BOWL’D KOREAN: OAKLAND: Perfection at the Peasant’s Table

 

Myulchi Bokum (salted, crispy fried anchovies)

Myulchi Bokum (salted, crispy fried anchovies)

Just before I left for Italy in 1978, my grandfather told me I must check in on our family. He said that he wanted me to give them some money, and handed me $200.00. Grandpa Gianni had been sending them cash since he left Italy in the early teens, but to my modern sensibilities, shoving wads of cash at family seemed rather crass, not to mention awkward, but I decided to size up the situation before making any final decisions.

When we finally arrived in the tiny village of Scurtabo, nestled in the rolling hills of Genoa, it took us a full day to find my family home. Ultimately, after a lengthy conversation with the local parish priest, we were directed to a small stone farmhouse on a hill, and deposited at the residence of my great-aunt Annunziata and her son, Nunzio. It was beautiful. I asked her, in broken Italian, where my grandfather had been born. Her answer was stunningly simple, as she pointed to a second small building holding only a straw bed. “proprio qui” she responded, pointing to the bed. “Right here.” It took a few minutes for me to absorb that. The continuity of history that lay within this these walls, so far from my home in California, where my grandfather had immigrated so many years ago. I could see my grandfather running about these hills as a child, playing next to the home his father had built for the family at the turn of a different century. It was, to put it mildly, trans-formative.

Soondubuchigae (Spicy Tofu Stew)

Soondubuchigae (Spicy Tofu Stew)

After a brief tour of the property, we gathered in the kitchen for a meal. Seated around a small wooden table, perched atop a floor of pounded dirt, where live chickens scurried about like house pets. The sweet, country breeze came into the room through the glass-less square holes in the walls that served as windows, unimpeded by any semblance of curtains. My great-aunt bustled in her kitchen, her black head scarf and dress creating the illusion that she had stepped out of another time, as she loaded the table with homemade salumi and a variety of cheeses, accompanied by fresh baked bread and, of course, red wine. It was, in its simplicity, one of the best meals I have ever tasted. There were five in my party, and she fed us all to the point where we could eat no more. At the conclusion of the meal, Nunzio brought out a keg of what I believed to be grappa, and began to pour. But when I asked him if it were grappa, he shook his head and replied, “No, è il brandy.” So we drank his “brandy” and raised our glasses to new-found family. When we finally got up to leave, it was almost dark. I kissed my great-aunt good-bye and pressed all my remaining cash into her hand, finding ultimately, it was among the most natural acts of my life. This woman had entertained me by emptying her larder, and had done so without hesitation. She and her son would willingly go hungry, in order that visiting family had a memorable meal in her home. And that, dear readers, is the definition of what it means to eat at a peasant’s table.

You never leave hungry and you always feel welcome. No matter the unspoken cost to your host.

***

Bibimbap (with spicy pork, and the requisite egg)

Bibimbap (with spicy pork, and the requisite egg)

When I eat any form of peasant food in a restaurant, I am reminded of this ethos. Of the staples provided at a peasant’s table. The flavors, the abundance and most importantly, the vibrant hospitality that is provided the diner with every bountiful bite. If it’s done right, a simple meal is as satisfying and rewarding as any to be found at a 3-star Michelin establishment. The peasant’s table offers no distractions, no sleight of hand, only the food and its flavors. The history of its people comes through, as their story is recounted through every mouthful, the flavors recalling all the meals that have been laid out before, in just the same way, for all the generations of guests that have come before you. Bowl’d Korean in Oakland provides just such a meal, and does so with an effortless grace. The simple rituals of Korean tradition replayed, in lilting melody, for the guest dining with them in that moment. The staff at Bowl’d captures the song of the peasant to perfection. They are welcoming and informative, cheerily letting you know what they have laid before you and delightfully invested in their guests enjoyment of each savory bite. I was reminded of my great-aunt’s table (and my cousin Nunzio’s “brandy”) as I read the instructions on how to serve one another the Soju, an ancient rice, grain and sweet potato alcohol that reminds one very much of that peasant brandy consumed in the hills of Italy so many years ago.

We began our meal by sampling the little bowl of Myulchi Bokum (salted, crispy fried anchovies), a traditional finger food to whet the appetite for the meal about to be served. They were fascinating, the little silver tidbits in a tiny silver bowl beckoned and glittered, as though each one had a story to be told. It felt as though I was actually eating in Korea.

Never having yet formally had a Bibimbap, except perhaps a “reinvented” sampling at a Food Truck festival, I felt obligated to begin there, selecting a spicy pork as my protein for the dish. The flavors were astounding, each bit of crispy rice at the bottom of my bowl felt like finding tiny, hidden bits of treasure. Another ritual. Perhaps the best thing about eating at a traditional Korean BBQ place aside from the abundance of flavor, is the infinite combination of same in each bite. That ritual, the blending of banchan with each mouthful of Bibimbap, creating a choose-your-own-adventure of flavors, was a form of interacting with the food that provides a second level of enjoyment. Bowl’d maintains that tradition by setting the table with limitless banchan side dishes, each a marvel to be experienced in its own right, or blended in combination with a mouthful of another dish. The banchan is served initially in small portions, so that the diners may select their favorites and call for refills. The servers were attentive, bringing generous portions of our table’s particular banchan favorites immediately upon obtaining our selections. Our server was thrilled to see our enthusiasm for the meal, and her attitude kept us engaged in the experience without ever feeling hovered over. She had the natural ability to host, and it all felt very personal, and it was good.

Banchan (plethora of sides)

We also sampled the Fried Chicken, which arrived as a large portion of steaming hot chicken fresh from the fryer. It was so fresh we could hardly handle the pieces with our fingers, inside the beautiful golden crust, the meat was moist and delicate. One among us tried the Soondubuchigae (Spicy Tofu Stew) , adding pork and a “yes” to the egg. The raw egg is cracked at the table and added to the hot bowl of soup, to be left to cook for the duration of eating the dish. I’ve never seen anything like it, and the interaction added to the experience immensely.

So the bottom line is that eating at Bowl’d provided us exactly that which I seek in the perfect dining experience. A bit of ritual, a sense of hospitality, and flavor, flavor, flavor. It’s no wonder that folks like Anthony Bourdain call this food the perfect eating experience. It just is.

I cannot wait to return and sample some of the other dishes from the extensive menu. Bowl’d BBQ Korean Stone Grill is a restaurant whose music will definitely be added to my “replay” list.

As always, I say check it out for yourself, and make some memories of your own!

Bowl’d BBQ Korean Stone Grill

4869 Telegraph Ave
Oakland, CA 94609
b/t 48th St & 49th St in Temescal, North Oakland
Phone: (510) 654-2000
Web: http://www.bowldbbq.com

 

NIDO Kitchen & Bar: Nestling in at Abuela’s Table

Ceviche

Aguachile Verde de Pescado

When I set out to dine at a new restaurant, particularly one in Oakland, I’m always looking for that restaurant’s point of view. What is the experience intended for the diner? What’s my takeaway other than a satisfied appetite? In the case of Nido, it’s the easy comfort of dining in your grandmother’s kitchen.

Nido’s interior is what I can only describe as “inviting industrial.” The ceiling and walls are color-blocked with various shades of gray and bear the texture of rough-hewn cement, the starkness of these surfaces thoughtfully broken up with brightly-colored frescoes celebrating the spirit of Mexican culture. Birdcage chandeliers dot the ceiling, casually offset with delicate strings of golden bulbs that break up the space above its guests like sstars in the evening sky. It is an eclectic and inviting interior, one that appears to have been arranged with the random abandon of a bird feathering her nest. Yet the sense of deliberate thought for detail comes through loud and clear. The space is successfully organic, and the vibe it creates enhances beautifully the experience of dining within its walls.

We’ve been to Nido several times now, each meal more rewarding than the last. On this most recent visit, we began with cocktails, the mixologist at Nido being a master craftsman. Nothing is quite as delightful as beginning the weekend with a salute to the accomplishments of the past week, and a perfectly mixed cocktail is a great way to salute anything. The Vuelve a la Vida, with its smoky mescal base, accented with blood orange and absinthe, was subtly complex and rewardingly delicious. My companions had the Isla de Sangre and Tres Rojas. A sip of the Isla de Sangre revealed it to be herbacious, not too sweet, allowing the flavor of the aged rum to be highlighted on the palate. The Tres Rojas by contrast, was deliberately on the sweet side, the pomegranate and hibiscus taking center stage with every sip. Depending on your preference, all three drinks served up a great balance of flavors.

Pozole de Chile Negro y Pollo

Pozole de Chile Negro y Pollo

We began our meal with a selection of the appetizers. One has to try the guacamole and chips in any Mexican restaurant, and Nido’s take on the classic was spot on. The Aguachile Verde de Pescado arrived right behind the guac & chips, and was as pretty as it was delicious. I’ve developed an obsession with all forms of ceviche, but the bright flavor-forward taste of the Mexican version, if done well, always resounds. Ceviche is a simple dish, but one that must be executed perfectly to succeed, as it fails if it isn’t balanced. At Nido, every bite of citrus-bathed fish was appropriately tender, it’s soft, briny texture countered beautifully with the addition of watermelon radish and shredded carrot to keep each mouthful appropriately toothsome. Finished with a nice kick of the roasted serrano chile at the back of the throat, the lasting impression is one that any seafood lover will enjoy.

These tasty appetite-whetting bites led us nicely into the Pozole de Chile Negro y Pollo. If you’ve never experienced a good Pozole then it’s time you did. In my grandfather’s kitchen, the equivalent would have been a peasant minestrone, but in Abuela’s kitchen, it’s a Pozole. In Nido’s offering, each hearty, melt-in-your-mouth spoonful of chicken, steeped in flavorful golden brown broth, is laced with the same level of love in the preparation as the peasant minestrone my grandfather would serve me as a child. “Cooking with love” has become such an over-used term in culinary circles, and is such an obvious “go-to” phrase, but it resounds in a well-done bowl of soup nonetheless. Soup is the food that reminds us of mothers bearing gently warmed bowls of chicken-broth to a sickbed, or piping hot cups of tomato goodness to the kitchen table to greet us when we’re still rosy-cheeked from a day of outdoor chill. It simply is love in a bowl. If that ingredient is missing, it fails. Fortunately for the patrons of Nido, somebody in the kitchen loves you. A lot.

We followed the Pozole with a trio of soft-shelled taco selections: the Barbacoa de Res a mouth-watering little flavor bomb of slow-braised beef and peppers; the Puerco Adobado chock full of tender pork meat with the bright, refreshing balance added by citrus-y fruit salsa; and the Muslito de Pollo Asado a blend of glazed and grilled chicken, topped with a bit of the delectable fruit salsa mentioned above. Each one had that blissful marriage of meat and acid, that takes full advantage of the naturally rich characteristics of the meat protein, successfully offset by either the acid in the peppers or the tang of chopped fresh fruit.

The last dish was the Ollita de Pobre, another standout dish with peasant origins. Have you ever wondered why so many of our best current dishes came from the humble tables of our past? Because when you have simple ingredients, and often very few of them, the cook must be creative to make it palatable. When a cook in that environment stumbles upon a rewarding dish that can be recreated on a meager budget, that cook remembers the recipe. This dish clearly originated in the mind of a clever cook making magic in a pot with rice, beans and meat. A little pico de gallo and the right spices, and you’ve made yourself some magic. Here it’s served in a happy little blue pot. One knows when you pop that lid, you’re in for some good grub.

Puerco Adobado - Muslito de Pollo Asado - Barbacoa de Res

Puerco Adobado – Muslito de Pollo Asado – Barbacoa de Res

Somehow, over centuries the best dishes held, and these have been passed on in various cultures to bring us the flavor combinations we rave about in this age of accessibility. You no longer have to know someone with a Mexican Abuela to taste the dishes of a different culture’s family table. In this case, you can head to Nido and taste them for yourself. So grab a friend, break some bread and make a memory of your own. Mangia!

Nido Kitchen & Bar
444 Oak Street
Oakland, CA 94607
(510) 444-6436
http://www.nidooakland.com

SOBO RAMEN: Mystery loves company

SONY DSC

Sobo Ramen – Mystery Loves Company

Mystery. We’re drawn to it. The unknown calls us like moths to a flame. The human spirit finds a mystery irresistible. Mystery is a puzzle to be solved, and it stokes the imagination in all of us.

When I was a kid, there was an old, dilapidated house that sat on the lot next door to my friend Susan’s home. It sat on an isolated corner of that otherwise familiar street, its large, dusty windows barely visible behind the spiraled fence of twisted trees that obscured the sunlight. They covered the old house protectively, the gnarled hands of a crone shielding her face from unwanted attention. The shrubbery only served to enhance the gloom that encased the old mansion. We could see curtains behind the dust— thin, shredded veils further adding to its mystery, like the partially closed, paper-thin eyelids of a corpse, hiding the spirit of the person who once inhabited it. What fascinating scenes had been played out within its dark and ominous exterior? Did it hold monsters or history? Did any living thing linger there, in its shadowy depths? Such are the musings that captivate the imaginations of children. I’m certain there was a story there, but it was not for us to know.

Tsukemen Ramen Ingredients

Tsukemen Ramen Ingredients

Food can also be mysterious. Foreign ingredients. Unusual combinations of flavor. I know many who fear to go beyond the comfort of the food they grew up with. It’s familiar. They know where it will take them and have no urge to venture beyond the scope of that which they understand. They are inextricably compelled to repeat the dining routines of their childhood. Not I. One of my favorite adventures is to sample the cultures of other places and peoples through food. The tastes of travel, the full-Bourdain experience, if you will. Fortunately, my hometown of Oakland is teeming with opportunities to do just that.

My most recent foray into the world of new food exploits has been to dabble in ramen. To examine this science experiment of Eastern sensibilities, to see just how it has been reinvented for a modern palate. Ramen has hit the food scene like a Sharknado, the unexpected and the impossible all rolled into one delicious bowl of magic and adventure.

So when Sobo Ramen was brought up a few weeks ago as a lunch option at the office, I was all over it. The only ramen I’d ever tasted was “Top” and that experience had not left me craving more. Ramen, in my mind, was boring. Then came David Chang, and his re-invention of the dish for an American audience. Many trusted friends had flocked to try these delicious bowls of enigmatic ingredients, insisting that this new breed of ramen was not to be confused with the fast food variety of yore, so I really felt it was time to give this new fad a try. I was not disappointed. Not only is ramen delicious, Sobo Ramen has mastered the art of turning out a complex and mysterious bowl of great food.

Lobster Ramen Bliss

Lobster Ramen Bliss

We’ve been twice, and the second visit held just as much flavor-packed fun as the first. We began by sharing the Soft Shelled Crab Appetizer, which presented itself as four lovely sticks of tempura-battered crab and a lemony bright dipping sauce. The crispy batter combined with the punch of citrus in a blissful balance of splendid flavors. Nice.

Our Partner in Food Crimes and the Hubs both ordered the Lobster Ramen, which is a special right now.  It is extraordinary.  Lobster bathed in a rich, buttery broth, piled high with plenty of trimmings. The spice level was tolerable for the Hubs, who is an admitted “spice lightweight,” though we are bringing him along nicely, as he gets a bit more adventurous with every meal. The lobster is always perfectly cooked, and though it’s a pricy bowl at around $20, the half-tail portion of lobster is generous. The men always leave stuffed, and they are eaters with very healthy appetites. Bottom line, it’s enough food for dudes.

The Peruvian Paralegal had the Tsukemen Ramen, a fantasy platter of noodles, toppings and dipping sauce, leaving the eater to create his or her own dining experience, making for a  “choose your own adventure”  meal. Every bite is different, as one can combine any or all of the ingredients in each spoonful to taste them individually or as a whole. They play off each other symphonically, the pickled ginger on its own, so good as to be an examplary and memorable representative of the concept of umami. The “perfect bite” the PP made for each of us that featured all the components together, was good enough to convince me I must order this dish next time we visit. It’s absolutely delicious, and it’s also a lot of fun. I’m a fun fan.

Soft Shelled Crab in Tempura Batter

Soft Shelled Crab in Tempura Batter

As for me, I had the Black Garlic, again, because I could. Unfamiliar with ramen offerings, I had ordered it on my first visit, because garlic has been a part of my food experience since I was a kid, and it seemed a good jumping off point. Anything with garlic has to be good, I reasoned. On this, my second visit, I ordered it solely because I’d been dreaming about it since the first time. That’s how good food does you, it haunts your dreams like memories of a lost love, until you can repeat the experience for one more stolen kiss. Ecstasy.

If you haven’t been to Sobo, and you are a fan of ramen, check it out. If you have never had ramen, this is a fantastic spot to experience it for the first time. I guarantee you that you won’t be disappointed. Check it out, solve the mystery that is ramen, and make a memory of your own!

Sobo Ramen
988 Franklin St, Ste 186 (between 11th St & 10th St)
Oakland, CA 94607
Neighborhood: Oakland Chinatown
(510) 832-7626
http://www.soboramen.com