Oct 31, 2009

The steamed buns (pork belly) at momofuku ssam were as good as advertised. Brussels sprouts, honeycrisp apples w/ kimchi just as good. Fun place in NYC. (mobile post)

Oct 25, 2009

A Little Blue over Blue Koi

Let me start by saying that there's a lot that I like about Blue Koi. What's unfortunate is that the food isn't foremost among them.

What draws me to Blue Koi are all the things that go into its atmosphere... It's close to my house, has a cozy, smallish dining room filled with a varied group of patrons and art from local artists featured on the walls. The service is amiable on average, above average when the owner is in. It's dark and, even when busy, the buzz of sound and activity from customers chatting, chefs cooking and servers serving only gives you and your companion(s) assuredness that you can speak freely without the people at the tables close-by  listening to the intimate details of your conversation.

In my history with Blue Koi, I've eaten several things on the menu. The Chinese Pot Roast (if I had a Chinese mom, this would taste like her pot roast) and Seafood Noodle Soup (a huge bowl full of noodles, squid, scallops, mussels, shrimp and more) are very decent... to the point that they would be my recommendations. And the dumplings are great, but nothing special compared to any other dumpling you can get in town, including at Po's just a few doors down (east).

On this trip we did enjoy the pork dumplings, pan fried, though a little too lightly fried this time, evidenced by the picture above in which you can see glistening, translucent skins and very little crispy brownness from flash-frying. A full portion is 8 dumplings, which is nice and filling (portions are another plus I concede to Blue Koi).

For dinner on this occasion I chose the braised pork with shiitake mushrooms wanting a savory, hearty dish. And it was, indeed, hearty - a good portion of well cooked rice came warm, and topped with a generous mound of large chunks of tender, nicely cooked pork and plenty of shiitake mushrooms, lots of sliced scallions and a garnish of artfully sliced cucumber. It looked great. But that's where the "greatness" ended, because here again, Blue Koi committed its perpetual misstep as far as my tastes go: too sweet!

I've encountered this recurring problem with other Blue Koi entrees such as the shrimp (chicken or tofu) with black bean sauce,  shrimp (chicken or tofu) with Chinese curry sauce and ants on a tree. In each case, the ingredients were cooked well, served warm and with a nice overall appearance, but were slovenly covered in gooey, sugary, sweet sauces.

Admittedly, I'm a salty guy who likes salty food, and I've found Chinese sauces sometimes do fall on the sweeter side of the spectrum of Asian cooking. But I'd be surprised if other Blue Koi patrons didn't agree that too many of the dishes on this menu are sweeter than they should be.

Oh, and before I forget, one other word of caution: most dishes at Blue Koi are served with the customer's choice of rice, noodles or as a soup. I love noodles. Especially Asian noodles - soba, udon, rice vermicelli, Lo Mein... but the thick noodles Blue Koi's entrees come with are the gummiest variety of noodle I have ever encountered (probably made gummier by the glucose-rich sauce in which they're served). So stick with rice or soup.

One can definitely enjoy a night out at Blue Koi. Good atmosphere and good service keep me coming back again and again. Just do what you can to avoid falling victim of their "sweet spot" and you should be okay.

Rating: one napkin

Blue Koi on Urbanspoon

Oct 22, 2009

Free State Brewery Memories

"I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land: will never be purged away; but with Blood."

Whenever I have the pleasure of going to Free State Brewery in Lawrence, I'm always reminded of these images of John Brown that I've seen before at the state Capitol... and have a good chuckle to myself. He was such a fiery, intense guy (clearly). But what's so funny to me is the juxtaposition of the larger-than-life, violent figure you see here and the crowd of good times-loving neo-hippies that hang out in front of the restaurant. As if playing the role of extras in a nostalgic scene from a movie with an invisible cameraman, these bikers, hipsters and townies represent the very essence of Lawrence - diverse, easy going, friendly. Fittingly, so does Free State.

We were already "drunk" on the beautiful fall air and memories of our college days when my wife and I walked in a few Saturdays ago. We'd chosen to come back to town as a anniversary gift to ourselves and had enjoyed every minute of walking around campus and up and down Mass. I was actually glad there was a wait for tables (even during mid-afternoon, seemingly later than the typical lunch rush), because it gave us a chance to belly up to the bar and chug some of Free State's fantastic brew. 

The Octoberfest (left) was sublime... rich and smooth. You can read a lot more about it by clicking BEER on their website, but they describe it as being very malty and I think that's what I liked so much about it. Not bitter, not too dark, not too light. I'd say you can really tell this stuff was crafted for the ultimate sense of beer-induced enjoyment and consuming in mass quantities at the famous German festival by the same name. 

Equally delicious was the Oatmeal Stout (right). A deep amber brown and with a nice amount of carbonation (more than Boulevard's Dry Stout, which I also enjoy), I don't know a more PC way to say this, but you really feel like a man when you've got one of these pints in your hand.

On to the food: a great appetizer choice if you're ravenous, as we were, is the artichoke dip.  Served with wedges of thick cut wheat bread with melted Parmesan cheese, it's incredibly filling. The dip is fluffy like whipped cream cheese (that's pretty much what it is) that has garlic and artichokes in it. No spinach in this app and I like it that way. Despite the generous serving of toast triangles, there's plenty of dip, allowing you to slather on as much as you want and enjoy each bite to the fullest.

With our food we also enjoyed the Wheat State Golden. Lighter than the previous two, it was crisp and refreshing, but also light on the hops, making it  a great pairing with the variety of flavors in our meal.

As an homage to early dates in our fledgling relationship, we decided to order... we had to order... the Basil Ciabatta Sandwich. Yeah, everyone's got a sandwich like this on their menu - roasted red pepper, goat cheese and pesto on ciabatta. But it's better here. Exceptional. The red pepper is meaty and sweat with that earthy, charred flavor in the background. The cheese and pesto, too, add richness and girth to this vegetarian fistful of enjoyment. It's light enough to be rejuvenating but filling enough to satisfy. We split the sandwich and split a simple house salad and loved every bite.

The menu at Free State is huge, with lots of fantastic choices I'm dying to go back and try. Would have jumped all over the chicken and crawfish gumbo that was on special that day but we knew the artichoke dip was already going above and beyond the duty of "appetizing" so we held off. ...Which is good. Something for which to return.

Another reason to return: refilling our Growler! On the way out of the restaurant, we dropped an extra $10 on a 64 ounce jug of Octoberfest (available for only a short while in the fall). $10 and change the first time you purchase a growler (some beers may be a little pricier), and about $7 for refills, this little guy is a great way to take the libations home with you since Free State's bottling operation hasn't taken off yet (coming soon, though!).

It's hard to rate Free State with any amount of objectivity. Admittedly, I'm in love with it as much for the memories it brings me as for its food or beer. But I'm not pulling your leg when I say the food I've had there has been solid. Fresh, tasty recipes... I'm confident they wouldn't serve anything there they didn't truly feel was executed to a their high standards. And the beer is, without question, incredible. You'll see what I mean when distribution of the bottles starts up and you try it for yourself if you're not lucky enough to have it at the restaurant in Lawrence before then. Either way, write me a comment and let me know what you think, when you do.

Rating: two stars

Free State Brewing Co on Urbanspoon

Oct 17, 2009

Jun's: Strip Mall Sushi Gem

My client at work is a big commercial real estate company who owns malls, outlets and - e-hem - strip malls, whose appeal they've attempted to heighten by renaming as community lifestyle centers. These infamous manifestation of American convenience culture, despite what clever real estate marketing departments may have you believe, are not great locations for all types of businesses.

In particular, the strip mall and restaurant industries have had a rather tumultuous relationship over the years. The miscellaneous, random blend of businesses sharing thin, cheaply built walls and vanilla store-fronts with mandatory matching back lit signage seem okay for the likes of Subway, TCBY, radio shacks and liquor stores; but most restaurants rely on atmosphere to sustain enough business to keep the lights on. That's where the strip mall usually fails.

There are hidden gems, though. Like courageous plants thriving in hostile environments, restaurants here or there make surprisingly successful homes in strip malls by virtue of their solid, dependable food. Jun's, a sushi restaurant in the Prairie Village strip mall slightly south of 76th and State Line has been on my short list of SMG's (Strip Mall Gems) for years now.

Jun's doesn't try to be something it's not. Blaring pop music? No. Pizza and pasta on the menu for mass appeal? Please. Modern light fixtures resembling jellyfish afloat in the ocean? What do you think? A stinky bar filled with salivating, gold-digging cougars looking for a guy in a $100 shirt? You get the point.

Jun's has a small bar, a narrow but fun sushi bar, traditional, quiet dining room and separate tatami dining area. Straightforward. (It's not completely without character, however: guests will be impressed by the full samurai suit displayed in a glass case up front along with photos of employees with the likes of Bo Jackson and a female American Gladiator.)

My most recent outing at Jun's happened to coincide with my birthday and I was lucky to be accompanied by four friends and my wife, so to the tatami room we were whisked and seated at a comfortable stretch of two conjoined tables (necessary to accommodate the overladen sushi "tanker" that cruised into our midst after ordering enough sushi rolls to feed twelve people of normal eating habits).

I could write a thousand words describing each of the item we ordered, but why bother? What you need to know about all the rolls and sashimi are that they are beautifully made and fresh. Immensely satisfying. Choices are plentiful and I'll note, in particular, my favorite roll from this particular order: the Tiger Eye which comes filled with cream cheese and salmon, contrasted with fresh jalapeno and bright orange roe.

Jun's also boasts a better-than-average assortment of alcoholic beverages: inexpensive hot and cold sakes (I had a bottle of Diamond for $13), Asian beer, wines and even interesting cocktails like a potent sake margarita can help transform a normal dinner out into a party.

I'd also like to make an uncharacteristic comment on the service at Jun's because it's remarkably... perfect. A family owned business, the staff seems to genuinely care that they do everything in their power to make you want to return. They're kind, attentive but unobtrusive... exactly what I'm looking for in restaurant service. I always leave Jun's knowing I can expect the same great experience next time around.

I must admit, they put a huge smile on my 28 year old face when they dimmed the lights in our dining room and came in with a plate of green tea ice cream and red bean mochi segments lit by a single candle, singing me happy birthday. At most other restaurants I'd have hated the cliche. But there was something infinitely more genuine and enjoyable about the way they carried out this ritual than when it's begrudgingly done at your typical TGMcFunsters.

Anything Jun's may lack in atmosphere or ambience they more than  compensate for with their good food  and service. They solidified their role as captain of my Strip Mall Gems team on this occasion and ensured this all-too-rare outing with five of my favorite people on earth fulfilled its true potential.

Rating: two napkins

Jun's Japanese on Urbanspoon
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...