Shana Speaks Wine

Wine Journalist, Copywriter, and Marketing Consultant

Drinking out loud. 

Filtering by Tag: octopus

For Goodness Sake

Lately I've been very taken with sake. The rice-based beverage is similiar to champagne in many ways, from the deep history of its production to the tradition of creating a house style to the current trend of creating single-vineyard bottlings. However, it is so unique in its flavor profiles that I find myself continually drawn to the indecipherable bottles. 

Although sake bars have dotted the city's drinking topography for years, one newcomer, Azasu, on the Lower East Side, has made a name for itself, both in its sake offerings as well as its food.  This restauarant is the only place in the city devoted to solely serving cup sake, which are single serving portions rarely found outside Japan.  In Japan, cup sakes are often found in vending machines located in busy areas such as train stations (and are often fodder for teenagers' rebellious antics, such as Azasu's owner, who used to try to steal the cups with his friends).

The glass containers are sealed with a peel-off aluminum pop-top and the labels are decorated with eye-catching graphics, ranging from artistic to whimsical. With brief descriptions of the style and amusing names, one often drinks for the packaging as much as the beverage itself.  Azasu carries a few sakes that are produced exclusively for the restaurant and will have some new ones coming out in 2015 as well. The best part? The glasses become take-home souvenirs, although staring at numerous cups the next morning are a painful accountabiliity check for your hangover.

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Bambi Deer, the first sake sampled, was dry with a slightly creamy note as well as a yeasty, toasty grain essence. A bit of ripe fruit rounded out this adorable glass.

Akishika Bambi "Bambi Deer" sake. Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

Akishika Bambi "Bambi Deer" sake. Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

 "Devil Boy" was chosen for its contrast to Bambi in its flavor description.  And, truth be told, the hysterical label.  A bit floral up front, there was a dry finish to it.  The description noted acidity and bitterness and while I didn't pick up on the bitter, it was well-balanced and easy to drink.

Kitaro "Devil Boy." Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

Kitaro "Devil Boy." Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

The last one, "Demon Slayer" is one of the owner's favorites, and it's easy to see why.  Crisp and dry, it was light and easy (vverrryyyy easy) to drink.

Itami Onigoroshi "Demon Slayer." Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

Itami Onigoroshi "Demon Slayer." Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

The food, too, goes beyond many preconceived notions about Japanese cuisine and focuses on bar bites. Maki and miso soup are hard to come by; instead, a fryer works overtime to churn out the alcohol padding.  Although Azasu is the casual kid sister to the elegant restaurant Yopparai, the food, while comforting, can be thought-provoking.

Head chef Danielle Sobel fell in love with Japanese cuisine during her first culinary internship.  A graduate of the French Culinary Institute, her path took her primarily to Japanese restaurants in the city: first an internship at En Brasserie, then Morimoto, Public (her only non-Japanese employer), Yopparai and finally Azasu. In an interview with her, she spoke fervently about the etiquette that is found in the kitchens of these establishments. There is a respect for every utensil and every grain of rice. Knifework is elevated to an art form and vegetables are given the same level of respect as any expensive piece of protein.  All cuts are intricate yet simple at the same time.  

A must-order are the pancake octopus balls.  Fried orbs of dough, studded with octopus, are topped with shaved tuna bonito and kewpie mayo. Parchment paper thin, the bonito magically curls and waves from the heat given off from the balls, making for a mystical-looking (and tasting) bite. The slightly crunchy shell gives way to a creamy interior and the flakes melt quickly away like cotton candy.  Texturally, it's a lot of fun to eat. 

Pancake octopus balls. Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine. 

Pancake octopus balls. Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine. 

The Sukiyaki Beef is another winner and one of the chef's favorite items. Thinly sliced beef marinates in a broth and is topped with a raw egg. When swirled in the broth, the yolk gives an unctous richness to the dish.

Pan-fried tofu dumplings are perfectly executed but safe - there are other things on the menu worth giving your stomach space up to.

Need something sweet? Those pancake balls make another appearance at the end of the menu, this time covered with chocolate sauce (and minus the octopus).  Reminiscent of a churro, I only wish there was more chocolate to dip these suckers in.

Many other riffs on comfort food top Danielle's list of favorite menu items: Menchi Katsu, which are panko crusted meatballs done up in slider form; Niku Jyaga, which is simmered beef over crinkle cut fries, a playful riff on the American standard of meat and potatoes; and Chicken "Nanban" - fried chicken, the ultimate comfort food (there's also a fish version if fish n' chips makes you wax nostalgic).  The menu is extensive and there is much to explore.

Interested in checking out Azasu for yourself? Visit the New York restaurants page on OpenTable for reservations to this delicious joint. 

 

Huertas

The New York City dining scene is a restless one. Trends come and go, cuisines that used to be out of vogue are now back in fashion and everyone is constantly seeking the Next Big Thing. It can't be easy for a restaurant to find its unique identity. 

Huertas is a new restaurant in the East Village that opened to much fanfare a few months ago.  Upon reading first impressions, the whole endeavor sounded intruiging, if not chaotic, as it seems to try to encapsulate classic dining formats (tapas and passed dim sum) and current trends (a tasting menu, which is the nouveau fine dining experience, and conservas, seafood tins, which is new to the NYC dining scene but an integral part of coastal Spanish cuisine) within one restaurant. Let me break it down. Essentially, the space is split into two concepts: in the front is a tapas bar with a focus on traditional tapas and canned seafood. Up here, servers also pass the daily pintxos (small snacks) around on a tray, dim sum style, so you can eat at your leisure. The back, however, is a frequently-changing tasting menu that focuses on modern Spanish cuisine. With so much going on, how would this restaurant fare?

The chef, Jonah Miller, certainly has the pedigree to pull this place off.  Under the tutelage of David Waltuck (Chantarelle) and Peter Hoffman (Savoy) not to mention a 3-year stint at Maialino, he honed his skills as a chef.  Trips to Spain crystallized his vision for a restaurant and fueled his passion for his own place. Oh yeah, and the guy's only 28. 

We checked out Huertas on a rainy Tuesday night in early September with the plans of drinking wine and having a couple bites (is there any better post-Pilates workout meal?). Walking in, the place was warm and inviting yet energetic at the same time.  We perched on a couple bar stools as we contemplated drinks. The beverage menu was varied and interesting, with well-curated and reasonably priced selections of wine, beer and cidres.  The first glass was  Via Arxentea, Treixadura and Godello, Monterrei, Spain, 2012.  The blend of Treixadura and Godello grapes lent itself to a crisp, moderately acidic wine, redolent of pear, ripe peach and bracing minerality.  It was refreshing after the humidity was trekked through on our way to the restaurant.

Via Arxentea, Treixadura and Godello, Monterrei, Spain, 2012.  Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

Via Arxentea, Treixadura and Godello, Monterrei, Spain, 2012.  Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine.

We starting discussing tapas from the menu but a tray of pintxos came around and we were treated to a great surprise: all pintxos are only $1 on Tuesday nights.  Dinner? Done.  

The first one was a duck croquette, a crispy fried ball stuffed with duck. The contrast of the crisp exterior and creamy, saucy interior was delightful but be forewarned: this sucker is hot.  And it squirts. Proceed with a knife and fork.  Another croquette came around, this time with mushroom, and was another fried winner.  We also tasted a pane con tomate (olive oil and tomato rubbed bread) as well as a tortilla (Spanish omelette).  Both were very traditional and well executed.  There was also an anchovy, skewered and snaked around olives, which was a briny, bright contrast to the croquettes. We noshed on several of these as they came 'round and 'round and ordered up our second wine of the evening, Monopole, Rioja Blanca, Spain, 2013.  Like the first wine, there was a good deal of acid and minerality on both nose and palate, but the fruit was a bit more opulent on this wine as ripe peach and pineapple came through.

Monopole Rioja Blanca, Spain, 2013. Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine. 

Monopole Rioja Blanca, Spain, 2013. Photo by Shana Sokol, Shana Speaks Wine. 

We were chatting with the bartenders and having a grand 'ole time when an object caught our eye.  A cross between a decanter and a watering can, we discovered the porron, a Spanish wine pitcher.

Image courtesy of decoesfera.com

Image courtesy of decoesfera.com

Often at parties in Spain, guests will pour wine directly into their mouths using the porron and as the night progresses it becomes a fun, albeit messy, drinking game. Naturally, we had to try it out.*

Still feeling peckish, we took another look at the tapas menu and settled on the bocadillo, a sandwich with fried calamari, arugula, fried lemon, and squid in aioli. The umami of the ink aioli balanced perfectly with the acidity of the fried lemon and sweet calamari.  It was a delicious sandwich, although the bread ratio seemed a bit high and obscured the calamari on a couple of bites. 

One of the best elements of Huertas was the service.  The guys behind the bar were attentive as well as passionate about what they were doing. One of them overheard us contemplating an octopus dish versus the bocadillo and brought us out a small plate of the sea creature; it was his favorite thing on the menu and wanted to make sure we tried it.  Damn, he was spot on; that was one of the best bites of octopus I've had in a while. They were also knowledgable and helped guide us in our wine selections (not to mention gave us a crash course on the porron).

I'm now eager to go back for the tasting menu.  If the $1 pintxos are any indication of what's to come, that's going to be a memorable experience. 

Reservation for Huertas can me made on the New York restaurants page on OpenTable.

 *I am proud to report that while neither of us mastered the art of the porron, we did not need to take a trip to the dry cleaner the next day.