Friday, May 27, 2011

Yokohama: A Taste of Japan at Home

This review originally published on May 25, 2011 at The Brookline Patch

It’s hard to say what surprises me most about the tiny Yokohama Japanese Restaurant in Brookline Village. It’s not the excellent food—though more on that later. It’s not that the restaurant has thrived for years despite being virtually hidden—Yokohama doesn’t even have a website. It’s not that the place reminds me of a grandmother’s apartment: shelves cluttered with vases, plates, books, and potted plants, walls covered in peeling Japanese posters and the occasional kids’ drawing.

I think what surprises me most is that everyone eating there seems like a regular. The owners (who are also the sole employees; he cooks, she serves) greet many of the patrons by name. A couple at the next table raved about the place, how they come here all the time for dinner. A woman comes in, sits at the long sushi counter, and eats leisurely, chatting with the owners. We feel like we’re guests in their home, just over for dinner.

For my first visit, I took a friend who grew up in Japan, and knows her food well.

"We should get the Agedashi Tofu,” she advised. “It’s one of those dishes where if they do it right, I’ll know that all the food here is good."

The dish ($5.50) came, two great slabs of tofu with edges lightly fried, insides as silky as pudding, crowned with green onions, grated ginger, and flakes of bonito. A delicate brown sauce—part soy sauce, part rice vinegar, never too salty—pooled at the bottom of the bowl. My friend nodded slowly as she ate, a smile on her face.

“It’s good,” she said.

When you sit down, the proprietress will plunk a steaming mug of green tea, never bitter, just clean-tasting, onto the table in front of you. If you want something stronger, she’ll direct you to the liquor store around the corner—Yokohama is strictly BYOB.

We began with an appetizer of gyoza pork dumplings ($5.50), perfectly crispy on one side, which came with a graceful ponzu-style dipping sauce; steamed shrimp shumai ($5.50) yielded to the tooth like hot, savory little pillows.  Chicken Yakitori ($5.50), skewers of grilled chicken brushed with thick teriyaki-style sauce, was too dry to bother with, but a well-made appetizer of shrimp and vegetable tempura ($7.95) made up for the yakitori and then some; two tempura shrimp, each longer than my index finger, sat atop a pile of still-crispy vegetables coated with light, never greasy, tempura batter.

And of course, the sushi—fish so fresh it’s buttery, and rice just the right stickiness, where you can still separate each individual grain with your tongue. The Sushi Deluxe Platter ($16.95) gave us a California roll and eight pieces of chef’s selection nigiri, including salmon, tuna, mackerel, red snapper, and egg (tamago). Or, order from a large selection of sushi a la carte; I liked the spicy tuna (tekka) roll ($5) with its fiery mayo, and the Rainbow Roll ($9.75), a popular inversion of maki in which the colorful strips of fish and avocado lay draped over the top of the roll.

The menu offers teriyaki dishes, too, and great bowls of udon: thick noodles with a slight chew swimming in umami-laden miso broth. Bowls range from $10.95 (vegetable, tofu) to $12.95 (seafood, tempura). And while desserts, like green tea ice cream, are listed on the menu, I’m betting that when those traditional slices of sweet orange arrive at your table after your meal, they will be all the dessert you need.

Yokohama Japanese Restaurant is open Monday through Saturday 12pm-2:30pm and 5pm-10pm.  238 Washington Street, Brookline.  MBTA: Green line (D) to Brookline Village.  Cash and credit cards accepted.
Yokohama Sushi on Urbanspoon

Monday, May 23, 2011

Cupboard Cleanout: homemade dark & stormy

This is one of a series of Cupboard Cleanout posts dedicated to using up those odds and ends we all have laying about the pantry. It's a pantry liquidation sale— everything must go!

I'm sure many of you can relate to this when I travel, I bring home food instead of souvenirs. That's how this homemade Dark & Stormy came to be. Behold:

An unopened bottle of Brugal's aged, dark rum, which my husband won in a chess tournament on our honeymoon in the Dominican Republic.

Yup, you read that right. A chess tournament. On our honeymoon, people. While this awaited him:

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

thai coconut soup

I discovered yesterday that turning on the weather forecast to see a week's worth of rain is pretty disheartening. Like being eight years old and opening my mom's day planner to find a week's worth of dentist's appointments.

But my husband is outside, grilling in the rain— a true devotee of the craft. If I weren't so desperate for the advent of grill season and its accompanying sun and warmth, I'd pull him back inside before he catches a cold, and make this soup for dinner instead.

Friday, May 13, 2011

American Craft: At the Crossroads of Food and Beer

This review originally published May 12, 2011 at The Brookline Patch

Beer: it's not just for co-eds anymore.

The craft beer movement of recent years, which has reminded all of us that the right beer can enhance good food in the same fashion previously limited to fine wine, has instigated a wave of gastropubs like American Craft on Beacon Street. Here, the dark wood, the brick-red wallpaper, the exposed pipes, and the saloon-style chandeliers tread the line between pub and modern restaurant. Even as IDs are checked at the door and we overhear smattered cheering for the Celtics-Miami Heat game on the TVs located throughout, we sit down to a creative, well-prepared meal accompanied by a large selection of American-made wines, spirits, and most importantly, craft beers.

We started outwhere else?at the bar, where Tom, barkeep to the adventurous, narrowed down our indecisive beer preferences and let us sample before we committed. We ended up with a clean-tasting Allagash Confluence ($8), and the sage-infused Stillwater Cellar Door ($8). Beers like these alongside a platter of thick-cut chive fries and luscious, addictive bleu cheese dip is a chic incarnation of the age-old beer-potato snack combo.

The excellent service continued at the table, where our server Steven happily discoursed about Belgian brewing techniques and, at our request, made careful beer recommendations based on our dishes.  He’s right at home in this restaurant that cares deeply about the crossroads of food and beer.

Duck Two Ways ($22), with a dry-rubbed breast of duck and a confit leg, was a journey through the taste-texture continuum: the crackle of the skin on the leg that encased shreds of meltingly tender duck, the spicy broccoli rabe that still retained a bit of its inherent bitterness, the sweetness of the cherries against the tender duck breast, the natural tang of the roasted yellow potatoes.  Pair the duck with a Pretty Things Baby Tree ($5.75), a smooth, dark marriage of sweet and bitter that highlights the plate’s different flavors.

The Pan Seared Salmon ($18) suffered from an oversalted crust, though the blandness of the accompanying truffle risotto cake cut the salt somewhat.  Pea tendrils and spinach in a delicate saffron cream sauce lent a seasonal spring flair to the dish.  A natural pairing here is the Pretty Things Jack D’or ($5.75), a gentle beer that emphasizes flavor without masking the elegance of the sauce.
Chicken Confit Sandwich
Crab Cake Sandwich
Sandwiches, like the Crab Cake Sandwich ($12) featuring sweet Maine crab and a Dijon aioli, are all served on Hi-Rise Bakery breads with fries or fresh mixed greens.  Try a classic like the Rueben on rye, or a more adventurous pick: the Chicken Confit Sandwich ($12), a clutter of chicken thigh confit and crackly skin, with applewood smoked bacon and sweet red onion jam.  And, of course, there’s the burger in various forms (beef, turkey, veggie), with time-honored toppings as well as unusual choices like garlicky greens, pea shoots, whipped potato, or truffle butter.  The house recommends pairing your burger with a Dogfish Head brew adventurously named Hellhound on my Ale.  How could you resist?
Yes, vegetarians, there are options for you here: appetizers of zucchini fritters with a buttermilk sauce ($8) and Butternut Squash Risotto ($9); bowls of soup and entrée salads; vegetable cannelloni in a tomato and basil cream sauce ($14); the aforementioned veggie burger ($9).
At my count, there are 62 beers on American Craft’s menu.  With four already checked off my list, I guess I’ll be back, oh, about 58 more times.
American Craft is open Monday-Wednesday 5pm to 12am (kitchen serves until 10pm); Thursday-Friday 5pm to 2am (kitchen serves until 11pm); Saturday 4pm-2am (kitchen serves until 11pm); Sunday 4pm to 12am (kitchen serves until 10pm).  1700 Beacon Street.  MBTA: Green Line (C) to Tappan Street.  For reservations, call 617.487.4290.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Oaxacan-style tlayuda for Cinco de Mayo

American culture has a remarkable power of absorption—we appropriate food, fashion, television shows (speaking of which: goodbye, Michael Scott!).  Holidays, like St. Patrick’s Day and Chinese New Year, are no different.  Heck, I’ve even celebrated Bastille Day.  Any excuse to throw a party, right?

And then there’s Cinco de Mayo, a holiday now more popular in the US than in Mexico.  When I recently mentioned to a Mexican acquaintance that I sometimes celebrate Cinco de Mayo, he looked confused, and asked, "Why?"

Tlayudas (lie-yoo-das) are a native specialty in Oaxaca, Mexico.  I ate my first in a tiny restaurant with an enormous, old-timey bike standing outside the door.  And I'd like to refrain from using the phrase 'Mexican pizza' here, because although I understand the very human compulsion to relate some unfamiliar item to something we already know, a tlayuda is very much its own entity.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Dorado: A Real Mexican Diner in Coolidge Corner

This review originally published April 28, 2011 at The Brookline Patch

If you haven't made your Cinco de Mayo plans yet, you may want to take a look at Dorado Tacos & Cemitas, a little place in JFK Crossing serving up the best fish tacos this side of the Charles River. It’s a real Mexican-style diner—not a place for lingering, just an unpretentious taco stand like one you'd find in a back alley of Puebla or Monterrey. 

There are, of course, plenty of tacos on the menu. You might select a tender chicken taco with a roasted tomato-habañero salsa that will set your mouth aflame ($2.59), or maybe a taco with meaty portabello mushrooms, avocado, and snowflakes of cotija cheese ($2.89). But the real stars here are the Baja-style fish tacos. You can taste the beer in the batter of the Ensenada taco's white fish filet, served with a touch of pickled onion for a vinegary contrast ($2.59). You can prickle your tongue with heat from the Dorado taco’s chipotle crema, hidden under paper-thin slices of radish ($2.59). Or you can savor the current seasonal special, a grilled yellowfin tuna taco ($2.99), enthroned with a bit of pineapple salsa upon its chewy corn tortilla.

So, what's the cemita mentioned in the restaurant's name? A Mexican street food sandwich; a schmear of black beans, a sprig of cilantro, a few slices of Oaxaca cheese, with chipotle adobo and your choice of meat on a sesame seed bun (And here you thought the sesame-seed bun was an all-American obsession.) Our chorizo cemita ($6.25), with house-made chorizo sausage, reminded me of a spicier, tidier sloppy joe. One that won’t stain your tie.

Now, the hard part: if you had asked me two weeks ago what I thought of the quesadillas, melty cheese and flavorful meat sandwiched between two crispy tortillas, I’d have unquestionably proclaimed the steak quesadilla ($5.25) my favorite item on the menu. Such a simple guilty pleasure, but done amazingly well: the tortilla crackles beneath your teeth as you bite in, and the tenderness and depth of flavor in the steak made me think it had marinated for days.

Flash forward to several days ago, when we ordered another steak quesadilla and its brother, one filled with marinated chicken.  My companion and I stared incredulously at each other, unable to believe that these piles of greasy cheese masqueraded as the same quesadillas we had so relished. A poor shrimp taco wallowed alongside, its soggy breading making it a target for ridicule.  I’ve since been back for another quesadilla and found it up to previous standards, but had that ill-fated visit been my first to Dorado, I wouldn’t have been back. I'll chalk it up to a fluke (had the chef gone home sick?), but if your quesadilla doesn’t meet with a standing ovation, know that Dorado can do better.

Accompany your meal with a subtly sweet pineapple ginger lemon agua fresca, or a glass bottle of Mexican coca-cola (made with real sugar instead of corn syrup, which I think creates a lighter, more graceful soda). Potential Cinco de Mayo revelers will also want to note that Dorado serves a selection of imported Mexican beers and a red wine sangria.

Dorado serves brunch, too—breakfast tacos and quesadillas, patatas bravas, huevos rancheros—Saturday and Sunday from 11 to 3, alongside the regular menu. Keep that in mind in case your Cinco de Mayo celebration keeps on rolling.

Dorado Tacos & Cemitas is open Monday-Saturday 11am-10pm, and Sunday 11am-9pm.  Cash and credit accepted.  401 Harvard Street, Brookline.  MBTA: Green line (C) to Coolidge Corner.
Dorado Tacos & Cemitas on Urbanspoon