Sunday, July 25, 2010

Epicurean Adventures: Fresh Fusion Meets Fresh Fish

Just to give you another access point, I thought I'd include my latest and first (of hopefully many) restaurant reviews for Long Island dining for my *long-suffering* loyal readers. This is a piece written Vicarious Food Whore-style for the Long Island Press about a Japanese hibachi/Asian fusion place on the North Shore of the Island, and the photos are by me, as well!

Enjoy this for now ... coming *eventually* will be posts on the following:
So, that's my to-do list, if I can ever stop stuffing my face and kickboxing long enough to sit in front of my computer during non-office hours ... which has been really hard to do with the packed-out eventful weekends, the 6-day-a-week workout schedule (in my attempt to be less of a Fatty type of McButterpants), gorgeous weekends of kayaking, running (from mosquitoes ... they really HURT on the South Shore, these stripey ones!), and other activities. This time, I have no excuses. I'm just lazy. But enjoy a virtual taste of Hotoke in the meantime!

Fresh Fusion Meets Fresh Fish

Sushi Gets Sexy and Hibachi Heats up at Hotoke

By SuJitLinDeSimone on Jul 16th, 2010

Hotoke Japanese Steakhouse
41 Route 111, Smithtown
Deep bass pulses like a heavy heartbeat, sound traveling with subtle rumblings through extensive modern woodwork. Cosmopolitan chic oozes out of every painstaking detail; deep tray ceilings softly glow ice blue, a lighter counterpart to the bold indigo that highlights the tasteful detail of the glass-tiled sushi bar and New Age Asian d├ęcor. A rather extraordinary venue deceptively hidden in a perfectly ordinary shopping center in Smithtown on Route 111, Bobby Lam’s Hotoke is a sexy, upscale hideout for discerning diners who need to step out of Long Island for one hot minute.

The delighted shrieks of children at the ample teppanyaki tables—the extensive seating fitting groups up to 20—are easily muted by partitions that separate the sushi bar area, keeping the main dining room dinner date-friendly, while allowing families to enjoy the ambience and superb dining without worry. The usual show elicits gasps and laughter, as it should, but it’s truly the food here that takes center stage.

Sweet shrimp is lightly seasoned and arrives on your plate in vivid form, while lusciously tender steak sizzles with promise on the cooking surface. The chicken is tender, but the real showstoppers—as with any respectable Japanese restaurant—are the seafood dishes. Fresh, rich salmon gets drenched in heavy, sweet teriyaki sauce and is surface-charred to tickle every tastebud. Scallops dance with abandon on the grill, but beyond comparison is the Chilean Sea Bass, a seared-crisp, thick white fillet whose purity of flavor and firm, luxurious texture is second to none. The teriyaki sauce is a perfect complement to the lightness of the fish, and paired with the standard broccoli, onion, mushroom, zucchini and carrot medley, the fabulous fried rice becomes the mere cherry on top in light of its counterparts.

However, the hibachi tables are only half of the sensory ecstasy Hotoke has to offer. For those dining in the swanky main area, the luxury of wallowing in an unhurried experience is well worth taking advantage of. Green tea margaritas are a fun and subtly flavored start, and the peach version is a great summer drink to accompany lighter appetizers like Mandarin crispy duck salad, with seasoned greens, jicama and beets with olive balsamic. Fusion Salad attracts seafood lovers with organic greens, tuna, salmon, avocado, mango and white ginger. For diners seeking a heartier experience, the fried oysters are exceptional—the plump Japanese oysters simply burst with searing flavor as soon as your teeth release the pressure of the panko breading.

Off the menu but on the specials board (if you’re lucky), the hungry can’t go wrong with meaty cubes of sea bass wrapped in beautifully seared filet mignon, served in a light sauce that hides nothing but enhances everything. For the truly hedonistic, the lobster sashimi, a tender but massive tail with shredded green onions and a lovely toasted sesame oil undertone, is a rare treat that must be ordered hours in advance.

The specialty sushi rolls are imaginative and exciting, the quality consistently above average due to the rigorous standards the staff imposes on their suppliers. A restaurant that takes pride in creating an overall experience, management has no qualms about sending back fish that doesn’t make their own cut, ensuring every bite a customer takes is without comparison. The sushi and sashimi make a great base here, but it’s with the signature rolls—like the Hotoke Roll (lobster, mango, avocado, tobiko in a soy wrap with tuna, avocado, and honey wasabi) and Passion Roll (seared white tuna, mango, spicy kani and seaweed salad and Thai chili sauce)—that bring the “fusion” part of the restaurant’s inspiration to life.

Affordable lunch specials starting at $7 offer amazing choices of rolls, hibachi, rice bowls, bento boxes and other sub-genres make Hotoke accessible, while dinnertime at the sultry spot turns a regular night into a sexy date and prelude for sensory awakening.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Gratuitous Sexiness: See? I Haven't Been NOT Eating ... Just Not Eating OUT!

For your pleasure, some fun pictures of what I've been up to during this winter of silence, enjoying my starter gourmet chef's kitchen. One day, I'll have a red-knobbed Wolf commercial range and wall of sleek Sub-Zero fridges (yes; multiple - I believe in stocking up. Ask poor Boy, who wonders why he can never fit anything in the pantry), or be able to afford the constant maintenance of a sexy Viking Professional kitchen, but for now, I'm content to own a granite-topped, custom-cabineted, shiny black GE and Whirlpool kitchen of my own before my 26th birthday.

Anyway, let's start simple: sandwiches at home can be fancy, too, if you step the ingredients up a notch and plate it neatly. The below is honey whole-wheat bread (Arnolds - no high fructose corn syrup!), local baby arugula, canola oil mayonnaise (half the calories as the regular; half the artificial ingredients as the light), Boar's Head roast beef, a touch of garlic powder, deli-sliced mozzarella, and a handful of Cool Ranch Doritos (which are, quite simply, the Shit). On the side are Keebler's Grasshoppers, the off-season Girl Scout Thin Mints for dessert.

Next up: dinner. Below, you'll find fresh crab cakes drizzled in thick, dripping Boar's Head deli remoulade, which - as a former New Orleanian - is surprisingly tangy and passable even in the Deep South. Red peppers in the pan-fried crabcakes (purchased at -- where else? -- Best Yet) add a special somethin'-somethin' to the cakes, and a hit of hot pepper gives it a nice, subtle kick. Real crab, albeit claw meat, gives it a deeper, brinier flavor that imitation crabmeat just can't compete with, which I decided to bring back down to earth with broiled asparagus spears drizzled in olive oil, sea salt, cracked pepper, and toasted Parmesan cheese. Pan-wilted spinach in white wine and toasted garlic was just for fun.

One more? Okay, but I can't claim all of this glory for myself. I had my dad over at China East give me a whole cut of his deep-marinated, fresh-smoked red Chinese roast pork, glazed in his own signature sauce. A bout with a broiler a generous dollop of oyster sauce and fresh scallions later, and voila! A delicious accompaniment to the sweetly bland rice porridge I sometimes like to eat for familiarity's sake. A "gluey" (as my mom says; she actually means "gooey"), semi-viscous (depending on how long and how you let it cook ... different times and temps lead to different consistencies) blank canvas, it serves a nice foil to anything particularly savory that you don't want to override in terms of flavor. My roast pork was a bit saltier and more concentrated in flavor, since my father employs professional techniques to keep it moist and succulent at second roast for customers. I, not having that aforementioned Viking kitchen and commerical broiler, am more limited in capabilities.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Eater's Remorse: Not-So-Fresh Fish

After visiting renowned Nico's Pier 38 in Honolulu/Ala Moana, Oahu, Hawaii (more with pictures in a separate post!) and enjoying perhaps some of the tastiest and freshest fish I've ever had in my life, the idea of dining at a neighborhood seafood locale on a dock became exponentially more appealing. I'm always for diamonds in the rough, and since moving to Long Island's quaint South Shore, peppered with whimsical villages and Stars Hollows-flavored downtown strips, it's exciting to "discover" local favorites and see for myself what makes them great.

A frequent diner at locally-owned J&R's Steakhouse in Islip (don't laugh - the marinade is good, and where else can you get macaroni salad with fresh pickles, lobster bisque or house salad, a big ol' charred ribeye, and a slice of fresh cheesecake for under $20?) - whose temperatures, might I add, are far more consistent and dead-on than its Medford, Stony Brook, Rocky Point, and Patchogue counterparts; I actually order medium rare here, and don't get medium! - I couldn't help but notice a hand-painted, weathered sign announcing a fresh fish market just on the other side of the pier. "White Cap Fish Market," it boldly declared, with arrows and other indicators pointing down a gravel driveway that led to what looked like a bunch of semi-abandoned warehouses.

Needless to say, I was intrigued.

We got a coupon in our Valpak (again, don't laugh - we have a hefty mortgage and apparently, shameless coupon-clipping is a part of growing up and being a respectable adult) to buy one dinner and get the next half off, so Boy and I decided, what the hey? And on a slow Thursday evening, we decided to up and check it out.

There are nice touches that give the White Cap Fish Market appeal. For instance, the giant wheel things you see on farms and on boats repurposed as tables are kind of fun. You really can't beat dockside dining, even if the harbor is a teeny tiny one overlooking a trailer park with docking rights (which just blows my mind, personally. They must be hardcore boaters over there to prioritize boats over dwellings! ... But then again, I'm a creature for comforts, and kind of a brat). The swans and mallards floating along are picturesque, and the breeze from the water is a pleasure. Also, the raw bar they had set up outside looked promising, since we all know you can't really do raw unless it's fresh.

Things that were not so nice, but interesting points were the giant barn-type building you drove through to leave, and the Port-a-Potty that served as the facility's restroom. I mean, granted, Nico's Pier 38 did the same thing, but Hawaii's Port-a-Potties are much less questionable than New Yorks, considering that homeless people in Hawaii actually spend their free time picking up trash from the ground that careless tourists toss aside as if they were ... well, in New York.

Boy and I, after a quick visual inventory, decided to proceed with our dining plans and check the place out. We went inside to look over the decent-sized menu, and pored over that, hemming and hawing over the selections for a good 10-15 minutes. Apparently, that's all it took to become a part of the dinner rush, and a line quickly formed out the door, since the ordering style was that you place your order indoors at the window, and people bring them out.

As we waited on line, I wandered over to the market area of the place and was shocked at the prices. You'd think going directly to a fish purveyor that said fish would be priced very competitively, and that it'd be superior cuts than the supermarket variety, right? Well, I was astounded to see that their dry-looking flounder fillets were $12.99 a pound, which is roughly the same as Whole Food's going rate. The uncooked stuffed mushrooms and clams were in the neighborhood of a buck each, but the rest of the raw fish didn't look half as nice as the seafood department of my favorite supermarket, Best Yet, and cost twice as much.

Anyway, once we made it up to the window, we eventually decided on fried oysters for me, with fries and not the steamed veggies I'd requested since they don't do substitutions, and fried calamari on linguine in marinara for Boy. Although the clam chowders had won much acclaim in competitions against 4-star counterparts, the day was simply too muggy to sample anything like that. We walked back out to the dock and prepared to wait a whopping 40 minutes for two simple fried dishes. By then, it was kind of the point of no return since we'd already stood in line for 15 minutes and scoured the menu for 10; timewise, we were to deeply invested. So we grabbed a table and hoped for the best.

When the food finally came, my hopes rose up again like the buoy the swans kept bumping up against. The portions were HUGE! My oysters were a good three inches long and inch and a half across, and on a generous heap of fries. For the first time in a long time, I was excited about the size of an oyster. Boy's plate of linguine was literally a platter the dimensions of a small chafing dish at a catered event. The tartar sauce and cocktail sauce provided were by Ken's and not homemade, so automatic point detraction for that, but still not a problem, and certainly not something ginormous portions for a $25 meal (with coupon) couldn't make up for.

Well, sad to say, the excitement waned and quickly dissipated after the first bite. My oysters, which I was so thrilled about after visually detecting the granularity of cornmeal, were overbreaded and overcooked, and certainly not fresh. They weren't the plump, sweet things that I've had in New Orleans, bursting with juice and clean flavor. Instead, they were somewhat metallic, the breading was starting to get soggy from the steam in the styrofoam container, and were dirtier inside than my beloved mollusks of the Gulf. My fries were unseasoned, nondescript shoestrings that reminded me of my camp counselor days, and pathetically, were more appetizing than the dry, densely breaded oysters I struggled to choke down.

The calamari rings were a little soggy, too, because of the steam, and the linguine, though cooked well, was also nothing thrilling. The marinara sauce was sweet and pretty decent, but in that familiar high school cafeteria way, the way that gives adults heartburn later on (which did happen to Boy).

It's such a shame to me that a place with such a large following and rustic venue that supposedly deals in fish and specializes in it can't serve something fresh to its clientele and forces them to wait that long for mediocre, simply fried food. The prices are too high for the quality of food, even with quantity considered, since the average price per plate was about $16. The oysters didn't taste fresh, the calamari was slightly rubbery, and a 10 yard walk shouldn't be enough time for fried food to get soggy around the edges ... especially when it should have been served right off the fryer.

The outside people were very friendly, though, and it was with some guilt that I said good-bye to them when they asked us to come back again soon. I knew that the answer would be that I wouldn't.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Gratuitous Sexiness: "And We Shed What Was Left of Our Summer Skin"

Well, I logged on today just to talk about how excited I am for my friend Lisa's wedding this Saturday at the renowned Blue Hill at Stone Barn in Pocantico Hills, Westchester, New York, and instead was treated to a fun array of new blog design styles available through Blogger. The new, much more food-friendly background and summery color scheme are much more fitting to the cheery topics I like to write about than the somewhat garish magenta template I had before, eh? Ironically, my day job (still) is at a web design agency and the majority of my colleagues are designers, so this blog could potentially be super kickass ... but I don't make my friends work for free, and this blog don't make no dollas to pay anyone with. So here we are.

I know you're all (the loyal few that continue to trek back after months of ringing silence) sick of my tired excuses, but things have been so busy! There have been good things happening, bad things, and things in between. The good is that I'm writing print for food again! Yay! A restaurant review I wrote, along with photos taken during that outing, will be appearing in next week's Long Island Press, so I'm pretty stoked about that. It was originally supposed to go to press yesterday, but their regular food editor handed in a piece, and since he has seniority, well, mine got pushed back. But we've all got to start (over) somewhere, right, to get back into the field you love?

*Ooh* Just got a weird wave of deja vu. Is that good, or is it bad? Only time will tell.

Other personal stuff in the good news realm: I found my camera! So Hawaii pictures will soon be up ... maybe next weekend, I hope? This weekend is a regular maelstrom of fat people activity (Lisa's wedding [more on that later], dinner with the grandparents-in-law, my hilarious sister-in-law Erica's Tastefully Simple party, and cooking) interspersed with ambitious plans for active activities like kayaking, running and/or kickboxing. Therefore, this weekend is clearly out for some dedicated writing time, unless I somehow find the energy on Friday to build a will to live. ;-)

Another good thing is that I've gotten my fat ass back into kickboxing! You eat the way I do, and take as much satisfaction from it as I do, and you're bound to become a heart disease statistic. My inspiration? Said sister-in-law with her fiendish compulsion to exercise (which works out rather well with my all-or-nothing life motto) and a good friend, Kat, who made me get off my ass and explore my own neighborhood with fresh eyes, reminding me just how much I actually LOVE being active. So yay me, as I slowly work towards a green belt in Thai kickboxing on the weekends, and do combat cardio/kickboxing routinely during the week, both with incredible instructors. (Trust me; I know - I visited 7 places before committing to either one, and was torn between the two for a week!)

The worst of my bad stuff is of course writing-related, as the majority of my life's ups and downs revolve around just that. I was absolutely thrilled to be writing a real deal five-year Katrina anniversary article for the high end local publication The Long Island Pulse, but due to the disastrous oil spill and space constraints for the issue it was slated to appear in, the odds are that it's not going to happen. Which sucks, obviously, after I'd spent over two months painstakingly researching the necessary statistics and drafting version after version until I was happy with my submitted one. *Sigh.*

Although there's still a 50% chance it may go to print, it doesn't look too good for me, and it's little less than a crushing blow considering how much of my heart and soul I put into it to convince Long Islanders that New Orleans is most certainly still an amazing vacation destination ... and that it's my first article ever not to make it into print, after being negotiated and commissioned.

But ... positive thinking?! I can still keep my fingers crossed until July passes us by and the deadline blows out the water. With my love of New Orleans, I'm really invested in this piece and hope it makes it out since people are always focusing on the negative for sensationalism today, that it's nice to be able to publicly say, "But wait! The media lies, and here's some good news that's true!"

As for things in between? Well, I've been cooking a lot, culturing my own marinades for grilling (maybe I'll even share a recipe or two as my brain melts in this heat wave ... which, by the way, I just want to point out to the Northerners who constantly say they could never move South due to the heat ...? Um, 100 degrees on South Shore Long Island the other day; 84 in New Orleans. Any comments/protests? Yeah; didn't think so!), which I've become very fond of thanks to our lovely gas-start charcoal Weber grill. Work is work is work, so that's kind of meh, but other than that, Boy and I are just gettin' by ... much like the rest of y'all.

Happy summertime, folks - what's good, bad, and just okay this season for you?

P.S. This post quotes an old song by Death Cab for Cutie, in case you're not familiar, an emo guilty pleasure of mine for when I'm feeling a little off-color or ready to paint in blues and purples. Boy says it's music that makes you want to be sad and kill yourself. I think it's only sometimes.