Terroir, Tamago and Tijuana Tacos

Nathan Thornburgh presenting at Terroir.

Just a couple of thoughts from the past week:

 

I attended the annual Terroir Symposium in Toronto last week, and was once again blown away with the quality of talent there, from several corners of the world. True, there was a significant contingent from Scandinavia – not to mention Ontario – but the quality of the lecturers and the one-day lineup makes for an engaging, enlightening day in one of my favorite cities. It’s also a great excuse to go do some serious eating, and the meals I had at Bar Isabel and Momofuku Daishō were remarkable. No, remarkable doesn’t do them justice. They were friggin’ delicious actually, and I’m still haunted by a dish of sweetbreads resting over albacore tuna topped with a shallot-caper-brown butter sauce that I can’t get out of my head:

Sweetbread highlight at Bar Isabel

Sweetbread highlight at Bar Isabel

 

A few days later, I was able to do a sushi crawl with some friends in New York City, for just one day. As the curator, I had to find places that were open during the day, so I opted for Kurumazushi in Midtown, as well as Sushi Yasuda in Midtown East. As much as we liked starting off at Kurumazushi – ascending the stairs to the 2nd floor, sitting at the wide counter and engaging with the chef (who’s been there since 1977) – I thought the omakase at lunch – $300 per person – was ridiculously steep, especially since I explained that we were going to another restaurant for a second lunch, and that they could easily reduce the number of nigiri or whatever. That said, the luscious, unctuous pieces of thickly-cut otoro and hamachi, not to mention kinmedai and fluke, were simply exquisite. A 10 minute walk to Yasuda, for our 1:30 p.m. reservation yielded a different experience completely. Here, our server simply asked how hungry we were, and was willing to make adjustments as we needed. If we felt the six or seven pieces of nigiri were not sufficient, we could always ask for one more of something. Their nigiri – appearing much smaller, in compact, thumb-sized balls, was also delicious and delicate; their rice – as was the case with Kurumazushi – was just right. Served at room temperature with a proper ratio of vinegar and sugar, you could taste each grain.

 

Nigiri wave at Sushi Yasuda

Nigiri wave at Sushi Yasuda

 

Then, thanks to one of our mutual friends also on the trip, our return flight was suddenly abandoned, and by working a connection, we were able to stay in town a little bit longer, since we would be taking a private plane back from Teterboro, NJ. With this new information at hand, I quickly asked the only sake expert I know – Monica Samuels from Vine Connections – for a good suggestion. Without hesitation, she recommended Sushi Azabu, in the West Village, in the basement beneath Darumaya (we did try for Nakazawa, the recent four-star restaurant in the New York Times, but no luck). I’m glad we tried Azabu. Service was gracious and friendly; the room was cozy and dimly-lit; and the sushi was the best of the day. What started with gentle progressions of tofu, chawanmushi (egg custard) and sashimi, finished with a flurry of nigiri, and some of the best tamago I’ve had in some time.

 

Azabu's final course in the omakase

Azabu’s final course in the omakase

 

Over the weekend, I also managed to squeeze in a cheeseburger at Au Cheval (actually, after I got back from NYC on Thursday night, we managed to get a table there); then Friday, I led a group of 28 visitors from London around town, all here for the Nat’l Restaurant Show. Since they were interested in seeing new concepts, we visited a few: Doughnut Vault, LYFE Kitchen, Eataly, The Chicago French Market, Naf Naf Grill, Blaze Pizza and Big Star. Dinner Friday for them was at Smoque, while I took a few of them to Alinea. Then Saturday, after taking a few friends to Spacca Napoli and Coal Fire Pizza (you gotta check out my Instagram) I also squeezed in a visit to the new Ramen-san in River North and really enjoyed both the shiyo and tonkotsu broths.

 

Pizza trio at Coalfire

Pizza trio at Coalfire

 

Tonkotsu ramen at Ramen-san

Tonkotsu ramen at Ramen-san

 

 

Then yesterday, I flew to San Diego, where I have a consulting gig, and managed to convince a friend from Oscar’s Mexican Seafood to take me to Tijuana to go on a taco crawl. We hit three joints, each very unique, but the highlight for tacos, at least, was Tacos Polo (not a typo). Our first stop was my namesake, Tacos de Esteban. Offering thinly-sliced steak that was grilled over live charcoals with a shmear of beans on the pre-packaged tortillas, I happened to love the garnish of cabbage, salsa, mayo and avocado. However, Polo raises the stakes, by not only making all of their tortillas to-order, but also by grilling juicy cuts of marinated beef and pork, typically rubbed with ancho chiles, as well as tripe, if you’re into that sort of thing. Garnishes are simply fresh avocado and an assortment of deeply-charred scallions, with a large bowl of tiny fresh limes and radishes to use and squeeze at will.

 

Making tacos to order at Taco Polo in Tijuana.

Making tacos to order at Tacos Polo in Tijuana.

 

Now I’m ready for a fast, or a cleanse, or whatever the hell else I need to do to speed up my metabolism, and start burning calories again. Hot yoga, anyone?

 

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