niblets: summer days driftin’ away edition

IMG_7539Niblets is an all-too-occasional feature on the ins and outs of the Eugene food scene. Syndicate me?  You know you want to.

Get your last meals in at your faves soon: behold the imminent closure of a long-time Eugene fixture, Keystone Café, who will be shutting the doors for a long-deserved retirement; Kopi-O, on what we hope is a temporary stoppage due to the sale of the building; and the latest venture of Eugene restaurateur Sara Willis, Carmelita Spats, who has “decided to simplify and only do dinners when I can personally work every aspect of the dinner/event,” according to the Facebook page.  She plans to do catering and other events, including a project slated for fall.

Catering seems to be the way to go in this town.  The Party Downtown duo has put their lunch service on hiatus for the summer months due to an upswell of catering gigs.  They still serve brunch on Sundays, though!  Look for more changes and upgrades as the dog days saunter on.  They recently celebrated their first year anniversary, I’m happy to say.  And Belly is 6 years old!  Congratulations to two fine establishments.

Kamitori is agonizingly no longer serving sushi, as previously reported, but the new incarnation, open Tues-Sat until 3 p.m., is actually quite lovely.  And that’s saying a lot from a person who doesn’t like dining out for breakfast.  Eugene so desperately needs a full service, non-greasy-spoon-diner breakfast place, and Kamitori may just be that place.  It’s a rare treat to have an expertly trained, internationally experienced chef serving breakfast and lunch with an eye for quality, and the standards show it.

Our baked goods and pancakes are all hand-made from scratch, made from fresh eggs and fresh milk to make them very soft and milky.  NO water added.  So please stop by and try our new menu including Thick & Fluffy Pancakes and Soft & Juicy French Toast, both are served with lots of fruit toppings to your taste, French-style Omelets, Japanese style Sandwiches, and Japanese breakfast & lunch, including Tonkatsu, Curry Rice, Udon and Soba Noodles.  Also please try our very creamy milk-brewed Cafe au Lait, Tea au Lait, and Matcha au Lait.  We sell some Japanese style Bread, too, such as Shoku-pan (milk bread), Zenryu-pan (whole wheat milk bread), An-pan (sweet red bean filling), Jam-pan (homemade jam filling), and more.

And although I had my doubts at first, having tasted Masa’s zenryu-pan, a milk-based soft wheat bread very popular in Japan for breakfast, and melon-pan, which doesn’t include melons but is a soft cakelike bun with a crunchy slightly sweet topping that resembles the netting on a melon skin, and seeing photos of the thick & fluffy pancakes with a mountain of fruit and whipped cream, I was convinced that he has an idea that will draw not only locals but visitors from afar.  They also serve some Japanese lunch set standards like curry rice and shio-saba yaki (salt-grilled mackerel) and even, if they have it, sashimi teishoku.

So listen up:  this is the perfect place for brunch with a mixed crowd, as most can enjoy a great American breakfast, some can enjoy more adventurous Japanese pastries, and the freaks like me can enjoy a real Japanese breakfast set with green tea, miso soup, rice, egg, and pickles.  Yes, as in a Japanese breakfast that you can only get in a U.S. restaurant in places like San Francisco or New York, and even then only in a couple hotels in Japantown. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Told ya it was going to put us on the map.

Even better: Olivo Tapas, the first solo venture of former Executive Chef of Ox & Fin and Sous Chef of Soubise Alejandro Cruz, will be operating soon out of Kamitori’s space at 1044 Willamette in the evenings.  Click here for updates on opening times and a menu that’s heavy on seafood and light, sophisticated fare.

IMG_7690 IMG_7573 IMG_7834Other up-and-coming dining ventures in town are all excellent food carts:  Tam’s Place Vietnamese in the former Party Cart space at 28th and Friendly, nearby Green Plow Juicery (both pictured above), across the way from a sort-of interior food cart: Red Wagon Creamery’s new ice cream scoopery at the Friendly Street Market. Two particularly good carts that service Oregon Wine Lab on various days of the week for the welcome experience of having a glass of crisp Riesling on the patio with your meal: DaNang Vietnamese Eatery and Twisted Tako, a fusion taco cart.  I’ve yet to try Whapping, a Costa Rican Afro-Carribean-focused cart that looks promising.  Check their pages for locations and times.  Also look for Taco Next, a new venture with an excellent cook, on Main Street in Springfield soon (see details above on card!).

Join Facebook and friend me there for updates about many more local events than I can post here on the blog.

kamitori sushi is dead, long live kamitori sushi!

IMG_7815 IMG_7814Had my last delicious sushi at Kamitori last night, on Chef Masa Itai’s last night before the joint closes for personal health reasons. Since it’s summer, I had to nibble on eggplant tempura, and I opted for the chef’s choice and a side of rather glorious silvery aji (horse mackerel) whose name I remember from a Japanese friend swooning about it: aji wa aji (horse mackerel is tasty)!

The chef has been battling hand problems for quite some time that make it very hard to press and turn sushi.  Without hesitation, I agree that he’s making the right decision, but it’s such a loss for Eugene it’s hard not to mourn.

The good news is that he’s decided to reopen after some rest and reconfiguration of the space as a coffee shop featuring Japanese breakfast pastries.  The planned opening is in the second week of July.  This, too, is sure to be excellent.  Masa has been trained in a number of cuisines and stations, so be sure to sample his wares.  The location next to the bus station at 11th and Willamette will prove to be advantageous for morning commuters, I think.  He’ll be open in the morning and afternoons six days a week.  Try the Kamitori website soon for more information (nothing’s up yet).

I’m deeply grateful for the quality and purist style of sushi Masa brought to town.  It was a wake-up call for many of us that Eugene can have nice things, and that there are enough people in town to appreciate excellent quality and simple and traditional Japanese food, and restaurateurs who forge forward with their principles for good clean high-quality food, even though it’s not the moneymaker of the masses.

Masa taught many new diners how much different sushi can be if we just experience the flavors of the sea and hold back on the garish rainbow rolls with fried bits and sweet sauce, but he also taught more experienced sushi lovers how to appreciate rice that didn’t have the compacted life squeezed out of it and soup that was freshly made from real ingredients.  I’ve sampled his homemade pickles and herbs and we’ve chatted many times about Japanese preservation and particular kinds of special fish that he endeavored to bring to the restaurant.  I’ll miss it very much and hope someone will come to fill the niche, even if they won’t be able to fill his shoes!

Masa did mention to me that he’s thinking of occasionally — perhaps monthly — hosting sushi nights once his hand has a chance to heal a bit.  So for those of you who are fans of mackerel, firefly squid, cod milt, and all the squirmy bits have no fear.

Good luck and thanks for everything, Chef!

nose-to-tail eating in eugene

IMG_3012Surely not for the faint of heart, but a great pleasure for adventurous eaters: nose-to-tail cooking.  Popularized by British Chef Fergus Henderson, the concept asks cooks to honor the animal by consuming as much of it as possible.  This usually translates into sausages and terrines and soups, many European specialties, but there are also some wonderful options in Asian and Central American restaurants, too.  Many Americans find the idea of eating “the nasty bits,” as Anthony Bourdain calls them, revolting, but I think it’s worth our consideration as meat-eaters and ethical diners.

The duck chins, above, are Exhibit A.

IMG_3018At least with the larger mammals.  Tiny squid?  Well, it’s just pleasure to eat them whole.  Above, hotaru ika sushi at Kamitori, one of the finest preparations of squid I’ve ever eaten in my life.  Hotaru means firefly, and these little guys, about an inch or two long, bioluminesce in the dark water.  And since I’ve long suspected that squid were ruined for me after the most exquisite experience eating ika sashimi on a boat in the middle of the Sea of Japan, freshly hauled from the water, I’m so grateful.  Once again Chef Masa has filled me with unspeakable joy by serving sea creatures with respect and craft.  And no eyeballs, which were kindly removed.

Also, I was honored to join some of my students for an adventure this week at Spring Garden restaurant in Springfield, where we tried some of the more unusual items on the menu, including rabbit in a clay pot with ginger, salt-and-pepper fried chicken cartilage, stir-fried elk with onions and peppers, “saliva” chicken in a spicy sauce, and a dish that will horrify the local sportsfans among us, spicy duck chins with their little tongues a-waggin’ (top photo).  Below, you can see the English translation of the menu and the other dishes we enjoyed.

Spring Garden is a challenge, but it also has great possibilities on the Chinese menu even if you’re not into nose-to-tail cooking or exotic birds and reptiles.  You might also, if you must, order from the American menu with all the standards.  If you’re curious about the duck chins, which are of course the lower part of the duck bill, they are crunchy on the tip, and you eat the tongue, then pick at the meat at the base of the bill.  The chicken cartilage was crunchy, as expected; it was chopped into chunks and deep-fried in a batter lively with salt and Sichuan peppercorn, and decorated with chiles. Saliva chicken seemed to be steamed chicken in a spicy sauce — probably my favorite of all the dishes of the night.

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Spring Garden Chinese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

asian restaurants in eugene: a reevaluation

IMG_2947Finally, some movement on the Asian food scene in Eugene.  We’ve been waiting for years, and in the last two years or so, we’ve had some wonderful developments downtown and out in Springfield.

I say “Asian” as if it’s some unified front, and in Eugene, sometimes it is.  There’s a group of wonderfully industrious and creative Korean families who own not only the majority of the Korean restaurants in town, but the fusion noodle houses, most of the Japanese joints, and now Vietnamese pho places. (Not sure about the Thai restaurants!)

IMG_2563I love it, for example, that Bon Mi, the new bahn mi/pho place at Broadway and Pearl has a cold case with about a dozen homemade Korean kim chi takeout offerings.  Sometimes I order the spicy squid or cucumber and eat it with the best pho in town.  (The broth keeps getting better and better.)

And I’ve spoken at length about Café Arirang on E. Broadway at Ferry Street Bridge, the best Korean restaurant in town, and Noodle N Thai at 5th and Main in Springfield, the best Thai restaurant in town.

And yet.  The established restaurants make some assumptions about Eugene tastes, tastes I’ve been trying to combat for many years in my raising awareness blogging campaign:  Too sweet.  Too meat-heavy, too teriyaki. Huge portions of mediocre food.  Not spicy enough. Too Americanized. Lack of variation. All the stuff that healthy eaters and locavores and F-the-Food-System activists are also battling.  I’ve even undertaken a rather risky cross-town experiment in judging P.F. Chang’s against two popular Chinese dives.

I understand that the average Oregon palate has in the past leaned toward the sweet and meaty with lots of starch on the side, and therefore it is profitable to give the people what they want.  But offering a range of options is one way to educate the Oregonian not versed in different flavors, and perhaps more importantly from a business standpoint, to distinguish one’s restaurant from the other Asian-American places in town.

IMG_2730 IMG_2731There’s nothing wrong with the Eugene standby Toshi’s Ramen, for example, but I like it that there is new competition with decent ramen, Tokyo Ramen on 17th and Pearl, that has many more offerings and a charming interior.  (I’d like to see a gyoza battle occur so both places could improve their gyoza, but that’s just being selfish.)

I’ve noticed an influx of Chinese and Vietnamese students at the University, and there are flourishing Korean and Japanese communities in town.  And lo and behold, a growing Filipino population!  So, so, so happy that this is the case.

IMG_2981Because yes, restaurants are starting to meet the needs of these folks, and finally, the needs of those of us who aren’t of Asian heritage but really want the kind of food we eat in larger cities in the U. S. and abroad. We know how to use chopsticks, and we aren’t gastronomic rubes.  No, we may not want to eat chicken feet or duck intestines every day, but we do want to try them, and we want our food slightly sour or hot or or fermented instead of fried on the buffet, or swimming in sweet sauce.

Or if it’s a buffet and fried, serve us instead of sweet-n-sour pork the delicious lumpia and vinegar-garlic marinated milkfish I had the other day at the brand new Springfield mom-and-pop shop Maynila Filipino Cuisine on 32nd and Main.  The menu changes every day, but the pork adobo and delicious soups are there daily.  They also serve Filipino baked goods.  And fried cubes of pork belly.  (N.b.: vegetarians might struggle here.)

Let me say this again because it’s so monumental: an authentic, cheap, wonderful Filipino restaurant in the Eugene area.

So here’s my Call for Menus.  We want authentic standards that might not be considered exotic.  We want dim sum, nasi goreng, oyster pancake, saba shioyaki, and banh xeo.    We’re curious about the fish in the tank and the poultry on the roof and the herbs in the soup.

IMG_2626And we want good vegetables, too, and we’ll pay more for them.  You are welcome to scorn those of us who want a gloopy stew of cabbage, carrots, and scallion “stir-fry.”  Steamed broccoli?  No thanks.  We now grow bok choi and satsuma imo and gai lan and ginger and daikon in the southern Willamette Valley, and we would LOVE to see you cook with it.

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One of the most exciting discoveries I’ve made recently is close to home for me: good Chinese next to campus.  The special menu at Teriyaki Boy, 13th and Kincaid (next to QDoba), pictured in the first image on this page and the two above.  Teriyaki Boy is a chain, I believe, and serves sushi of average quality and a passable Chinese buffet.

But that’s not the reason to go.  The reason to go is the irrepressible spirit of someone wonderful in the kitchen, a chef who insisted on devising his own made-to-order menu.  It’s written on the hood over the buffet in back, and there are now cheat sheet menus by the register.  Here’s where you can get your offal on or sample some good Chinese comfort food, like fish bone and tofu soup, or Hainanese gingery garlicky green oniony steamed chicken on the bone.  For the less adventurous, the noodles and noodle soups are very good (the very first image is beef noodles), and I quite like the cumin beef, which lacks the ma la numbing quality of a good Sichuanese version, but I bet he’d add it if you (I) knew how to ask.  Is this the best Chinese food in the world?  No.  But it is head and shoulders above every other Chinese place I’ve tried in Eugene.  (Also worth a try is East Meets West a few doors down, if only for the dumplings. Pretty uneven quality, in my view, but I’ve had a decent dish or two for value prices.)

Oh, and Teriyaki Boy serves hot pot!  Half spicy and half not, or fully either, you can dip your meat and vegetables in a warming broth, kind of like a Chinese fondue.  Go with a group.

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Japanese, you say? (I’m always being asked where to get sushi in Eugene.) I’ve written at length about my favorite restaurant, Kamitori, one of the only Japanese-owned sushi joints in town and in my view, one of the only restaurants that could hold its own in a big city.  Chef Masa Itai trained internationally and sources his fish from the Oregon coast and Japan, among other places.  He has a keen eye and a spectacular palate.  He also doesn’t shy away from serving us unusual food.  For that I am grateful.  Above, you may recognize toro and amaebi and a snapper-family fish and Japanese anago, but the uni (sea urchin, bottom left) were the standout.  Given the size and slight roughness of the little guys, I’m positive these were hand-harvested instead of shipped from Japan in that little wooden box we’re all familiar with.  Quite frankly, I had never tasted uni like these in my life.

Chef Masa is always coming up with little surprises when you let him do his thing.  He serves beautiful standards, and adds treats when he finds them, like the giant clam nigiri below. For the next two weeks or so, he’s serving shirako, cod milt, in various forms for the adventurous.  I really enjoyed it with ponzu.  Hurry — it’s a Japanese delicacy and you won’t likely be able to get it anywhere else in Eugene, or perhaps even Oregon.

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I’m concerned about him, quite frankly, because of a chronic hand problem.  He had to stop serving sushi for lunch to rest it, but still offers sashimi and everything else for lunch, and sushi for dinner.  I had the only good katsudon (tonkatsu, pork cutlet, over rice with egg) in Eugene a couple of weeks ago at his restaurant.  He made it Japanese-style, with a raw egg that cooks over the piping hot pork cutlet just before you serve it.  If you usually like fried food, try it!

And then you’ll be an expert when Tokyo Tonkatsu, owned by the same folks who operate Tokyo Ramen, opens at Charnelton and Broadway (across from Noisette) this spring.  Here’s a note they’ve posted on their shop window:

IMG_2987Another notable sushi place in town doing creative things, but a very different animal from Kamitori, is Mame in the Whiteaker, which might appeal to those who like more creative, high-end fusion sushi for very decent prices.  I have to confess that the lima-bean interior makes me a little nauseous, but Chef Taro sources his fish carefully and is willing to play with his food.  He’s one to watch.  At a recent New Year’s Eve party at the restaurant, we had a selection of nigiri that included rare duck breast, toro with truffle, snapper with plum sauce, beef heart with sauerkraut, and monkfish liver with uni and scallion.  See?

IMG_4065I see!  So let’s see more of these types of innovative restaurants.  I’m loving every minute, and I really want to urge everyone who loves good food in Eugene to go try the new Asian offerings.  They need all of us to support them and let them know that their vision of an improved Eugene dining scene is shared by many of us.

Updated to add:  And if all that isn’t enough to convince you, I just had lunch a new Sichuan restaurant.

YES, A NEW SICHUAN RESTAURANT.  IN EUGENE.

IMG_2988Kung Fu Sichuan Bistro (an unfortunate name) is located in the same lot as Off the Waffle at 25th and Willamette, in the spot vacated by Som Tum Thai.  The owners have just moved here from Los Angeles, and the spot was packed with Chinese nationals, mostly students, when I was there.  In fact, there were only two white people in the restaurant, me and some skeezy older dude chatting up young women.  I spoke with two people about their own experiences in the week or so Kung Fu has been open, and they related similar crowds (well, maybe not the guy).  So. OMG, YES!

And the food is quite good. A bit salty, but a charge of ma la zinginess; what seemed to be real Sichuan peppers because they didn’t hold back and they weren’t as spicy as the regular Chinese red peppers; and a wide range of dishes on the menu, including hot pot in various variants, fried cumin fish, fish with a bath of chili sauce, pork with preserved vegetable, stir-fried potato threads, chicken with chilis, etc., etc., etc.  The mini dry pot with beef and peanuts and my standby dish, dry fried “Chef’s Special” green beans, are below.  You can see the full menu on Facebook.

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I cannot wait to explore this new place in its entirety.  Now, all we need is Ethiopian.