Friday, February 26, 2016

Chef Michael Schlow, Tico & Nikkei Cuisine

For me, Japanese cuisine is like classical music: it’s harmonious, but you have to know how to listen to it. Peruvian cuisine, on the other hand, is like salsa music. Both of them are perfect, each one on its own. When salsa is added to Japanese dishes, Peruvians are given the opportunity to see a bit of themselves in a Japanese world, to identify with it.”
--Chef Mitsuhara Tsumara in Nikkei Es Peru (with Josefina Barron)

Last October, I reviewed a Nikkei cuisine cookbook, lamenting that there weren't any local restaurants which focused on this cuisine. Well, that has changed and it's time for you to explore this fascinating and delicious cuisine. At Tico, Chef Michael Schlow is now offering a special, late-night Nikkei menu, showcasing the fusion of Japanese and Peruvian cuisine. This new menu is served Thursday to Saturday, from 10pm-1am.

However, the first step is to explain the nature of Nikkei cuisine as many people may not be familiar with this cuisine, even though it is starting to become more popular around the world.

The term Nikkei derives from the Japanese word nikkejin and basically refers to those Japanese who migrated overseas and all of their descendants. As its most basic, Nikkei cuisine is "the cooking of the Japanese diaspora." It will thus vary dependent on where the Japanese settled as they adjusted and modified their cuisine, using different local ingredients and cooking styles. As many Japanese immigrated to South America, especially Brazil and Peru, Nikkei cuisine developed in these countries over more than one hundred years. During this time, the cuisine has evolved, merging the best of the two cultures, and it continues to grow and evolve.

Chef Mitsuhara Tsumara, who was born in Peru and is of Japanese ancestry, owns and operates Maido, one of the most famous Nikkei restaurants in the world. Tsumara and Josefina Barron co-wrote the book Nikkei Es Peru, which provides plenty of fascinating information on Nikkei cuisine, including numerous recipes. A few quotes from the book will illustrate some of the reasons why Japanese and Peruvian cuisine mesh so well together, especially because of their contrasts.

"Peruvian and Japanese cuisine work together in perfect harmony. Micha says it’s down to fundamental ingredient pairings, “chili with soy is the perfect combination - if you think about the DNA of a cuisine, it’s the foundation of a cuisine - like tomato and olive oil.” arguing that this, alongside the fact that Peruvians and Japanese both eat lots of rice, has helped the country’s flavours marry in the kitchen."

"Peruvian cuisine is bold, very bold. Perhaps the fact that they were different—opposites, in fact—created this dynamic, the pleasant surprise which every diner seeks when hunting for new flavors. For example, dashi (preserved bonito fish and kelp soup stock), a fundamental pillar of Japanese cooking, helped balance the intense Peruvian seasoning. The ají pepper, with its boldness, put a little spice into the calm of Japanese flavors. Japan brought the white rice, free of salt and garlic, as a true companion to Peru’s fieriness. A counterpart or counterpoint, much more necessary than accessory."

As such, you might expect many Japanese/Peruvian Nikkei dishes to be spicy, yet that spice will be more subtle and less bold than if you were enjoying Peruvian cuisine alone.

"One aspect that Micha makes sure to emphasize is that Japanese cuisine is diametrically opposed to ours in terms of portions. Peruvians have gotten used to mountains of cau cau, heaping plates of lomo saltado, plenteous bowls of crab chowder, preponderant lion’s helpings of tacu tacu. Nikkei cooks helped us to understand that less can be more: that we can appreciate the true flavor of a grunt as long as we don’t overwhelm it with sauces; that cilantro, cumin, chili pepper, and onions are better in moderation, thoughtfully used."

This fusion of cuisines almost seems designed for small plates, to enjoy smaller portions rather than an abundant platter of food.

"Japanese cuisine is sober, while its Peruvian counterpart goes heavy on the seasoning. Finding a middle ground signified the birth of Nikkei cuisine."

Does Chef Schlow's new Nikkei menu conform to these concepts?

Chef Michael Schlow is well known in the Boston region and one of his most recent endeavors is Doretta Taverna & Raw Bar, a Greek restaurant. And now he is expanding his culinary repertoire by offering a Nikkei menu at Tico. What inspired him to venture into this new area? Chef Schlow stated that he has always been a fan of Nikkei cuisine, as well as Chifa, Chinese-Peruvian cuisine. The combination of Peruvian and Japanese techniques and ingredients speak to him, opening up much room for creativity. He also indicated that he has been studying this cuisine for quite some time, having visited various Nikkei restaurants around the world, including in Lima, Peru. One of his favorite spots is Chotte Matte in London, noting he could eat there every night. Besides enjoying the food at these restaurants, he also asked plenty of questions, to further his education about this cuisine. In addition, he has read a number of Nikkei cookbooks for more knowledge and inspiration.

It seems to me that this has been a long-standing passion within Chef Schlow and he finally has the opportunity to showcase Nikkei cuisine. I'm hoping that this late-night menu leads to something more, maybe even a Boston-area restaurant dedicated to Nikkei cuisine. This is a cuisine that should appeal to many people and could do well in the Boston area.

Currently, the Late Night menu has 11 Nikkei cuisine options along with 7 cocktails which have been specially create for this menu. As an aside, the Late Night menu includes a single non-Nikkei item, the famous Schlow Burger from Radius. Most of the Nikkei offerings are small plates, which can easily be shared, and only two dishes are large-sized, including the Homemade Noodles and Boneless Fried Chicken. Almost all of the dishes range from $7-$12, except for the Boneless Fried Chicken at $16, and the Cocktails range from $12-$16.

I was invited as a media guest to check out the new Nikkei menu and I sampled all of the various dishes. Overall, I was impressed with the dishes, finding intriguing combinations of flavors and textures. Chef Schlow certainly understands the role of texture and how it can elevate a dish. As both Japan and Peru treasure seafood, it was great to see that Schlow's seafood dishes were stand-outs. The Nikkei dishes will seem familiar in some respects, except that you'll realize than are some exotic touches as well.

I also concluded that Schlow's Nikkei dishes generally conformed to the quotes I provided earlier from Nikkei Es Peru. Many of his dishes were spicy but the heat was more subtle, often slowly building up over time as you enjoyed more and more of the dish. Portion size was mostly limited to small plates, ample enough to share but without making you overly full too quickly. The flavor combinations worked well, an excellent merging of Japanese and Peruvian ingredients.

It is also important to note that the Nikkei menu is only three weeks old so some allowance must be given for its newness and it could see some minor changes in the near future. I highly recommend that my readers check out this new Late Night Nikkei menu and experience the delights of Japanese/Peruvian cuisine. I'll be returning as well, to enjoy more of these dishes. Let me now describe all the dishes and cocktails I tasted.

The Deviled Eggs ($7) are made with Uni, Chiles, and Tempura Bits presenting a nice blend of textures, from the silky filling and creamy Uni to the crunchy tempura. The Uni also added an interesting briny edge to the eggs. One of the better Deviled Eggs I've tasted in recent times.

The Hamachi Tartare ($11) with Spicy Aji-Miso and Two Texture Rice was another intriguing blend of textures, from the silky fish to the crunchy rice, with creaminess from the aji-miso. There was also a hint of spiciness that enhanced the dish.

The Quick Tuna Ceviche ($11) with Soy, Chiles, and Masago was a winner! Nice, silky cubes of meaty tuna with bursts of citrus flavor, spicy heat and a delicate crunch. A well balanced dish, sure to satisfy.

Other winner dish was the Local Scallops ($12) with Lemongrass, Chiles, and Crispy Garlic. The sweet scallops were enhanced with citrus, spice and crunchy elements. It was a lighter sauce than on the tuna, which makes sense considering the different types of seafood,  and the citrus flavors were brighter.

The Shrimp and Octopus "Sunonmo" ($10) with Tigre de Leche (the famous Peruvian ceviche sauce) continued the string of excellent seafood dishes. The fresh citrus flavors enhanced the shrimp as well as the thin, tender slices of octopus. One of the bonuses of this dish were the thin cucumber slices, almost like pickled cucumbers.

The Mussels ($11) with Roccoto, Coconut Milk, Cilantro, Red Onion, and Lime added a more tropical element to the dish, with plump mussels (out of the shell), rich coconut, mild spicy heat and some crunchy notes. As I love coconut, this was an especially compelling dish for me. And it uses mussels, which I've previously advocated as a nutritious and sustainable seafood.

Besides seafood, there were other Nikkei dishes to enjoy, including the Short Rib Gyoza ($7) with Panca, Sesame, and Toasted Onion. The gyoza, which seemed to have been fried, had a crisp wrapping, and was filled with tender and flavorful meat, with mild peppery spice and the crunch and taste of sesame seeds.

The Sanguche ($9) of Pork Belly, Spicy Fennel, and Aji Amarillo was on a brioche bun and was a delightful sandwich, with tender and moist pork belly with crispness from the fennel and some spice from the aji amarillo. With each bite, you ached for another and soon enough, the sandwich is gone. Absolutely delicious.

The Homemade Noodles ($11) with Pork, Soft Egg, Green Onion, Chile Paste, and Cashews is essentially a huge bowl of ramen. The tender pork belly, as it was in the Sanguche, was excellent and it was great to have a soft boiled egg so you could break the savory yolk into the broth. The noodles were thin with a good bite to them. My only issue is that the flavor of the broth seemed a bit thin and not as full of savoriness as other local ramen dishes.

The only miss for me was the Crispy Tempura Bok Choy ($9) with "Miracle Sauce." First, I'm not a fan of bok choy so the idea of the dish didn't appeal to me. I would have preferred something else like maybe a Tempura Peruvian Purple Potato or Yucca. In addition, I'm very picky as to tempura and felt that the tempura batter was too heavy in this dish. It was not that light and crisp tempura I love at the better Japanese spots.

The final dish was the Platter of Boneless Fried Chicken ($16) with Scallions, Crushed Peanuts, and "Numbing Sauce." The photo doesn't do justice to this dish, the beautiful color of the crunchy exterior coating of the chicken. Inside, the chicken was moist, cooked perfectly, and the flavor of the coating was savory, with a slight nuttiness and a spicy heat that slowly built in your mouth, eventually leading to a numbing of the interior of your mouth. They recommended eating this dish last, as the spicy heat of the dish would numb your palate and you would never appreciate the more subtle flavors of some of the other dishes. And they were right. A winner of a dish but make sure you have it last.

The subtle flavors of many of the dishes seemed to be replicated in several of the new cocktails for the Nikkei menu. The Chicha Sour ($12), a take on the classic Pisco Sour, is made with Barsol Pisco, Chicha (a corn based beverage), and fresh lime and was a mild drink of subtle flavors, a little sour and sweet (likely from the corn) with a soft flavor of Pisco. It goes down easily and you could drink several of these in the course of an evening.

The Papa Made Bail ($12) is also made with Barsol Pisco, as well as Pineapple, Fresh Lemon, and Habanero. Once again, the flavors were more subtle, with citrus and tropical flavors and a mild heat that built up over time. Another easy drinking cocktail, which you could enjoy several over dinner. The bartender isn't trying to club you with big flavors, but is willing to create more subtle drinks, to make you concentrate more on the flavors.

The O' Miso Rummy ($15) is made with Ron Zacapa Rum, Miso, Agave, Fresh lemon and lime,  and Nutmeg. A pleasant taste with lots of citrus notes and a certain richness and mild sweetness. The
P90X ($14) is kind of a Manhattan variation, made with Bulleit Rye Whiskey, Lustau PX Sherry, and Angostura & Orange Bitters. The spicy rye stood out, with a mild sweetness, some mild berry notes and orange accents. It lacks some of the herbal notes you get from Vermouth. Maybe the sweetest of the cocktails was the Harmonious Dragon ($16), made with Pierre Ferrand Cognac, Bigalet China China, Oolong Tea, and Fresh lemon though it wasn't overly sweet. It was nicely balanced with herbal notes and a rich, mouthfeel.

On the flip side, the tartest drink was the You, Me & Boshi ($12), made with Sake, plum, and fresh lemon as well as containing a few pickled plums. Dry and very sour, it had a pleasant taste but prepare to pucker those lips. The biggest and boldest cocktail was the Land of the Rising Sol ($14) made with Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky, Manzanilla Sherry, Pistachio, and Black Walnut Bitters. Bold flavors, with a little sweetness, a nice briny element and nutty notes. Quite a delicious and intriguing cocktail, and highly recommended.

Chef Schlow's new late night Nikkei menu is well worthy of your attention. The seafood dishes will impress, but you'll find delicious non-seafood dishes to enjoy too, such as the Pork Belly Sanguche and Fried Chicken. Many of the dishes offer more subtle and complex flavors, so it pays to devote attention to each dish you are sampling. Their new cocktail menu often relies on such subtleties as well. Chef Schlow's passion for Japanese-Peruvian cuisine seems evident and I hope he continues to expand this menu over time. It earns a strong recommendation from me.

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