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Poetic Food 

Ingredients: Asian restaurants and April, spring flowers and sprouts

Wednesday, Apr 27 2005
In April my fancy lightly turns to thoughts of poetry. This is partly because all around me the Earth is bursting into bloom, brilliant orange poppies nodding in the yard, sweet jasmine perfuming the air, and I stroll through the farmers' markets marveling at the new delights -- asparagus, artichokes, morels, strawberries, rhubarb, fiddlehead ferns, sorrel -- that appear as if by magic, week after week; partly because there's more daylight in which to enjoy the new season (my father considers the day that daylight-saving time begins his personal New Year's Day, and we celebrate it as such); and partly because every day a new poem appears via e-mail, courtesy of Knopf Poetry, in celebration of National Poetry Month, and as a result I spend a few minutes lost in contemplation of verse.

I don't wander around all month in a poetically induced frenzy, but occasionally this state of affairs translates into a heightened awareness, when even the pleasures of the table are more pleasurable. A recent week, accidentally consecrated to Asian eating, seemed especially lyrical, suited to the season and carefully arranged, item by item instead of word by word, by the poets laboring away in the kitchen.

The week began with an impromptu dim sum lunch at Yank Sing, a place I've followed from pillar to post (office -- the latest incarnation of the dumpling palace is in Rincon Center, once the downtown mail center). I invite three colleagues -- the more the merrier, especially when it comes to sharing buns, dumplings, and their brethren -- and hungry guy colleagues at that. We're seated immediately, courtesy of the reservation I called in from the office, and the onslaught of the carts begins. Everything looks good, and we fall prey to the dreaded "saying yes too easily and often" syndrome, covering the table with familiar, if well-executed, dishes like char siu bao (steamed fluffy white buns stuffed with barbecued pork), siu mai (upright columns with a filling of ground pork), fried pot stickers, and tiny, crisp, warm spring rolls. Luckily, we slow down and get some more unusual offerings: fried soft-shell crabs (yes, it's spring) showered with a confetti of colorful minced peppers; crab claws topped with a fried ball of crab-and-shrimp mousse; crunchy fried taro balls; and slightly gluey but irresistible cakes of mashed turnip mixed with seasoned ground pork.

I mention the poem a day I've been getting, and Nate tells me about another one at the Web site of the Academy of American Poets. We recite, almost in unison, our favorite food poem, famously left on the refrigerator as a note to his wife by William Carlos Williams:

"This Is Just to Say"

I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the icebox

and which

you were probably


for breakfast

Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold

I'm hoping for dumplings filled with my favorite spring color combination, the preppy but tender pink and green (maybe shrimp with pea shoots, or scallops with chives), but they never show up. (Nor do rice noodle bundles, or sticky rice wrapped in a lotus leaf.) We're content with something I've never had before at Yank Sing, Shanghai soup dumplings (served with soup spoons for each of us, so you don't pierce the dumpling skin with chopsticks and lose the precious broth), and continue on to gelatinous chicken feet, round mushroom caps stuffed with minced chicken, and Peking duck (one bun each in which to tuck one nice chunk of roast duck complete with crispy lacquered skin, plum sauce, and scallion shreds). We finish with my favorite tiny custard tarts in flaky pastry (don tat) and, as a joke, orange Jell-O in orange peels decorated with cubes of toxic-looking green and yellow Jell-O.

A couple of nights later I join Robert for another ritual Asian meal: We're meeting at Kyo-Ya, with its own separate entrance in the Palace Hotel, for a kaiseki dinner. He's waiting in the tiny, sleek black bar just inside the door, opposite the sleek black host station, nursing a glass of sake poured from an icy little carafe. He points to its description on Kyo-Ya's list of a dozen or so sakes -- Special Junmai Sake, Shira Kaba Gura: "From the Newest Kura that Creates the best Hand Crafted Sake." I taste: It's perfume-y and sweet.

We're shown to our table, and I'm a bit shocked at the plainness of our surroundings. The basic brown tables and chairs would not look out of place in an ordinary family-style Japanese restaurant. We're seated across from a rather noisy table of four. I wonder if this is the ideal setting in which to enjoy the seven-course kaiseki dinner priced at $80?

Not wanting to march along lock step next to Robert, tasting the exact same dishes, I instead order a couple of items from the pricey a la carte menu: broiled yellowtail gills, which we've never seen before on a menu, and "hedgehog" squid.

The kaiseki dinner (which changes monthly) begins with a trio of dishes arranged on a small tray: One contains a plump pink shrimp on a skewer, a bit of seawater eel, jellyfish, and a spongy yellowish cube made of konnyaku, a Japanese tuber; another bears strips of resilient squid flecked with chewy shreds of shark fin coated in plum sauce; and the third, my favorite, mixes crunchy bamboo sticks with fresh wasabi. This course is more about texture than flavor. It's full of surprises (the konnyaku, the sweet plum sauce against the salty fish, the pungent, bright wasabi) and fun.

The yellowtail gills turn out to be an enormous, perfectly cooked yellowtail collar full of sweet, snowy meat. The second course is chef's choice sashimi: artfully curled strands of two different white fish, the freshest halibut and the chewier kampacha (aka amberjack).

Then we are served a number of thin fillets of beef, fried with edamame (soy beans) and cashews and accompanied by a bowl of salt mixed with cocoa powder. The beef is thoroughly cooked through and supple; I like the almost burnt flavor of the edamame and the nuts with it. The cocoa/salt mixture is, well, salty. We dip some pieces of the meat in it, to little effect.

For the fourth course, a spongy fish cake decorated with peppery sprouts and edible pickled cherry blossoms -- again more about texture than flavor -- we order a new sake, Eisen, described as "solid rice flavor, gnarly, full-bodied." It's the "gnarly" that intrigues Robert; I would have gone, in my lyric mood, for the Kamoizumi "Shusen": "Autumnal delight, with a touch of persimmon." The sake, though drier than the previous one, doesn't strike me as gnarly at all.

My squid arrives -- two big pieces scored in squares to mimic a hedgehog, smoky from the grill, and fragrant with fresh ginger. It's wonderful. Which makes the next kaiseki dish even more perplexing: chunks of white-meat chicken, green beans, and carrots in a thickish warm miso sauce. Robert dismisses it as "cafeteria food"; trying to find the poetry in it, I think of it as a Japanese farmhouse supper.

But the last savory course returns us to surprise and pleasure. The flower chirashi sushi is rice flecked with sesame seeds, molded into a quatrefoil shape, and topped with two brightly colored heaps of crunchy flying fish roe, one plain, one spicy, and a shocking pink helping of sweet yet salty fish flakes that melt on the tongue.

The dessert, a thin pancake wrapped in a cherry leaf and filled with sweet red beans, is more of an exclamation, a sign of completion, than a treat. We feel light but well fed: A whole kaiseki dinner would have been too much for me.

I'm also light but well fed after the sushi meal Joyce and I share at Ino, a tiny place tucked away upstairs in the Miyako Mall. Once you enter its door, you feel like you're in one of the little neighborhood restaurants that dot the movies of Mizoguchi and Ozu, except that the second-floor view is of Geary instead of a warren of Tokyo alleys. I like the clean, pale wood of the sushi bar, which seats nine or 10 people, across from a row of small tables that can handle about the same number. I also like the simplicity of the sushi list: Here you get the classic nigiri, no messing around with wackily named rolls or dangerous-sounding combinations. I do order a pink and green California Roll for Joyce, who dreams of avocado and once told me that she'd like to dive into a swimming pool filled with avocado sushi and eat her way out. The small nori-wrapped circlets we get tonight will have to suffice. In addition we get two different kinds of tuna, plus halibut, shrimp, yellowtail, and bass, all exquisitely fresh, though Joyce objects to the wasabi smeared between the fish and the molded rice. I'm surprised at the chewiness of the scallop, until I realize that the restaurant has slipped up and given us clam. But the uni (sea urchin) we finish with -- bright, briny, and slippery -- is as crisp as the last line of a limerick.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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