Dinner at Red Lantern (Seattle, WA)

There has been a lot of buzz lately about Red Lantern, a Chinese restaurant that also serves some Korean dishes, located along the edge of the International District. Unlike most restaurants in the area, the prices are on the high side and the ambience more upscale than one typically finds in the ID. In 2011, Seattle Met magazine considered it one of the best Chinese restaurants in Seattle.

Korean dishes in a Chinese restaurant are not all that unusual. There were many Chinese who immigrated to northern Korea and developed a unique cuisine, from which came two of the most popular dishes, jiajiangmyun and jahm bong noodles, both of which are tellingly on the menu at Red Lantern.

We decided to have dinner here before attending a talk at Benaroya Hall by Julie Otsuka who discussed her novel about Japanese picture brides (Buddha in the Attic).

Though it was cloyingly sweet, Basil Lime Shrimp was the best entrée. The shrimp, battered in cornstarch, was perfectly cooked and served piping hot. The sauce was overly thick from a combination of cornstarch and too much sugar, with lime so sparingly added that more would have gone a long way toward balancing the flavors. As it was, citrus was barely detectable. Also stingily added were basil leaves.

Curiously named is Mao’s String Bean, which was neither revolutionary nor made with string beans. Instead, Chinese long beans were cut into less than 1/4-inch pieces, stir-fried with ground chicken and a dark soy-based sauce, a dish that sounded more interesting than the execution. Even so, it wasn’t bad.

The dud was Salt and Pepper Pork Chops that lacked much flavor. The chops were sliced, battered and fried, but the flavor was dull and uninspired with not enough salt and pepper to justify its moniker. To make matters worse, some of the pieces were gristly and had bones in them, a not-uncommon Asian culinary practice, but surprising when hidden behind batter.

Maybe there are dishes at which Red Lantern excels. But based on three that were randomly chosen, it’s hard to understand how and why the restaurant has garnered the praise that it has. It’s not a bad restaurant, just not great as the reviews would have you believe.

Red Lantern
520 S. Jackson St.
Seattle, WA 98104
Web site

Soon Dubu at Seoul Hot Pot (Redmond, WA)

The first time I had soon dubu jjigae was in Santa Clara in 2002. My daughter’s roommate, when they were living in the San Jose area at the time, took us to So Gong Dong Tofu House. I recall what a revelation it was, a savory and spicy stew featuring soft dubu (tofu). Since then, I’ve had it many times, both in California and Washington, in various forms. This is one of those dishes that really satisfies when the weather gets cold.

On the Eastside, the pickings of Korean restaurants are pretty slim. With the closure of Paldo Market (and therefore the Korean restaurant inside its doors), the choices got slimmer. Luckily, Seoul Hot Pot in Redmond has been around for a few years. More than that, the food here is pretty good. Daily specials written on sheets of paper are pasted on the walls.
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Tonkotsu Ramen at Ai Sushi (Bellevue, WA)

While I was getting my Hawaiian meal at Island Grill (see below), my wife was ordering tonkotsu ramen from Ai Sushi, also located in the Crossroads Mall food court. Let me first start off by saying that I’m always wary when a restaurant that does not specialize in it offers tonkotsu, a ramen that requires time and effort to make.  As an aside, I admit to having more doubts when the cook is not even Japanese (although this obviously wasn’t an issue at a ramenya in Santa Fe nor is it at Fu Lin). Some chefs proclaim an enthusiasm for making tonkotsu, with very disappointing results, as was the case at Bo Ramen, a pop-up that sprang up last year. It was a disaster (☆½) here at Ai Sushi.

Tonkotsu ramen from Ai Sushi

Tonkotsu ramen from Ai Sushi

The pork slices seemed more like teriyaki-glazed chashu (as char siu is called in Japanese), uncharacteristically lean and disconcertingly sweet. Health considerations aside, pork in ramen typically are slices of the belly, unctuous and tender, the best of which should almost melt in the mouth. The half egg was fully cooked, normally an odd thing to complain about, except that the ideal that Japanese ramen chefs aim for is a hard white tinged with soy sauce and barely set, runny yolk, clearly not the case here. For sure, this is not a deal-breaker but not authentic either. The noodles themselves were good, with fine texture.

The broth is tonkotsu’s raison d’être. The best versions are very porky in flavor, fatty, gelatinous and milky in consistency, with a hint of ginger and other aromatics. It takes almost an eternity to make, genuinely requiring at least two days over a burner, which if you think about it is impossible at a restaurant nestled in a food court inside a mall that closes up every night. Special exemptions for restaurants? Maybe, but I doubt it.

Ai Sushi‘s broth is a total, unmitigated disaster. It is thin, oddly flavored, out-of-balance, with no luxuriance or weight typical of the broth. It isn’t even a good, ordinary ramen broth. Swill is a better word.

Ai Sushi
15600 NE 8th St
Crossroads Mall Food Court
Bellevue, WA 98008

Rime Ice on Ivy

One of nature’s wondrous phenomena is the formation of ice crystals when temperatures outside get really cold. Moisture in the air freezes on grass, tree branches, whatever water droplets can grab onto, and form the most beautiful patterns. When water freezes, it has a crystalline structure. So, often you can see incredible hexagonal or feathery spike formations, almost always in shady spots where direct sunlight can’t melt them. We were taking a walk through our neighborhood when we came across many beautiful examples of rime ice, such as that on ivy in the image above.

Lunch at Island Grill (Bellevue, WA)

We were excited to learn that a Hawaiian restaurant opened on the Eastside recently. When she was running an errand at Crossroads Mall last week, my wife first noticed it, now in the space previously occupied by Jones’ BBQ and then Burney’s BBQ. So far, I haven’t found a satisfactory Hawaiian restaurant in the Greater Seattle area, so I was holding out hope that Island Grill would satisfy my ono kine grindz craving whenever I got one. In short, sad to say, this is probably the worst of its kind that I’ve ever experienced.

Before I get to the food, there were some telltale exchanges between me and the people working there. When I noticed BBQ chicken on the menu, I asked if it was huli chicken. All I got was a blank stare, whereupon I repeated my question. “No, BBQ chicken” was the answer I finally got back. Okay, never mind. I then ordered a combination plate of kalua pork and BBQ short ribs with a side of macaroni salad. While I was paying, I asked the cashier, “Are you from Hawaii?” Again, a blank stare. I was beginning to get a sinking feeling.

Kalua pork and BBQ short rib combo plate

Kalua pork and BBQ short rib combo plate

Let’s start with the rice. Only one scoop. In Hawaii, it’s always two scoops. But, as I’m trying to reduce my carb consumption, this was not a big deal. It’s a small detail that screams a lack of authenticity though, even if the rice was cooked nicely. The mac salad was the worst I’ve ever had—macaroni with little slivers of carrots, dressed with a sweet mayonnaise. It lacked something. Several things actually. Opinions vary on this, but I prefer my Hawaiian mac salad to have a slight vinegary tang and bits of green onions and celery, both of which lend some complexity. And how about some salt, even if it isn’t Hawaiian salt? Still, the pasta was cooked to the soft stage, which is how Hawaiians like it.

I was reminded of the catchy query, “Where’s the beef?” when I started on the BBQ short ribs. Sliced thinly as kalbi should be, the meat to bone ratio was extremely small, on top of which whatever meat could be found was tough and chewy. The teriyaki flavors were good though. The kalua pork was tender, so tender that it was almost mushy. It lacked no discernible smoke flavor and was under-seasoned, a bland interpretation.

I won’t be going back to Island Grill. It has a long way to go before it even approaches Ono’s or Helena’s in Honolulu.

Island Grill
15600 NE 8th St
Crossroads Mall Food Court
Ste PM-1
Bellevue, WA 98008

Noodle Soups at Din Tai Fung (Bellevue, WA)

Beyond the pleasures of eating very well prepared xiao long bao (XLB) which established its reputation in Taiwan, Din Tai Fung does offer other things on its menu. Sandwiched between two movies at Lincoln Square Cinemas today, we were able to squeeze in an early dinner here. Sitting in the bar area is a way to avoid sometimes long waits to get a table in the dining room. Often, you can walk right up and get seated, the niceties of dining at a table replaced by a bar stool, counter and a good view of the bartender preparing cocktails. He will also take orders for anything from the menu.

We were in the mood for noodle soups tonight.

It’s a sure sign that beef noodle soup is a national obsession in Taiwan when Niu Ba Ba in Taipei City will let you buy a bowl for about TW $10,000 (over US $300). That kind of excessive pricing doesn’t tend to do well here in the U.S., no matter how good the product. Locally, we’ve tasted a very good version at Facing East. I ordered the Braised Beef Soup (☆☆☆☆) on the Din Tai Fung menu. When I tasted the first spoonful of broth, the first thing I do when judging noodle soup, I knew immediately that the soup was going to be an extraordinary experience. Its excellence was not diminished by exquisitely tender beef shanks that fell apart in the mouth. It was also obvious that the wheat noodles, thin and straight, slippery and firm, were freshly made and held their qualities throughout most of the meal. The broth was clearly the result of long hours of simmering with a pronounced beefy flavor that I honestly have to say I’ve tasted only with this kind of Taiwanese soup. I literally savored every bite. A bit of a spicy kick was provided by, I believe, doubanjiang chile paste. Here at Din Tai Fung, I will likely order this dish from now on, rather than XLB.

Braised beef noodle soup

Braised beef noodle soup

My wife’s Noodle Soup with Pickled Mustard Green & Shredded Pork (☆☆☆) was itself a revelation. The best adjective to describe it is pure. The broth had a clean, intensely chicken flavor. The pork was very tender, what there was of it, and the subtle pickled mustard greens obviously made from scratch rather than scooped from a can. If there is any shortcoming at all, it is the paucity of pork slivers, flavorful though they may be. Other soups I’ve had of its kind had broths that were more seasoned and contained other additions that, while very good, tasted more “elaborate” than tonight’s. My first impression was that the soup lacked something, more an absence of familiarity, but it later dawned on me that other versions perhaps added flavors that weren’t really necessary. It was an unexpected surprise.

Update (dinner, 9-28-14): The same austerity that characterized the above held true for Pork Chop Noodle Soup. Again, there were the superior, clean tasting, intense broth (though not quite as flavorful as the pork noodle soup’s, both of them a chicken-based stock) and the same excellent housemade noodles. The soup was topped with thick slices of pork chops whose complex, delicious spicing defies identification, some slices with bone still attached. This is yet another winner for Din Tai Fung (☆☆☆).

Pork chop noodle soup

Pork chop noodle soup

Osechi Ryori (New Year’s food)

Today is New Year’s Day. Like every year, the family can relax and enjoy each other’s company, watch some BCS bowl games and—let’s get down to it—eat the food that we’ve labored all day yesterday to prepare. Somehow, in a small kitchen, everything gets made, the only things done elsewhere being teriyaki chicken wings and chashu (char siu) that are barbecued in the backyard.

The cooks included my father-in-law, three sisters-in-law, two brothers-in-law, a nephew, my wife, my daughter, a longtime family friend and myself. In other years, my other daughter and her husband have also helped. Because they now live far away, they can’t always join us. Friends of the family also drop by occasionally, sharing in the repast.

The food will be our primary source of sustenance for the next few days. In the past, we’ve made way too much food, more than we could reasonably finish. As a practical matter, this year we’ve made a concerted effort to ‘downsize.’
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