrating to Germany. David had the Goulash Soup, delicious and loaded with paprika.

Two classifications seem to rule the menu: sausages of all stripes, and a variety of schnitzel – veal, chicken and pork; the latter, called Jaegerschnitzel, served with a mushroom gravy. My favorite, however, is the simple and wonderful classic veal preparation of wiener schnitzel, served with a squeeze of lemon.

All are accompanied by side dish choices typical of a Bavarian restaurant – red cabbage, potato dumplings, spaetzle, sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, and German potato salad. I don’t think you could make a bad pairing. All are authentic, all are good.

We didn’t try the sauerbraten on this trip. That’s simply German for “potroast.” Gasthaus marinates theirs for a couple of days before cooking and makes a gravy from the marinade. It has a peculiar, delicious flavor sensation that you can’t quite put your finger on…….GINGER SNAP COOKIES!

I took the German peasant route and ordered the football-sized “schweinshaxe” – the pork knuckle. It’s the part of the pig’s leg just above the ankle. This, too, is marinated for days, then roasted for 2-3 hours until the meat falls off the bone. Served with mashed potatoes and sauerkraut, it’s a Teutonic bargain at $12.75.

You really need to finish off your feast with the Apple Strudel. You really, really do.

And if you’re lucky (or unlucky, depending on your tolerance for tableside serenades), your server will pull out an accordion and play for you…. ….which brings me back to the public perception of German cuisine. Is it really cuisine? Or is it an oxymoron, like “accordion music?”

I was just wondering…

WTF,
Phil

A BLOODY GOOD WAY TO RING IN 2018

Not so much anymore, but in past years Joanne and I always planned some sort of festivity for New Year’s Day – usually a party centered around the Rose Bowl game, with “hair of the dog” concoctions central to the offerings.


The full phrase, actually, is “The hair of the dog that bit you” – meaning that if you over-imbibed the previous night, a wee dram of the same drink in the morning will soothe the nerves and calm the soul.

Originally, however, the phrase supposedly had nothing to do with alcohol. It’s thought to date back to ancient times in England or Scotland, where people believed that you could speed the healing of a dog bite by putting some of the animal’s hair on the wound.

Could be a bunch of hooey. But I told Joanne that if she ever gets bit by a dog on one of our walks around the lake, we’re going to give it a try.

I’m also reminded of Homer Simpson’s favorite toast: “Here’s to alcohol: the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”

No truer words were ever spoken to someone nursing a New Year’s Eve hangover. And no better drink has ever been served on New Year’s Day than a BLOODY MARY.

Where and how the world’s most famous brunch drink was born is subject to some dispute. But there seem to be a few prevailing opinions, none of which – or any of which – may be true.

One view is that in the 1920s, at HARRY’S BAR in Paris, Ernest “Papa” Hemingway took to drinking a simple concoction of vodka and tomato juice – nothing more. Such was his fame that it became an instant classic.


Others say that in New York City a decade or so later, the 21 CLUB and the KING COLE BAR in the St. Regis Hotel prepared Bloody Marys for the comedian George Jessel, who requested his with a celery stalk garnish and, some say, a dash of Worcestershire Sauce.

Garnishes, of course, are THE distinguishing feature of Bloody Marys, even though the spiciness of the mix itself can vary widely.

So this posting is going to be different from my others: It’s a “visual feast” of outrageous Bloody Mary garnish ideas for your New Year’s Day celebrations. Look at the pictures, read the captions, and seize the opportunity to knock out your guests with your creativity even as you nurse them back to health with your cocktail.

We’ll start with the simple foundations of the Ernest Hemingway and George Jessel iterations and proceed to the more bizarre and clever possibilities.

Somewhere along the journey, you’ll need to figure out just where the garnishes end and the buffet begins.


Enjoy – and Happy New Year!

WTF
Phil

ST. ELMO’S STEAK HOUSE: ONE OF THE GREATS

Over the years, we’ve opened a number of restaurants in the Indianapolis area, including Buca di Beppos and an Oceanaire Seafood Room.

In the beginning, I wasn’t particularly familiar with Indy, but I quickly became acquainted with local fixtures like the Indianapolis Colts…the Indiana War Memorial Plaza Historic District…and of course the Indianapolis 500, with its roster of legendary drivers like A.J. Foyt Sr. and Jr., the Unsers, and Mario Andretti.


But the legend that resonated with me most closely had to do with food: ST. ELMO’S STEAK HOUSE, an Indianapolis institution since 1902. Located downtown on Illinois Street near the 248-foot-tall Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, it’s named after the patron saint of sailors.

Full disclosure: We know the St. Elmo people well. We’re both members of the National Retail Cattlemen’s Association (You may have seen our “Top 10 Steakhouses in America” ad in the Delta inflight magazine). The St. Elmo’s folks are great people, with a TERRIFIC steakhouse, one that has so much in common with Manny’s DNA that it’s scary. Their commitment to quality, their service standards and dining room experience are strikingly similar to ours, as reflected by Zagat ratings that are nearly identical – 4.7 and 4.8. That’s in the stratosphere for steakhouses. Zagat says of St. Elmo: “Steak the way God intended.”

Joanne and I have been there on numerous occasions and feel very much at home and cozy in St. Elmo’s clubby, masculine surroundings, rich with wood and exposed brick.

The tuxedo-clad servers, like Manny’s less formally attired staff, are not part timers. No, this is their “main event” and their professionalism shines at every level…respectful of the restaurant’s 115-year history…attentive but not overbearing, unfailingly polite and, if the occasion is celebratory, plenty fun.

As with Manny’s, St. Elmo’s features all the iconic steakhouse menu offerings – generous and expertly executed. Other than the steaks, the “star of the show” here is the Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail, served with a sinus-clearing cocktail sauce.

The beef is what you’d expect from a place like St. Elmo’s – the highest quality, perfectly prepared and expertly served. Porterhouses…New York Strips…Filets…Rib-eyes. They’re all world-class.

Prime Rib is also excellent here, as is the Surf & Turf. Lobster Mac & Cheese is a “must have” side dish. You’ll also find Indiana Pork Chops and Amish Chicken on the menu.

Desserts include Cheesecake, Crème Brulée, a decadent Chocolate Layer Cake, and my personal favorite: St. Elmo’s Bread Pudding.

No wonder this place was recognized by the James Beard Foundation in 2012 as an “American Classic.”

Take it from me: If you find yourself in Indy, don’t even bother with the other steakhouses (We’ve tried them all!). St. Elmo’s reigns supreme.


WTF,

Phil

CHICKEN-PROUD AT STROUD’S

The first time I posted about chicken was in my May 20th, 2016 blog on Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles in Pasadena. A later post covered another mecca for chicken lovers: Le Coq Roti, near Montmartre in Paris (there’s also a branch in NYC). Truth be told, I really love chicken – roasted, rotisserie, grilled, barbequed…even poached.


But nothing compares to FRIED CHICKEN. Maybe it’s because, growing up in central Illinois in the years following the Depression, chicken was a fixture on our dinner table – affordable, plentiful and, the way my mom prepared it, delicious. And the leftovers were just as good, eaten cold on Sunday afternoon picnics, accompanied by potato salad loaded with sweet, smooth Miracle Whip.

Back then, we didn’t think about chicken in “farm to table” terms. All I knew was fork-to-mouth, and the more the better.

Fast forward to my college courtship with Joanne. She invited me home for spring break, and I vividly remember her mother awakening me to her simple and delicious rendition of fried chicken. Lillie was a farm lady living in southern, Illinois. No grocery store-bought birds for her. She just picked and plucked the unlucky creature out in the barnyard; cut it up; dredged the pieces in flour, salt and pepper; amped-up her Sunbeam Electric Skillet to HIGH; loaded it with lard (no Canola); and away she went. I had never, ever tasted fried chicken like that.

(I remember thinking, My mom has to UP HER GAME.)

Since that epiphany, I’ve had the good fortune of sampling fried chicken from coast to coast. And all I can say is, “The worst I’ve had was delicious.”

I have some favorites in addition to Roscoe’s, among them YARDBIRD’S chicken and waffles, which rivals Roscoe’s and sports little chunks of watermelon alongside. Not to be missed are its little Fried Chicken Breast Drop Biscuit Sliders, and its MAC & CHEESE.


A great place that I’ve never been to, but have heard nothing but good things about is PANNIE-GEORGE’S in Auburn, Alabama, near the university. It’s sort of cafeteria-style and celebrates its Deep South roots with the side dishes like black-eyed peas, deep-fried okra, white rice & gravy…

A place that Joanne and I have been to on numerous occasions is ZEHNDER’S in Frankenmuth, Michigan. What the hell were we doing in Frankenmuth, Michigan, you might ask. Well, we had the “pleasure” of living for a few months in Flint, Michigan, the home of Michael Moore, Buick, and famous tap water while opening a FIGLIO restaurant there. (Don’t even ask!)

At any rate, we needed to escape that wretched city, so on weekends we’d motor up to Frankenmuth for Sunday Brunch at Zehnder’s, which is reported to be the largest family-owned restaurant in the United States – with 1,400 seats, as I recall. The most impressive thing about Zehnder’s, however, was the brunch itself – a massive, all-you-can-eat affair that included all the fixin’s, plus dessert, for $21.95 at last report. The star of the show here? You guessed it: Superbly fried chicken, crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside, perfectly complemented by my favorite Zehender’s side dish: buttered noodles. So simple, and so good.

Rounding out the list is ROOT AND BONE, located in New York City’s once dangerous Alphabet blocks on the lower East Side. Two chefs from Yardbird in Miami provide the pedigree here. ROOT AND BONE isn’t a Deep South “dive-y” joint – far from it. Their fried chicken is sweet tea-brined, “lemon-dusted,” and comes with Honey Tabasco Sauce. Miniature Buckwheat Cheddar Waffles and Whiskey Maple Syrup are clever adds, and taste really good. A side dish with a nod to the South is the Grits with Pimento Cheese and Chives. There’s also a giant nod to France: Macarons that rival those of Ladurée in Paris.

To be sure, great fried chicken joints abound in America. Shucks, even KFC is great! But one place just might stand above them all: STROUD’S in Kansas City. I’m reminded of it because our son Steven and friend Tim dined there recently on a road trip from Minneapolis to Miami. Now, I haven’t been there in years, but from their reports, it appears that absolutely nothing has changed except its location. We remember it as a charming “tumble-down” joint at 85th and Troost. Now it has multiple locations, including one in Omaha.

Back in the day, Joanne and I spent several weeks in Kansas City, building yet another Figlio in the Plaza development (this one lasted quite a bit longer than the one in Flint). At least once a week we ate at Stroud’s.

What’s the big deal about this place? It’s REAL. It’s eccentric. It’s impervious to time. And its chicken rivals Joanne’s mother’s. Instead of using a Sunbeam electric skillet, however, they fry in giant Lodge cast iron skillets – 8 or 10 lined up in a row, each large enough to fry 16 pieces of chicken at once (Each piece, by the way, gets turned only once). I don’t know where they source their chickens, but I can tell you, they are big, fat, juicy birds.

Something else I can’t tell you: what precisely Stroud’s means when they say, “We Choke Our Own Chickens.” Emblazoned on servers’ t-shirts, the menus and the walls, it’s a great line – intriguing, but at the same time telling you more than you want to know.

As you sit down, you’re greeted with a plastic basket of cellophane-wrapped crackers of various stripes. Dinners come with a nice House Salad with grated cheese and crispy croutons. There’s a good house-made Chicken Noodle Soup, too.


But why waste your time with those when you could be sharing a platter of Deep Fried Chicken Livers – or, better yet, a platter of Deep Fried Gizzards? Can’t make up your mind? Stroud’s will do a combo.

All the meats are decent here, including the Chicken Fried Steak with Pepper Gravy. But that’s not why you’ve come to Stroud’s.

I’ve since learned – but was not surprised – that Stroud’s is a James Beard Award winner…in the “Homestyle” category. Also, Zagat gives them a 4.6 rating – that’s really high. And to quote Zagat, Stroud’s is “fit for a king…affordable for a family.” (A full chicken dinner runs you $17.95). On top of that, Jane and Michael Stern of Road Food Fame say “Stroud’s makes the most delicious fried chicken in America.”

One other thing I love about Stroud’s: There’s no dessert menu here – because all dinners conclude with a basket of homemade, sticky, gooey, unbelievably heavy CINNAMON ROLLS! What restaurant today would do this? What diner would even want a dessert like that after polishing off a family platter of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, a mess of gravy, salad, and a big bowl of bacon-laden green beans. It makes no sense whatsoever – from a cost standpoint, from a health standpoint, from a 21st century eating trends standpoint. But that’s part of the beauty of this time capsule of a restaurant.

If you ever have the chance, eat at STROUD’S. And bring the family. It’ll be a particular treat for your teenage boys, who know a thing or two about choking chickens.

WTF

PHIL

LUAU WOW: ALAN WONG’S IN WAIKIKI

We’ve been fortunate enough to visit numerous tropical regions around the world, but If Joanne had to name her absolute favorite, it would, hands down, be Hawaii. Unlike so many other places, it’s hardly ever too hot or humid here. Squalor is easily avoided. And most areas are perfectly safe.


As another winter approaches, a fair number of Minnesotans will seek refuge in Hawaii, so I thought that it might be helpful to share some of our Pacific island favorites in the coming weeks and months.

I’ve already posted about MAMA’S FISH HOUSE on MAUI; definitely check it out.

This time we’ll talk about WAIKIKI and one of our absolute favorites: ALAN WONG’S, opened in 1995. It’s not located on glitzy Waikiki Beach, but rather a few blocks inland on the 5th floor of a undistinguished building in a semi-marginal neighborhood on King Street. Don’t worry. It’s safe. Take a taxi.


ZAGAT rates Alan Wong’s a 4.8 (that’s really high) and trumpets it as “the dining highlight of the island.”

A James Beard Award winner, Alan Wong is widely credited (along with Roy Yamaguchi) as the founder of Hawaiian regional cuisine – notable for the way it incorporates the islands’ diverse ethnic cultures, freshly farmed ingredients, and the bounty of the Pacific Ocean.


You’ll definitely need a reservation here – which I strongly suggest you make through your hotel concierge, as they have more clout than an individual in nailing a tough reservation. If you can, secure a table on the Lanai, where Joanne and I have frequently seen rainbows through the large windows.

Do indulge in one of their playful and exotic cocktails. They’ll “raise an eyebrow” and bring a smile to your face.

On a single visit you’ll never be able to sample the full array of creative starters offered, so let me highlight a few that we’ve enjoyed.

First is the Whole Poached Tomato Salad, featuring a peeled, lightly poached tomato atop crunchy cucumbers (an ideal textural counterpoint). The “zinger” in this dish is the pool of Li Hing Mui Sauce. No doubt you’re asking, “What the HELL is Li Hing Mui sauce?”


My question as well. First of all, it’s really unusual. I loved it. Others may not. It’s at once sweet, sour, salty, and a tiny bit funky with the flavors of fermented dried plums. We liked it so much that we purchased a couple bags of the plums at a roadside market to bring home.

Not to be outdone, the Soup & Sandwich is a skyrocket among the appetizers. Nothing like school lunch or diner fare, it’s one part Yellow Tomato Soup, and the other part Red Tomato Soup, served up in a 10 oz. “bird bath” martini glass, on top of which is a miniature flat top-griddled sandwich. On a recent visit, it combined foie gras, Kalua pig, and fresh mozzarella between two slices of buttery Hawaiian bread.

My favorite appetizer is the Duck Nachos with Avocado Salsa. It’s good and so unusual, in fact, that I notified Restaurant Business magazine about it. My note got published and subsequently I received a warm letter from Alan Wong thanking me. That was nice.

God, there are so many stars on this menu. One more: “Poke Pines” made with ahi tuna, avocado, and wasabi wrapped in semi-shredded, deep-fried crispy wontons and garnished with a bright red leaf of amaranth.

The main courses are equally inventive and witty. If there are at least two of you, try Da Bag, which arrives at your table looking like a giant bag of Jiffy Pop Popcorn. Your server punctures the foil bag and, as the steam escapes, carefully opens it to reveal a mélange of buttery steamed clams, bacon bits and porky shards of Kalua Pig.

Okay, so now you ask, “What the hell is Kalua Pig?”

It’s a Hawaiian original that you’ll always see at a luau (that is, if you really want to put up with the luau. I sure as hell don’t).

What distinguishes this dish is its unique preparation. In the morning, the chefs dig a pit and line it with large rocks, on top of which wood is piled and set afire – followed by wet banana leaves. Then comes the pig: simply seasoned with Hawaiian red salt and garlic…spatchcocked…and placed over the banana leaves. More wet banana leaves follow and the whole thing gets covered by a soaking wet tarp – on top of which more rocks are piled. They become white-hot.


Eleven hours later, the pig is ready to eat. It’s smoky, fatty and utterly delicious. Check out the images.

I’d be careless not to mention the Lamb Chops at Alan Wong’s. They’re crusted with pistachios, macadamia nuts and coconut. Likewise, the twice-cooked, soy-braised shortribs, served with gingered shrimp on the side, always impress. You’ll also find two Pacific seafood treasures here. First is Ginger-Crusted Onaga with Sweet Corn Kernels resting in a Miso Sauce with Black Sesame Seeds, garnished with sweet, sweet corn shoots. The other house specialty is a nori-wrapped tempura Ahi Tuna with pickled ginger on a pool of creamy wasabi sesame sauce.

And from time to time…not always…you’ll find the “Loco Moco” – Hawaii’s gift to heart disease.

The classic version of Loco Moco is a gut bomb. It begins with a one-pound patty of fried ground beef, dressed with a gravy made from pan drippings, along with chopped Maui onions and mushrooms (some recipes add bourbon to the gravy). This concoction is set on top of a cup of white rice and layered with a heaping scoop of pulled Kalua Pig. The whole grotesque stack is topped with a fried egg. In a nod to healthy eating, the dish usually comes with a pile of Macaroni Salad.


By the way, slabs of SPAM are frequently substituted for the burger patty in this dish, though more often the Spam is simply added to the party.

I’ve been tempted to order the Loco Moco at various joints around the island, but that might mean passing up Alan Wong’s incredible and unique interpretation of his Loco Moco, consisting of Fresh Water Eel, Panko Crusted Onaga, Shitake Mushrooms, and a Half Lobster Tail basted in soy sauce and mirin and finally garnished with a poached quail egg.

Desserts vary, but the showstopper for me is the life-sized Chocolate “Coconut Shell” crusted with shredded toasted coconut, filled with Hupia Coconut Sorbet, and surrounded by fresh tropical fruits.

So here’s my advice: Avoid the unwashed throngs of tourists lining the buffets at the major hotels’ luaus. Head to ALAN WONG’s instead. Trust me, I know what I’m talking about!

W.T.F.

PHIL

“Strip Mall” Korean in Miami

Last week I posted about Iceland……and we WILL get back to that, but probably not until the late spring. I just can’t imagine anybody going to Iceland in the winter.

So for the next few postings we’ll turn our attention to warm places where Minnesotans go to escape the cold winter.

No, not Naples, Florida. You should know by now: The action’s all in MIAMI BEACH.


Let’s head first to a little Korean spot called THE DRUNKEN DRAGON.

Victoria Pesce Elliott of Miami.com writes, “I’ve long wondered when the Korean Barbecue trend would make its way from Los Angeles and New York to Miami.”

Well, it’s arrived. And this place is packed.

The Drunken Dragon opens at 6:00 PM, and it fills up quickly. Even if you have a reservation, expect a wait stretching 30 minutes. The arrogant hostess will see to that.


Joanne and I have been there on several occasions, most recently with our three grandkids (who love this place; they get to play with fire. More on that later).

Korean fare boasts an array of flavors – sweet, spicy, acidic, salty and bitter. But Drunken Dragon is not a “by the book” Korean joint. It’s more pan-Asian, with culinary influences from Japan, Thailand and China. Cuba works its way in there, too. But that’s okay. I like ‘em all.

You can make a meal out of just the starters….and we have done that. Our favorites include Fresh Oysters with Mango Salsa, Hamachi with Filipino Lime Sauce and Crunchy Cashews, Grilled Octopus, Puffy Peking Bao Buns with Duck Confit, and Crispy Chicken Skin with sticky-smoky hoisin barbeque sauce. I love the Miniature Lobster rolls on Brioche Buns (but they’re expensive — $21 for four).


Large-format appetizers are great for sharing. Recently our table ordered a Drunken Dragon Meat Board: a hunk of falling-off-the-bone braised pork shoulder accompanied by lettuce leaves and bao buns to make wraps. Another good choice is a meat board presentation of Duck Confit, with juicy ribbons of duck, ready to be stuffed into warm, spongy steamed buns.

Sambal is a sexy hot sauce, evoking the promise of faraway sultry places. It’s a magical combination of chili pepper, rice wine vinegar and citrus. Drunken Dragon offers several iterations of deeply flavored Sambal, some with a “touch of funk,” including Shrimp Paste, Fish Sauce and Umami. I recommend the Smoky Cracked Spare Ribs to share at the table. They’re finished with “bright hot” Sambal sauce, scallions and cilantro. Yeah, they’re messy.

I’ve never come here for Happy Hour, but I’ve certainly sampled my share of Happy Hour offerings. Check out the images of Drunken Dragon’s Banh Mi Cuban Pressed Sandwiches with chicken liver paté, roasted pork, pickles, jalapenos and cilantro. The tiny Japanese Korobuta Hot Dog is served up on a deep fried bao bun (clever) and dressed with pickles, spicy ketchup and herbed aioli. Get two – one isn’t enough. Tiki drink glasses are loads of fun. And the non-alcoholic Coconut Popsicle in mint lemonade delights kids.

But now comes the part of Drunken Dragon that I really love: The Korean Barbeque, with DIY grilling at the table. Here’s the drill:

1. There are only seven barbeque tables in the restaurant.
2. They’re allocated on a first come/first served basis. (Want one? Get there 30 minutes before they open.)
3. Good news: If you can’t snag a barbeque table, any of the “at the table” grilled items can be ordered at the regular tables. They’ll just be prepared in the kitchen.
4. Do some of them yourself. Let the kitchen handle the rest.

5. If you come with kids, DEFINITELY snag a barbeque table. They may not eat what they cook, but they’ll love being junior arsonists.


The problem with some Korean Barbecue joints, particularly in New York, is that the exhaust systems can be woefully inadequate…..leaving you with the clothes on your back reeking of smoke….even after a aggressive dry cleanings.

Not so at DRUNKEN DRAGON.

Their Korean barbecue tables are said to be modeled after a centuries old Korean house heating system called ONDAL……which loosely means heating from underneath the floor. I sorta get it and sorta don’t. The barbecue tables at DRUNKEN DRAGON certainly radiate from down under …..and the smoke from the grilling is exhausted through vents surrounding the grill and cleverly pulled downward in vents through the floor and on to being exhausted outside the premises.


Portions of the raw meats for grilling (thinnish cuts of steak, shrimp, etc.) are modest in scale, but more than enough when accompanied by an array of side dishes. Prior to the grilling your server appears to prime the grill in order to prevent sticking. Once she did it with oil and a brush. Another time it was primed with a hunk of beef fat clamped in a pair of tongs. I like the beef fat best.

Among the side dishes, get the Kimchi Fried Rice, which is mixed tableside with a poached egg. It’s delicious and enough for four people. Then have the Crispy Bok Choy and Kale. By the way, as a side dish, you can grill your own fresh vegetables at the table as well.

Desserts are tropical, attractive, unusual – and uniformly good. Matcha Tres Leches and the Mango & Strawberry Korean Ice Creams were right out of Central Casting (although why the ice cream came in a steamer basket was a little puzzling).

A note about the location: You are going to need to calibrate your GPS to find this place, which masquerades as a convenience store in a class C strip mall. The restaurant’s blacked-out windows make it even harder to find. The good news is that Drunken Dragon has a huge red neon sign. The bad news is that the sign simply says “MARKET.”

One giveaway: Unlike most strip malls, this one offers $15 valet parking for your Bentley. Look for it on the west side of Alton Road between 14th & 15th Streets, right between a Subway sandwich shop and a Domino’s Pizza.

W.T.F…..

PHIL