Monday, May 4, 2009

two for one

I got to fulfill two dreams today. Both entirely unrelated and both very satisfying. Firstly we got Gagan's Thai resident visa... he is now able to stay in Thailand as long as I am and no longer has to keep returning to India. To say we are relieved is like that old thing about bears and what they do in the woods. Yes... we are! He can now be here happily. He can travel in and out of the country. He can (and this is a biggie folks) apply for visas to other countries *from* Thailand... which means not having to deal with the bureaucracy of Indian visa applications *anymore*. The enormity of that one is bigger than I can describe here... but any Indian who has had to go through the inhumane humiliation of filing a visa application in their own country will know what I'm talking about. Thailand may have its own share of red tape but it is far more straightforward and we can really see the horizon ahead. We might even be able to plan some trips as tourists... what a concept!

Oh yes... the other dream? That has a little history behind it. Now I'm not going to pretend it has quite the weight of a visa to it... but my stomach will probably argue its importance in the Comestible History of Jude, placing it solidly in the top 5 or 6 top meals of the last 40 years. Nothing to be sneezed at certainly! So - the history behind the post. Years ago in Los Angeles I came across a book called Untangling My Chopsticks. It's a pretty incredible journey of a woman going to Kyoto to learn the ancient art of tea kaiseki... which at the time I had never even heard of. I am a *big* Japanese food lover and her detailed descriptions of these small delicate dishes of seasonal ingredients perfectly prepared and artfully presented sent me mad with desire. I searched Chowhound for kaiseki restaurants all over the greater LA area but there didn't seem to be anything. I just had to put it at the back of my mind and hope that one day I'd get to Japan.

So a couple of weeks ago we're leaving our favourite ramen noodle shop on Thong Lor, a major street in our area so densely packed with eateries you don't know where to start. Ramen is wonderful... those soothing japanese noodle soups just like in Tampopo (you know "poke the pork") which if you haven't seen and you like food, drop everything and rent it *right now*. We're full and satisfied, even though it is raining cats and dogs and we are getting drenched. We can't get a cab to save our lives so we just keep walking up the street... walking walking.. wetter and wetter. Suddenly, a little side lane shows up and the dark wooden entrance to a restaurant appears.
Covered by noren, the japanese curtains, it looks different to all the other places we've seen.. and it's out of the way and looks fancy and authentic. I think at the same time I see it I also see the sign... Maru Kaiseki!

Getting a visa seems more than enough reason to go out for a nice meal. I knew from poking about the net that Maru was not going to be cheap, but today was a good reason to go. We didn't know if we'd get a table but we got there early and had about 200 women in kimonos welcoming us.. okay okay... I am prone to exaggeration. There were maybe nine or ten. The recession has hit Bangkok and tourism is down, so high end restaurants are very glad to get business. They seemed very happy to see us - no reservations needed!

The menu was all pictures - which was lucky as we took ages to choose and it was hard enough with a very big choice. Everything arrived looking just like its photo and tasting quite sensational. We started with something traditional - some hamachi, or amberjack which was beautifully presented in a handmade bowl over ice and seaweed. The fish was fresh and firm and tasted... perfect.

Next was a delicate bowl of micro thin sliced radish, cucumber, onion and seaweed with lemon all soaked in a small pool of a soy vinegar liquid. The star of the dish was juicy fingers of snow crab which also soaked up the tangy vinegar, a flavour that brought out the sweetness of the crab and gave a burst of cool freshness in your mouth. The sauce was light and not too acidic to be overpowering - it all worked together so well that all we could do was look at each other and raise our eyebrows in surprise.

From the same menu group was an unusual dish that also had us nodding in agreement. Yam with sea urchin (uni) and vinegar. The yam was a white variety, it seemed raw and crunched like an apple. With very little flavour, it mostly provided a textural difference to the soft and slimy uni that was some of the best I've tasted. It was sweet and tasty, still with the hint of the beach. Gagan had never tried it before and this was a good way to start. Microslices of nori (dry seaweed) was piled on top and proved to be very hard to pull apart with small pieces of uni and slices of yam. Not an easy dish to share, but tasty none the less.

The next dish was unexpectedly good. We wanted some vegetables and ordered asparagus. They came looking like something you would want to decorate your house with. So perfectly made and smelling so tasty! Two rows of about 7 stalks each - lightly fried in some yummy batter not unlike tempura, but all over the bottom half were stuck little golden rice crackers - perfectly round balls - about 2mm wide. Being fried, the whole thing now held together like a little bamboo wall and they looked as well as smelled, wonderful. Dipped in the small dish of salt the effect was pretty spectacular.

Two more courses to come. The next to me seemed like the ultimate dish. Japanese comfort food meets Top Chef. It's hard to believe such tastes could come from such a simple dish. On the bottom, almost like a crab cake, a patty of mashed potato - a yellow potato like a Yukon Gold - mixed with tiny pieces of cucumber and minced shrimp. The potato cooked to be warm and golden on the outside. On top of that a perfectly cooked piece of salmon - to look like a giant piece of nigiri sushi - the salmon moist and melting in the mouth. On top of *that* a meringue of whipped egg white, cooked to perfection and atop that... nestled in to the foam of eggs... giant orange salmon roe. Every bite just exploded with flavour. The roe would burst a little bubble of salt water to top off all the other tastes and the mix was just amazing. It was warm and comforting and fancy and familiar even though I've never had anything like it. Genius!

Lastly, in a bowl of his own, one giant ball of happiness. Well, pumpkin actually. The size of a baseball. The pumpkin was mashed and had big pieces of scallop and giant shrimp hidden away inside, then lightly fried and placed in the bowl with slightly sweet gloopy sauce that had a little tang to it, drizzled and poured over it. A strong onion was cut into thin slivers and placed on top. Simple... and delicious.

It was a perfect meal. We were not too full and we enjoyed every single bite. An excellent way to celebrate a visa and a great introduction to kaiseki. The menu at Maru is large, and our appetites are endless, so I expect we'll be back to try more. Maybe next time we'll take some photos. For now though, I think it's time for some tea and putting my feet up. A good day :)

1 comment:

Mum said...

Yummy - such interesting combinations
of flavours and who would have thought they would work!