Ask a chef to freely cook for you and his or her face lights up like a Roman candle. We love that, and so we're giving the city's most talented toques complete artistic freedom to experiment on someone who's willing to try anything. And we mean anything. Enter food adventurer Mary Kong. We're sending her, her camera and her taste buds out and putting her wholly into the chefs' hands. They've promised to give her their most under-ordered, dramatic or just plain weird eats, and she says? Try me.
By Mary Kong
In the treehouse above H Street made of Manga dreams, Chef Erik Bruner-Yang churns out monstrous bowls of ramen with more flavor than Marc Anthony's vocal cords. Toki Underground is Bruner-Yang's playground, and you can watch where he creates Taiwanese/Japanese fare with a large palette of colors, textures and flavors.
"Today we have pork cheeks, chicken necks, chicken hearts, and chicken liver. The chicken butts aren't the best, so I won't serve that today," he says. Too bad, I thought. There's nothing better than a fine piece of ass.
Forgoing the very tempting menu of dumplings, ramen and cocktails, I sit eagerly at the four-seat chef's table. With the quiet concentration of an artist, he begins to create.
I start with a teaser of tofu aged in-house for four and a half months. Normally reserved for visiting chefs and people in the know, the aged tofu feels like cream cheese, and tastes like blue cheese. It was the perfect start for what was to come.
Next, a plate of dark, rich chicken livers which taste like warm, earthy chocolate. "I try to be as relaxed and honest with my cooking as possible," Bruner-Yang says, "I cook from the heart." Befitting as skewers of chicken hearts sit on top like meaty olives.
The fun keeps rolling, in the form of fried shrimp heads. In a bowl of Japanese chili oil and tare, these noggins curl their long, Dali-esque mustaches around the rim, threatening to escape. They are sweet, ultra-crunchy and fiery.
Finally, the ramen which made Bruner-Yang famous. Like a Jackson Pollock painting, a steamy, aromatic bowl of curry chicken ramen is a kaleidoscope of noodles, soup, smoky chicken necks, Phoenix red fried chicken and a sous vide egg that is smoother than silk. Chinese mustard greens punctuate the deep layers of flavor and kamikaze attacks of ginger hide under a veil of bobbing sesame seeds. It is warm, sweet and savory, like carefree childhood days spent in my mother's kitchen -- without all the chores. Yep, I'm glad I tried that.