Monthly Archives: November 2010

Mediocrity: Do We Settle in DC?

Sushi… the one food item that I seriously crave on a regular basis. I love it so much that when I first heard that women shouldn’t eat raw fish during pregnancy I told my husband we were going to adopt. I can survive 9 months of no wine, coffee, hotdogs, or bacon but a life without sushi is unfathomable.

Being a sushi fiend is not like being crazy for french fries or fried chicken (my two other food vices). When you’re craving fries there are probably 5 decent spots to grab a bagful in walking distance from wherever you are in this country. Maybe a couple fewer if you’re on the hunt for fried chicken. Of course there are ranges in quality, but for a quick fix I’ll bet everyone can think of a handful of places that know how to cook a potato in oil.

Sushi is another story. My sushi preferences run towards the rice topped with raw fish. I’m not ordering California rolls, tempura whatever, imitation crab, or smoked salmon with cream cheese. I’ll never order take out sushi. I shy away from all the raw fish options at the Whole Foods and Dean and Deluca sushi bars. So where’s a girl to go for a few great slices of fresh fish atop correctly seasoned rice?

I live in DC, so it’ll take me a little time to think of a place… still thinking…. still thinking…

Before the renovations, Sushi Taro was my weekly indulgence. My non-fish eating husband would fill up on kara age (Japanese style fried chicken), inari, natto rolls (yes, he’ll eat those stringy, stinky fermented soybeans, but shudders at the thought of putting raw fish in his mouth, go figure), unctuous braised pork belly, and a juicy well-marbled rib eye steak served with a teriyaki sauce where for once the chef knew to add sugar sparingly. I would satisfy my cravings with whatever the sushi chefs recommended.

Personally, I appreciate the new Sushi Taro with its focus on serving the best quality fish, but my dining partner is not quite as enthusiastic, so we’re forced to look elsewhere.

Kaz Sushi Bistro was our spot for a couple months. The high quality of the fish and several incredibly delicious and interesting signature sushi options satisfied my cravings. But the menu rarely changes, if ever. Also, the ambiance doesn’t cry out party or romance. Rather, the dining room is most often filled by people in business suits discussing the latest economic, healthcare, foreign—fill in the blank—policy.

I feel the same way about Sushi Ko. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. It just fails to be memorable.

So you can imagine my excitement when I heard about the opening of Kushi. Finally DC was getting an Izakaya-style joint. A place where meat, fish and vegetables are cooked over hot smoky grills and sushi chefs prepare fish flown in from the Tsukigi fish market in Tokyo.

In theory it’s heaven. In reality? Sometimes, maybe, yes, no… I’ve been there 7 times and I still can’t decide.

The ambiance is fantastic. There’s lots of great cooking action viewing at either the robata or sushi bar seating areas. It’s loud enough that you wouldn’t shy away from bringing a group of friends there for plate-sharing and sake bombs, but not so overwhelming that a couple couldn’t enjoy a fun private conversation.

All the sushi I’ve had there has been beautiful. Nice fish to rice ratios (I really hate huge slices on tiny mounds of rice and visa-versa). Rice is perfectly cooked, seasoned and served at the right temperature. They have a seared fatty salmon nigiri that defines melt-in-your-mouth. It’s slightly smoky and topped with chopped scallions. I’ve fallen in love and it’s one of the first things I order every time. Of course the offerings from Tsukigi are ridiculously fresh, and you’ll probably find many first time experiences among the options (whole baby ice fish anyone?).

As for the kishiyaki (grilled skewers) or robata (charcoal grill) offerings… meh. All the chicken options are pretty much flavorless. The pork belly is ok. Wagyu beef skewers can be dry, in desperate need of more sauce and less cooking time. Most of the meat is pre-braised, skewered and placed over the grill for just a couple minutes. Perhaps if they added more interesting cuts and stopped all the pre-cooking they might have a better final product.

The kara age and daily yaki onigiri special (grilled rice balls) are well executed standards. I hear that the buta kakuni (braised pork belly) is absolutely crave-inducing but I never order it since I now make it at home fairly frequently. The pickles that come out with the miso soup at lunch are a bit of a head scratcher. It’s hard to say if they’re pickles or if they just took a quick plunge in a salt bath. Texture is great, but there’s no flavor.

Here’s my frustration. When I talk about going out for Japanese food the options we have can only be generously described as “decent”. But I’ll keep going. Why? Because pretty decent is the best we’ve got. Can anyone explain to me how cities like Minneapolis and Denver can have great Japanese food but DC can only eek out a “meh”?

Why are places like Nooshi and Café Asia thriving?—Asia is a continent folks, you can’t properly make 20+ countries’ cuisines in one kitchen. Why doesn’t DC have a real noodle bar? Soba, ramen, udon – I’ll take anything. Yakiniku? Yakitori? Are these dining concepts too alien? Is there no market for them?

Or, have all the Japanese food lovers just resigned themselves to our semi decent food while looking longingly at all the options just up I-95 in NYC? Simple economic theory argues that if there is a demand, there will be supply to match. Dear God, please don’t let DC be the exception to that rule.

Kitchen Lingo 101

Every industry has its own lingo, a special vocabulary understandable to those who work in the specific field, but confusing to an outsider. As a TV news producer my sentences were peppered with words like MOS, sound bites, time code, b-roll. Now, in the kitchen, nine pan, brunios, confit, and soigné have become commonplace.

Here are a few other words and terms. Some may be familiar; others are a little more deceptive…

In the weeds/ “In the shit” terms which mean that a cook is behind, drowning in the work. Quite literally lost. These cooks are easy to spot because they’re doing a million things at once but with a look of panic across their face that says how am I ever going to get out of this?

I’ve spent many an afternoon in this state. Standing at my cutting board, frantically prepping.  My mind racing through the list of things I hadn’t done yet and calculating how much time each task would take and if I could complete them before service began.

I learned quickly that time management and organization are key to getting through that mise en place list on time. But time management is never enough… in addition to that one must “push.”

“Push” is perhaps my least favorite kitchen term. It’s also the one that I heard over and over when I first started my stage. To me, telling someone to “push” conjures up images of birthing. Prior to coming to the professional kitchen I had never heard this term used in any other setting. I worked in a fast paced newsroom and we certainly didn’t run around tell each other to “push”.

Perhaps most frustrating about the usage of this word is the timing of the delivery. Imagine that you’ve been on your feet for 10 hours. You’ve maybe had a couple sips of water but you haven’t had anything to eat or gone to the bathroom once… because you simply couldn’t find any time for such luxuries. Service begins in one hour and you still have a million things to do. The sous chef (or maybe just a wise ass looking to get under your skin) comes over and says, “you know sometimes you just gotta push.” Oh jeez, thank you for that, because I’ve just been standing here twiddling my thumbs all day. I swear, you will always be told to push right when you feel like you are about to pass out.

“What” and “why”… in regular conversation these are words that signal the inquisitor would like to hear some sort of reasoning process—a description of the events that led up to the action, or a logical explanation of how something came to be. Not always the case in the kitchen. It’s more frequently used as a flag indicating that you fucked up somewhere. If you’re asked “why did you concassé the tomatoes this way?” The correct answer is not “oh because so-and-so told me to do it like that”. Instead say, “I’m sorry, is there another way I should be doing it?” Likewise when the chef or sous chef asks, “What’s taking you so long?” this is not an invitation to rattle off your prep list, as impressive as it may be. Your answer should be more along the lines of “sorry, I guess I just need to push”.

However, your answer to a sentence beginning with “when” should be precise and literal. “When will you be done shelling those favas?” Reply – “in 20 minutes.”

And when those 20 minutes have expired, there better be the correct amount of shelled fava beans ready to go. The reason for this is because those line cooks that you’re prepping for have mapped out their mise en place and know what time they need those beans, diced vegetables, sliced potatoes etc. in order to put them through the next step of the process. If your timing is off, it can screw up theirs. If you become known as unreliable, the cooks are going to find someone else to do the prep. If you find yourself idle in a busy kitchen put yourself on notice.

But one of the most commonly uttered phrases in the kitchen is a well-timed “that’s what she said.” And when you’re working with food it’s not hard to slip that one in. “Pop that in the freezer because it’s easier to work with if it’s hard”. – That’s what she said. “So how do you want me to do this?” – That’s that she said. When you work with a group of guys, no matter how professional, this is naturally going to be slipped into the conversation. Now throw in a 19, 20 and 22 year old and you’re asking to release the floodgates of male humor.

So, the next time you’re in the weeds thinking that you might not make it through the day, and that sassy little guy comes over and mockingly says “you know, sometimes you just gotta push” shoot him a dirty look and reply “that’s what she said”.