If Time Out New York can do it, so can I. I’ve been inspired and satiated by Time Out’s 2009 Top 100 list and look forward to conquering their 2010 list very soon. But from now until the end of the year, I present my own Top 100 Dishes of the year in reverse order. Look for another five dishes every few days.
35. TORO TARTARE at MORIMOTO
I was taken to Morimoto for my birthday this past year. And it wouldn’t have been a successful birthday dinner if nothing made my Top 100. The meal was really delicious and it was a wonderful night. But when I think back to the tasting menu, one dish in particular stands out in my mind.
Early on, we were served what looked like a mini-washboard. Except instead of dirty clothes, there was the beautifully presented Toro Tartare, a perfectly shaped layer of chopped raw bluefin tuna meat. The fish was garnished with a touch of ostera caviar but the real excitement happened below the silky fish. Six garnishes (including creme fraiche, nori paste, wasabi, avocado cream, and crispy rice cracker bits) were compartmentalized and the chef invites you to mix and match flavors and textures. As if these DIY textures and flavors weren’t enough with the fresh meaty fish, there was also a bowl of dashi soy sauce to bring that extra clean umami experience to life.
With a dish like this, what more can a birthday boy ask for? Maybe an extra birthday each year? Price: $28 (a la carte)
|88 Tenth Avenue (between West 15th and West 16th Street)
34. TAKOYAKI at OTAFUKU
They’re very strange to look at, the smell is a bit off putting, and the thought of them is unappetizing. But I tell you, these octopus balls are delicious.
Anybody who’s hung out long and hard enough in the East Village knows the tiny take-out window of Otafuku, which specializes in late night Japanese street food. There’s nowhere to sit and there’s often a line.
The thing to order here are the takoyaki, known as octopus balls. And relax, they’re not the testicles of the eight-legged creatures (do they even have testicles?), but rather a savory donut with sweet, smoky, spicy Japanese flavors. And inside, you get the hidden pearl: a chewy rich piece of octopus meat.
The balls (6 for $5) are cooked to order in a special cast iron grill pan. You can watch them make it (if there’s room in the shop) and then watch them top the order with all these foreign ingredients. First goes the brown sweet malty sauce, then the kewpie (Japanese mayo), follow that by green seaweed powder, and finally the strangest of all: the bonito flakes.
Bonito flakes are dried, thinly sliced mackerel flakes that when added to hot food, slither and flap as if there’s still a possible escape. The mackerel is long gone and doesn’t even resemble fish (aside from the taste), but the flakes most definitely seem alive.
When you bite into the balls, the soft dough gives way to an explosion of gooey rich filling. The flavors come alive as you struggle with the heat and finally find your way to that perfectly boiled octopus.
The whole thing can be frightening for the uninitiated, but I assure you when you taste the rich flavors and experience the unusual texture sensations, you’ll be hooked. In fact, I could go for another set of octopus balls right now. Price: $5
|236 East 9th Street (between 2nd Avenue and Stuyvesant Street)
33. TONGUE EXPERIENCE at TAKASHI
Takashi is so clean and sterile looking for a place that specializes in grilled cow guts. But this new Japanese-Korean BBQ joint in the West Village may be one of my new favorite restaurants (regardless of the violence that occurs to bring their food to the table).
We went on Halloween this year, which seemed very fitting, and decided to order a dish that was a little frightening, but not too creepy. And the Tongue Experience seemed just right.
Three parts of the tongue (the tip, the sinew, and chopped tongue) are marinated in a tangy garlic lemon sauce and served raw. Then it’s up to you to grill it yourself to the perfect temperature. Some of the tongue (sinew) ended up being a little chewy. But that was part of the fun and the flavors all rubbed off on my tongue (sorry if that’s a bit off-color).
The meat was fresh and flavorful, the textures were varied and unique, and the experience of grilling the tongue yourself was, well, an experience. An experience so delicious that I might even be tempted to try a stomach chamber or intestine next time. And with food this delicious, there most definitely will be a next time. Price: $22
|456 Hudson Street (between Morton Street and Barrow Street)
32. WASABI DUMPLINGS at SAKE BAR HAGI
Hagi is a total find, but since I started going there it’s been found and now there’s always a long wait for a table (or even a seat at the bar).
It’s a classic Japanese izakaya (pub with food) and is perfect for restaurant people who need to eat good cheap food (and cheap pitchers of Sapporo) after their shifts. And that’s how I first discovered the semi-hidden spot.
And once I tasted their wasabi dumplings, I was totally hooked and would wait in any line necessary.
You only get four little dumplings, stuffed with pork and chives, but they certainly pack a punch. If the name alone doesn’t warn you of the oncoming heat, the bright green color of the wrapper certainly will. The dough must be infused or rubbed with wasabi to give it that color. And once you bite into it, you discover you have tastebuds in your sinuses (you don’t really). But the heat subsides rather quickly once you get past that initial jolt and it gives way to rich wasabi and pork flavors.
If only they sold these for five for a dollar like most dumpling houses in Chinatown. My sinuses might start working overtime. Price: $4.50
|SAKE BAR HAGI|
|152 West 49th Street (between 7th Avenue and Avenue of the Americas)
31. WAKAME BUTTER at CORTON
Corton is a French restaurant. A high-end French restaurant. And their complimentary butter is inspired by recipes from Brittany called beurre aux algues. But the word wakame is Japanese. So there must have been an influence at some point.
The wakame butter was one of two butter options. I felt bad that we didn’t pay much attention to the sweet cream butter, but the wakame butter was so unique and complex that I had to eat as much of it as possible. The butter comes from Vermont Cheese and Butter Company, but chef Paul Liebrandt livens it up with the addition of wakame. So what is wakame already? Here we go: it’s seaweed. This is seaweed butter.
I know it sounds weird, but the butter was incredible. The seaweed added some brininess, a vegetal quality, and more salt notes. The butter itself was rich and perfectly creamy with a touch of sweetness. Together these flavors played out in harmony on the palate. I’ve never been so excited by pure butter in my life. And that (and the fact that Corton is generally out of my price range) is probably a good thing for my arteries. Complimentary with $85 prix-fixe
|239 West Broadway (between Beach Street and Moore Street)