Thursday, January 28, 2010

Hawaii Eats Part I: Sushi Izakaya Gaku

I just recently came back from a mini vacation to beautiful Hawaii.  I love Hawaii for many reasons, many of which come from their delicious eats!  If anything is a reflection of Hawaii's diverse culture, it is the food.  In recent years, a strong Japanese influence has brought in a wave of izakayas -- Japanese food taverns -- that serve up a wide range of small plates.  In case you haven't noticed, I love the style of small plates (dim sum, mezze, tapas...) because I enjoy the whole communal feel and it gives the opportunity to try a little bit of everything!  Each izakaya has its own character and everyone seems to have their favorite.

I've only had the opportunity to try a few of the izakayas and my favorite at the moment is Sushi Izakaya Gaku.  This restaurant was suggested to me last year by multiple people.  It is one of the newest izakayas in the Honolulu scene and strays a bit away from the "traditional."  The chef/owner (who was behind the sushi bar when we were here!), Manabu Kikuchi, was a chef for 10 years at the popular izakaya, Imanas Tei -- enlisting his close friends, he opened up Gaku bringing his fresh flavors and fresh take on the izakayas.

Honestly, Gaku is one of the best restaurants I've been to in a long time -- in and outside of Hawaii. The food is simple, yet creative and memorable. So, I was thinking of just giving my favorite food highlights, but it is just so hard to choose! So here is a whirlwind tour of our meal :)

Hamachi Tartare with Nori Wrappers: This will forever be one of my go-tos. I had it the first time I came to Gaku and had to have it again. The slightly spicy flavor of the hamachi tartare with its soft texture matches perfectly with the crunchy thin sheets of seaweed wrappers.

O-Toro and Uni Sashimi: The o-toro here (fatty tuna) is simply melt in your mouth fresh (top).  The uni (sea urchin) sashimi is my mom's favorite dish -- creamy and slightly sweet -- presented in a shell.

Kumamoto Oysters: Our wonderful waiter suggested this special to us.  Each day, Gaku has a lengthy list of specials to choose from (hurrah for more selection!).  These were delicious -- topped with scallions and ponzu sauce, they were briny, savory, and umami-licious.

Beef Croquettes: These were also on the "specials" menu.  These croquettes are a mix of mashed potatoes and beef, coated in panko, and deep fried.  At first, I found the croquettes to be fairly bland... but then, I tried the sauces that they accompanied them and they were TRANSFORMED.  I know, it sounds crazy.  But the use of that miso based sauce just woke up all my taste buds and brought out all the different flavors in the croquette.  Drooling now thinking about that sauce...

Salmon Skin Hand Roll: This was my dad's salmon skin hand roll.  This is one of his favorite items to get at any Japanese restaurant -- and he wasn't disappointed here.  He said that the skin was incredibly crisp and did not have too much salmon meat hanging on the skin that often makes the skin soggy in other rolls.

Grilled Whole Moi: OMG.  This dish was FANTASTIC.  We had originally ordered the miso butterfish, but as it turned out, they were out of butterfish that day (which in retrospect was a blessing in disguise), so our waiter suggested the moi to us.  Once the fish of Hawaiian kings, moi is a popular Hawaiian fish -- moist, white, and flaky -- and I don't recall another preparation of moi that was this delicious.  The skin was crispy and had that deep flavor that comes from grilling.  The meat was light and flaky, yet flavorful.  Definitely would get this again in a heartbeat.

Sushi!: Of course, we had to get sushi while we were here.  Here we have the seared gold eye snapper, tuna, and scallops.  We got the gold eye snapper on a whim, and it was my favorite.  The slight searing brought out the best flavors in the fish.

Monkfish Liver: As they say, the "foie gras of the sea."  This was definitely a highlight of the dinner for my mom.  She devoured the little dish -- and agreed, it tasted just like foie gras.  Very smooth and flavorful.

Azuki Beans with Mochi Balls: Here is the first of our two desserts -- the lightly sweet azuki (red) beans surrounding chewy, soft mochi balls.  We got this every time we've been to Gaku and love the light flavors. 

Vanilla Ice Cream with Pomegranate Jelly: Originally, the special of the day was vanilla ice cream with blueberry... I was intrigued.  But sadly, they had already ran out of this special!  Our waiter though said he could have them whip up the same dish but with POMEGRANATE.  I immediately perked up and actually told him that that would be even better.  (How I heart pomegranate...).  And this was the perfect refreshing dish to end the meal.  I didn't realize that the pomegranate-ness would be coming in jelly form, but the jelly with the vanilla ice cream was a delectable mixture of creamy and fruity. 
Outside of the food, the standout for me is the service. The service is beyond friendly and helpful (the aloha spirit is alive and well!). And although this may have been just happenstance, our waiter actually remembered my family even though we hadn't been back in months. The feel when you walk in is immediately one of ... home. They go out of their way to make you feel at home in this small restaurant and there's a feeling of comraderie from the staff, the regulars, and even new diners like my family.

I definitely recommend Gaku to anyone visiting Oahu.  It's a place that really has something for every set of taste buds.  Be sure to make reservations though.  The restaurant is pretty small, and although they try to accommodate walk-ins, sometimes it just isn't possible.  (And on a sidenote tip, there is a small (i.e. approx 6 car) parking lot behind the restaurant where you can park -- spots disappear quickly and they are quite tight, but a great option as opposed to busy King Street.)  And if you do go, let me know what you thought and what you had!  With the ever revolving door of specials, I wish I could go back all the time, just to see and taste the chef's newest creations!

Sushi Izakaya Gaku
1329 S. King Street
Honolulu, HI 96814
(808) 589-1329

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Dish in the District: Ping Pong Dim Sum


Excuse the dark photos -- such is the hazards of mood lighting in restaurants!

My friend Jamie and I ventured to try out the new Ping Pong Dim Sum restaurant, located just north of the Chinatown arch in DC. Although this would seem quite appropriate, DC's Chinatown doesn't actually house THAT many Chinese restaurants. The area has exploded in the past decade with restaurants of all genres popping up around the Verizon Center -- home to the Washington Capitals and Wizards.

In any case, we had heard about Ping Pong Dim Sum opening last December 2009, so when we were planning for a dinner together, it seemed like a great option. I arrived earlier than Jamie and found a spot at the end of the bar to sample some of their signature cocktails -- dotted throughout the bar were Caps fans in their bright red jerseys getting their pre-game eats and drinks (I made a mental note to come here before my next Caps game!). The bartenders were extremely friendly and helpful -- Ping Pong Dim Sum has an extensive cocktail menu with lots of delicious sounding options. My bartender suggested her favorite drink to me -- the Lychee and Roses (Bombay Sapphire gin, rose petals, lemon, and lychee juice). I LOVED this drink (and in fact ordered another one at dinner). The price was right too. During happy hour (until 7 pm! a relatively late happy hour in DC), cocktail drinks are $5 (as compared to their normal $11 or so price tag) (other "happy hour" specials are available after 7 pm Thurs through Sun).

When Jamie arrived, we decided to sit in the "lounge" area of the bar (to continue enjoying happy hour priced specials). The "lounge" area consists of several tall tables that could sit up to six or eight diners -- although there were only two of us, the managers at Ping Pong welcomed us to spread out at the 6 person table. Our waiter showed up promptly, brought by a paper menu for us to tick off which dim sum dishes caught our eye. If you haven't had dim sum before, dim sum consists of small plates -- kind of like tapas -- here, each dish consisted of 2 or 3 of the listed item. The waiter suggested that we order between 3 to 5 dishes for each of us -- with 40+ savory dishes to choose from, we sure had our work cut out for us.


Before coming to Ping Pong, I was forewarned by my London friend that the dim sum wasn't necessarily "authentic." And although I found this to be true, I also thought that the dishes were still, for the most part, flavorful and interesting. The dishes are broken down by category -- soups, baked, steamed, griddled, steamed buns, fried, sticky rice parcels, signature dishes, salads, pickles, and vegetables. My favorites were the "chicken puff" (Honey roasted barbecue chicken in hand made puff pastry topped with pineapple -- fairly substantial, flaky, and lots of flavor -- see photo above!) and the dumplings we ordered (including the pork shu mai -- pork and king prawns in an open pastry topped with a Chinese wolfberry).  I also enjoyed the choy sum (steamed in soy sauce and cooked with garlic) -- but really, this isn't a dish that is any different from what my parents cook up at home.  [We also tried, amongst other things, the crispy hoisin duck spring roll -- aromatic duck with cucumber and spring onion wrapped in wheat flour pastry, served with hoisin sauce -- this dish sounded amazing, but the duck gets mostly lost in the deep fried-ness and the satay squid -- steamed chopped squid in satay sauce, seasoned with ginger and spring onion.]

Basically, the dishes are loosely based on "authentic" forms of dim sum, with some having a definite "new" twist.  One example of this was the Valrhona chocolate buns -- imagine a steamed char siu bao (pork bun) but instead of roast pork on the inside, inside is rich dark chocolate.  This was our dessert of choice -- the light flavor of the bun offered a nice balance to the richness of the chocolate.

Overall, we enjoyed our experience at Ping Pong Dim Sum.  The service was very attentive and friendly, and there was a large variety of dishes to suit almost every palate.  This is a great addition to the DC food scene.

Ping Pong Dim Sum
900 7th Street NW
Washington, DC 20001

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Cook Club: Barefoot Contessa Parties!


HIGHEST SCORE DISHES: Elaine's Rugelach, Lisa's Tabbouleh, and Amanda's Lemon Bars

Our November/December Cook Club brings us Lisa's pick (check out the dish she made above!) -- Barefoot Contessa Parties!  The cookbook is categorized by different parties, ranging from Sunday Breakfast to Academy Awards, from Canoe Trip to Lunch in the Garden.  We were rather dessert loving this time around (hurray for desserts!), so check out all the tasty treats...


Chicken ChiliJackie's Chicken Chili
Score: 4

Mr. J and I love chili, so I had to try this lighter version.  This recipe brings together onions, garlic, peppers (I somehow managed to forget to buy the yellow peppers, so only had two red peppers on hand...), tomatoes, and roasted chicken.  I love how the Barefoot Contessa roasts her chicken breasts -- very simple and easy -- just rub down with pepper, salt, and olive oil and stick it in the oven at 350 for 30-40 minutes.  I found though that the chicken got a little rubbery with reheats of chili.  This dish was really flavorful -- although I have to admit that I prefer a more robust chili.  I think this would be perfect for a warm day when you're craving comfort food, but don't want something super heavy.

Side Dishes

TabboulehLisa's Tabbouleh
Score: 4.5

I have made several dishes from this cookbook and have loved all of them. Ina’s recipes tend to be easy and tasty! Her tabbouleh is a very flavorful dish that requires minimal effort. It would be great to serve on a hot summer day. The flavors of the fresh cucumber, tomatoes, scallions, mint, parsley, and lemon juice combine very well together. Make sure to refrigerate for a few hours after making it in order to experience the flavors to the fullest!


Peanut Butter Chocolate Chunk CookiesBana's Peanut Butter Chocolate Chunk Cookies
Score: 4

I've been on a cookie kick recently, so I choosing the Peanut
Butter Chocolate Chunk cookies was a no-brainer. There were no surprises in the recipe - very standard, as far as cookies go. It's essentially a chocolate chip cookie with peanut butter and brown sugar in the batter. The cookies come out very thick and soft. Because the flavor is so rich (like an overwhelming peanut butter cup), I plan on making thinner, crispier versions the next time I pull out this recipe. And, yes, there will definitely be a next time.

RugelachElaine's Rugelach
Score: 4.5

These rugelach turned out so much better than I expected -I even had a couple people like them so much they asked for the recipe! I'm not usually a big fan of raisins so I was worried that it would be too raisiny for my liking. I used mixed raisins instead of just normal raisins which I think made them taste nicer. Also, I used Tiptree's Apricot Conserve thus there was no need to puree in a food processor.

This recipe took much longer to complete than I expected due to the need to refrigerate the dough for an hour before making the rugelachs and also chilling the cookies for 30 mins before baking. One big problem I had making this was that no matter how much I buttered the parchment paper, the rugelachs stuck because of the oozing apricot conserve. So it took a while to peel away all the paper bits. I definitely plan to make these again but next time I will get myself one of those teflon/silpat baking liners. I also plan to experiment with the filling as well - chocolate and raspberry come to mind!

Amanda's Lemon Bars
Score: 4.5

I was very excited to make this recipe...I adore lemon bars, but have only eaten them ;), so thought this was a great opportunity to learn how to make them. The recipe is fairly involved, and has multiple steps, including chilling the crust, pressing it out, baking, cooling, then baking again with the filling. The hardest part was making the crust, and making sure I spread it evenly on the bottom of the baking pan. Once completed, they were cut up, and taken to work for a party, but not before I sampled! ;-) They were rich, and very (for lack of a better term) lemony, which is just the way I like them. I would venture to guess my colleagues liked them as well, since there was only one left when I went to get the plate at the end of the day. Despite all of the steps, I will definitely make these again!

Chocolate Chunk CookiesAmanda's Chocolate Chunk Cookies

Amanda's score: 3.5
Her Dad's score: 4.5 

This recipe seemed very straightforward, but per the picture, something clearly went wrong! I made this recipe when I was home for the holidays. I couldn't find chocolate chunks at the store, so I raided my parents' freezer and found scharffen berger chocolate bars. Score! I chopped a few into chunks, and charged on. The ingredients went together very quickly and easily, but when I started baking the cookies they spread, and spread, and spread...until they were thinner than 90s Kate Moss. I tried chilling the dough for the next round, but nothing seemed to help. Despite the weirdo appearance, the cookies still had a good flavor, and my family managed to annihilate them over the next few days. My foodie father thought the recipe was good, and recommended adding pecans the next time. He also diagnosed my "super skinny" problem, overbeating! I am eager to try this recipe again with a few tweaks.

Chocolate White Chocolate Chunk CookiesJackie's Chocolate White Chocolate Chunk Cookies
Score: 3.9

These cookies were a hit with my in-laws -- and they are amazing straight out of the oven -- soft and full of chocolatey goodness.  However, these cookies harden up quite a bit.  Don't get me wrong, the cookies are still very tasty, but I prefer my cookies soft.  I always waver on how big I should be making my cookies -- my idea of how big a cookie will be when rolling it into a ball pre-baking isn't too great.  So I leaned more towards smaller pre-baking balls this time!  Next time around, I think I would try baking these a few minutes less than recommended or making these a bit thicker.

Thanks to everyone that participated!  I'm really excited for our next cookbook -- it is one that I've never tried before that Anjali introduced to us.  Be on the lookout for the post in early March! 

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

BB: Croissant Bread Pudding

Oh I'm so behind in all my posting!  I was thrilled to see Peggy from the Pantry Revisited select this as one of our December Barefoot Bloggers dishes! 

I unfortunately can't seem to find any pictures that I took of this bread pudding... and am now wondering if I ever took any.  In any case, this was DELISH.  Very moist -- the croissants just soaked everything up -- and just felt like the holidays.  This dish was simple to make too, although I started making this rather too late one night and didn't realize it needs to bake for about 1.5 hours.  Note to self for next time :)



  • 3 extra-large whole eggs
  • 8 extra-large egg yolks
  • 5 cups half-and-half
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 6 croissants, preferably stale, sliced horizontally
  • 1 cup raisins


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the whole eggs, egg yolks, half-and-half, sugar, and vanilla. Set the custard mixture aside. Slice the croissants in half horizontally. In a 10 by 15 by 2 1/2-inch oval baking dish, distribute the bottoms of the sliced croissants, then add the raisins, then the tops of the croissants (brown side up), being sure the raisins are between the layers of croissants or they will burn while baking. Pour the custard over the croissants and allow to soak for 10 minutes, pressing down gently.

Place the pan in a larger one filled with 1-inch of hot water. Cover the larger pan with aluminum foil, tenting the foil so it doesn't touch the pudding. Cut a few holes in the foil to allow steam to escape. Bake for 45 minutes. Uncover and bake for 40 to 45 more minutes or until the pudding puffs up and the custard is set. Remove from the oven and cool slightly. Serve warm or at room temperature.