[Pigging by Wilfrid: December 14, 2007]
Oh glory, what succulent stickiness - what an opening!
Maybe the last shiny new gem of 2007: tonsoku paradise in the Village
And slap next door to Marie's Crisis Cafe too, perfectly teeing-up and evening of gorging on pig's extremities followed by a sloppy drunk night of Sondheim and all that jazz.
Let me explain. Chef Himi Okajima is Kyushu's loss, Manhattan's gain. He is trained in classic French cooking, but comes from the land where trotter is king, and lavishes on us a menu in which every savory dish, give or take a pig's ear, features the feet of that noble creature. Indeed, the menu includes a note to reassure diners that the desserts - the chocolate cake and so on - are pig's foot-free.
The concept of small restaurant featuring an individual chef preparing one ingredient to a high standard is, I believe, familiar in Japan. Indeed, it's familiar in Madrid where you head to a tapas bar to eat its specialty, not the whole menu. It's less common in New York - and let's be honest, if you don't like pig's feet you would do better anywhere else that Hakata Tonton. Fortunately, chef Himi already has a solid local Japanese following - shortly to be expanded, I suppose, by every adventurous eater in town.
But forget the novelty - the food is varied and quite terrific. Evidently, the thing to do is focus the meal on the big hot pot: I saw this brought out to table after table - a basin containing pig's feet, spinach, vegetables and seasonings, set over a burner to cook while diners munch on appetizers ($12 per person, minimum two). Tempted by this, I had predetermined that I would explore the more unusual reaches of the long menu. There's ratatouille of trotters, millefeuille of trotters, pig's foot meatballs... hold me back.
Cold Vietnamese-style spring rolls to start, shrimp and finely diced foot meat in a lettuce wrapper; sweet dipping sauce on the side. Here the meat acts as no more than a condiment, a hint.
It's a similarly subtle ingredient in the piping hot and very creamy crab croquetas which followed. Great crunchy coating, mild crab flavor with the touch of pork funk.
At this point, one of the larger dishes presented itself to be cooked while the grazing continued. We were to wait until the flame underneath naturally expired, then give the contents ten minutes more to cook through.
Appetizing continued with pig's feet now in full cry, here simply grilled with salt. I should state the obvious: the chef sources good feet, with some meat on them as well as jelly and cartilege, and he cooks them exquisitely. It would be dire if he didn't. These were savory, gluey, and you just did your best ripping them with chopsticks and discreetly disgorging the tiny bones.
Here's what was ladled from the cooking pot once the ten minutes were up. Paella - not studded with bright bits of chicken and shellfish, though. Just the rice, almost coated with molten trotter-meat. Sticky, but velvety smooth.
The chef's French training was dramatically apparent in the pig's foot "Bordelaise", perhaps my favorite dish of the evening. A rich red wine sauce adds to the luxury of the feet, and there seemed to be a little gold leaf on top. Versailles-style. This brought the meal initially ordered to an end, but it had been so good one had to find a spare corner in the stomach for more.
A carbonara, then, with the foot standing in for the pork component. While cream may be considered inauthentic, this dish seemed loaded with it. I can't tell you how good - incidentally, one order of a dish like the paella, the Bordelaise or the paella is ample for two to share, along with the various appetizers.
Given a chance, the chef will promote the healthful properties of collagen protein in the feet. Me, I just like sticky pork, and it was with some difficulty that I unglued my lips to congratulate chef Himi-san, through an interpreting server, on the brilliance of his conception and execution.
Forget the hotpot: I have to get back here for the giant pig's foot dumplings, toe-bones protruding. Wow.
A nice web-site right here. I think reservations are a good idea, and don't worry when the phone is answered in Japanese. Just blunder ahead in English and insist on your trotters.