Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Osaka Sushi Grill

38 Gravois Station
House Springs, Mo.
On The Web

We heard about this place on social media, on a Jefferson County Missouri general information feed.
The question asked by the moderator was "Favorite place to get Crab Rangoon from?"
(Struggling to avoid smugly calling out the stranded preposition)
The discussion was lively, as it always is on such hot topics of personal preference. There seemed to be several passionate, probably alcohol fueled opinions. One place came up a few times, one we'd not heard of. Angel looked up the menu and showed it to me. "It looks different." she angrily and resolutely sighed. (actually I can never seem to guess Angel's emotions accurately, she may in fact have been pleased.)
We resolved to got there at the first opportunity.
Recall that recently I have been whining about getting tired of Chinese places, the food was all starting to taste alike, and it seemed muddy and almost off-putting. But this place by name and menu was definitively not just another Chinese themed restaurant, it was Japanese and yes there is a difference.
One word on the menu caught my eye and launched a flood of ancient memories.
Gyoza. (ギョーザ, ギョウザ)
I can recall it now, like it was just yesterday. . .
Back in the 80's I was stationed at Misawa Air Base on the northern tip of the largest (Honshu) of that country's many islands. For three years.
That's a long time to be anywhere, so yeah, I explored a little, tried a few things more than the average tourist. Admittedly and regrettably I didn't take full opportunity of the time I spent there. I explored tried and tasted far less than I could have.
Occasionally one of my bosses, Harry, would head off base before lunchtime and bring back a party platter of gyoza. These are basically pot stickers like you find in other Asian cuisine, but with two notable differences, more on this later.
I tried other local foods while I was there, of course. I could never acquire a tasted for two things though, sticky rice used for sushi and any form of raw fish. I tried, in Japan, but sorry, no.
I also tried sake in an unofficial and rather unceremonious ceremony called a sake circle. Basically a bunch of the local fellows that worked for NEC, the national phone company, and who we GI's worked closely with, being a communications squadron and all. The sake was heated in a battered electric aluminum percolator until it was the temperature of hot tea. Sake is terrible, unless you drink it this way, then it slides down your throat like butter. About three shots in, you're lucky if you can stand up again. I was seldom lucky.
Good times. . .  But I digress.
The Place:
House Springs is in the north central part of Jefferson County, the bulk of it sits along Highway 30 (Gravois Road in St. Louis) It was one of the earlier settlements in the county, named after one of those early pioneers, Adam House. Mr. House was notably slaughtered by indigenous Americans  of the Osage tribe along a creek, House's Springs, in 1800.
We don''t get there often as the connections over to 30 from our house are scary curvy and narrow. We took the scenic and scary curvy route this time, Hillsboro - House Springs road because. . . well it's pretty obvious isn't it?
We found it easily enough, it's not a huge place and there are only a few shopping centers. Greater House Springs boast about 14,000 people, but that covers a lot of unincorporated, rural land around it.
"Osaka" (large hill or slope) is part of Japan's second largest metropolitan area, about 250 miles east of Tokyo, also on Honshu.
Walking in, we were pleased, it was quite modern and tidy, very much in the tradition and style of the
Japanese. Dark green textured wallpaper, thick lacquered wood table tops, dark ceramic tiles. Traditional Japanese three string shamisen music played lightly in the background. As is traditional with sushi places, the prep area was brightly lit and fully visible to the diners. Sushi making is a very high precision art steeped as much in tradition as cuisine. A good sushi chef prides himself on his skills and is confident putting those skills on display.
There were only a couple of other people there at the time, making the whole experience seem more intimate and personal.
Shortly, a cheerful and welcoming young lady stopped at our table and asked about drinks. We kept it simple, tea, Angel sweet, me, not sweet.
The menus looked familiar, we'd read through it on line.
The Food:
Angel had been interested in the bento boxes. Bento, roughly translated 'convenience', is a traditional, single portion meal containing a few different, segregated foods served most often in compartmentalized box-plates, similar, but of much better quality than American TV dinners. In Japan this is a popular way to lunch, either made at home, or picked up or delivered from a restaurant. I had a yen for some yakisoba, which along with, another Japanese dish, yakimeshi, I had acquired a taste for in Japan. Chinese restaurants serve very similar dishes. Yaki means grilled, or fried. Meshi is a word for rice. Soba is literally 'buckwheat', but informally, noodles. So yakisoba = fried noodles, yakimeshi = fried rice. Some Chinese places come close to that which I recall, but it has been so long now, I don't know if I can recall the actual taste anymore, just that I could eat a lot of either.
However, indecision got the better of me. They had a combo platter, the bento box. They came with steamed rice, but for $1 U.S. or roughly 115 Yen more, you could get fried rice. It also included two Rangoons, three small California rolls and two gyoza.
Kazumi talked Angel into an appetizer. Sushi is a specialty of the place, they are terribly proud of them. They offered a diverse selection. Kazumi pushed a couple, not an aggressive upsell, more like a friend trying to get another friend to share a new experience. We’d already explained to her that I would not be sharing the experience since the thing I don’t care for in sushi is essentially what makes a thing sushi in the first place, the sticky rice. I apologized for my inadequacy and coaxed Angel to go ahead and try one anyhow.
She settled for the Spider.
“Is that made with real spiders?" I asked. Which wasn’t really that stupid of a question, since the Japanese commonly refer to crabs as spiders. So the answer was not a resounding “no”.
We went ahead and ordered our bento boxes as well, both of us chose chicken, Angel the Osaka (sesame) style, myself the Katsu style. When we asked Kazumi what that was, she explained that it was a little like steak sauce, or maybe barbecue sauce. I struggled to try to imagine something that tasted a little like ‘A1’ and a little like ‘Sweet Baby Ray’s’.
The Sushi arrived and it was beautiful, a true work of art. Precise, clean, minimalist. It was drizzled with a dark, smoky reduction, just a little. Sticking out on two slices were crispy tempura crab bites. I was tempted, but I just couldn’t get past that sticky rice. Angel was delighted though. She immediately tried to force some on me. I resisted at first until I remembered why I was there in the first place, as a service to you, my devoted fans. So I swallowed my pride. I took a bite that would be mostly crab and boy howdy, it was phenomenal. I pretty much let the rest of lie. Sorry, I just can’t handle sticky rice. I could tell by the not-rice parts though that this was expertly prepared.
Angel had most of the rest of it, savoring every bite. “Easily the best sushi I’ve had.”
Kazumi stopped by to refill our teas, answering questions and getting the jokes. Her accent was quite pronounced, but we understood each other just fine.
The boxes came soon. Neat, tidy, minimalist, precise. I was impressed by what I saw. The two chicken dishes were not made the same way. Angel’s looked like what you might get at a Chinese place, mine looked more like thin strips with a different, coarser, lighter breading. Also quite noticeable, sauces had been drizzled on the chicken, unlike Chinese places that completely flood the dish.  This was simply brilliant. When I tried my first piece I could taste the chicken the breading and a little of the savory sauce, individually, distinctly. Rather than the one-note General Tso at the buffet, this was a melody of flavors and texture. Angel’s sweeter sauce was also just barely spooned on, giving it that same breadth of flavor and texture.
The Rangoons were as good as they get, crispy, creamy, slightly sweet. The gyoza was the stuff of my
dreams. There was something here that seemed familiar, yet absent from my life for many years. We worked together to figure out what made these ‘pot stickers’  a little better, a little lighter than those at the buffets. Angel finally nailed it. “The wrap is thinner.” She declared. Also, the innards were better as well, just a different recipe, a bit more garlic for an earthier, less artificial flavor. We’d both opted for the fried rice, which is one of the only two ways I will eat rice; fried or Krispie. It too was less burdened with lots of extra stuff. There was a slight sprinkling of veggies and meat, but once again, neat, tidy, clean and precise.
It should be no surprise that I didn’t try the California rolls in my bento box. That was okay, the chicken, the gyoza and the Rangoons were plenty filling. Angel agreed, even though it had appeared rather Spartan when delivered, it turned out instead to be more than enough food.
Clean and precise, the food, the place and the staff. The tastes were so much cleaner and fresher than at most Chinese places. The price, thirty four and change before the generous tip. Was it that different and that much better? You bectcha.
Perhaps I'm a bit biased, what with having lived in Japan for three years, I accept that. We simply loved it, we could hardly stop talking about it.
Kazumi (I hope I'm spelling her name correctly) was a delight. Bright, charming, funny, helpful and professional.
I have no bad words. None. We will be back.

* The lacquered wood horses in the top photo are not from the restaurant. They are tokens of the region where I was stationed. They were called Hachinohe  or Tohoku horses, for the region and nearest city. We uncouth, uncultured GI's often called them Misawa Mules. Not unlike Kentucky, where I was whelped, That region of northern Honshu was historically famous for the quality of their horses. These brightly painted icons from my own collection are a celebration of that history. 

And here, the prettiest darn national anthem on the planet.
*Kimigayo - National Anthem of Japan

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Texas Roadhouse

806 Arnold Commons Drive
Arnold, MO
On the Web
On Facebook

I used to be a Texan. Seriously, legally and residentially, a Texan. For my entire military career of nine years, for tax purposes especially. Texas has no state income tax you see, so it was just practical. I was seventeen when I enlisted and my first two bases were San Antonio for Basic Training, then Wichita Falls for technical training and three more years thereafter for my first tour of duty. I bought my first car there, got married, rented my first apartments and my oldest son and only daughter were born there. So I was indeed, a legitimate Texan.
Though I never fully assimilated into the stereotypical lifestyle. The rowdiness and line dancing, the big hats, the brawling, spitting, truck driving, man’s man. I didn’t even care for the Dallas Cowboys or beer.
So a place called ‘Texas Roadhouse’ hardly had automatic appeal. But then again, there is virtually nothing about the chain of steakhouses that hails from the Lone Star state. The chain got its beginnings, as did I, in Kentucky and is still headquartered in Louisville ( Lew-uh-vul ). There are currently over 450 locations, including several overseas.
We’ve been trying to go there for several years. Each and every time though, the lines wrapping around the place scared us off. We don’t like lines. Not so much because of the wait as for the people. Too many random, unoccupied people loitering around impatiently gives off a certain uncomfortable energy that repels us. Though the lines did seem to indicate that it was a very popular choice.
The stars aligned this past weekend though. We had no other ideas and it was Superb Owl weekend. Our thinking was that people who watch that silly game tend to do so around parties in someone’s home. Big food spread, lots of beer, etc.
Adam agreed to join us. In case we misjudged the crowd, Angel suggested making sure our personal communication devices were fully charged to better deal with the possible long wait. She even swapped shifts with her assistant to provide coverage for the client dogs for an extended period, should it be required. We were finally going to do this.
The Place:
As it turned out, we had predicted correctly. The parking lot seemed lightly used compared to other times we’d tried. There was no line out the door. Adam was already there so we parked beside him and went in. At the entry we were assaulted by a blast of country music from overhead. Some generic, male country singer whining about some drunken transgression or another, perhaps my least favorite form of the genre.
At the counter there were several of the crew milling about, it was hard to pick one person out of the crowd to assist us in navigation. The music was still loud, which caused the more than half packed building to try to talk over it and each other. The walls were wood paneled and adorned with lots of stuff, neon lights, the antlered heads of several large animals, etc. On one wall, near where we were seated, was a large mural of an indigenous American all spiffed up and painted for battle. Adam sat directly beneath a large antlered head, we sat across from him, facing a six thousand inch, muted television that was showing the pre-game shows for the silly sports spectacle. Near us there were a couple of larger groupings, extended families perhaps. One group, the larger of them, had a couple of uncooperative preschoolers that needed to be yelled at frequently. This caused the tikes to shriek back in their own defense.
I noticed the floor was pretty much painted concrete and littered throughout with crushed peanut shells. Which surprised me since I thought I recalled some restaurant or another suffering severe liability issues of letting customers spread the shells all over the floor. The Roadhouse offers up a bucket of shelled peanuts on every table. The things are messy, I know, since I’m quite fond of the roasted beans myself and have been known to leave a mess with the shells.

The Food:
We also received a basket of yeasty rolls to nibble on while we perused the menu. We wanted steak, after all it is a steakhouse and Angel had seen some ads for steak and lobster, which sounded lovely to me too.
But of course, that was simply not on the menu. Apparently it was a limited time thing. So when the time came Angel and I went with steak and shrimp instead. Six ounce sirloin, medium rare. Adam, who occasionally has steak, decided instead on the country style option, beaten, battered, pan-fried, covered in gravy. For sides, Angel opted for a baked potato and Caesar salad, I for the potato and corn. Adam asked, clearly, for mashed potatoes and corn. The gentleman scribbled down our orders and scurried away. The sticky kids at the nearby group table shrieked again, one started running around the table. My eyes could not avoid occasionally looking up at the giant screen, though with no sound, the antics of the sports guys were unclear and uninteresting. The rolls and my iced tea were quite good though, not so much the cinnamon-butter delivered with them, it just seemed odd.
The place seemed hectic, the crew was running around all over the place, I somewhat expected a long wait. It turned out to not be so bad after all. Pretty soon the two Caesar salads showed up. . .  .
Yeah, two of them. The lady insisted that there were two for our table, though Adam and I both recalled not ordering one. She left it on the table anyhow. Adam took it with a shrug of the shoulders. In a moment or two our first server stopped by. We told him about the salad, thinking that someone wasn’t going to get the side they’d really ordered. He said something about maybe it being a mix-up in the kitchen then darted off. When he returned he told us, in sort of a victorious fashion, that yes indeed the kitchen had made a mistake, as if we really cared much who had bungled the order. We told him we just wanted to make sure that we’d actually get the sides we’d asked for.
I tasted the salad, it was okay, not as subtle as some Caesar’s I’ve had, but not bad.
The nearby table erupted again, this time the adults shrieking at the kids.
The meals arrived in pretty good time after that, the steaks and shrimp still sizzling. Our server kept
trying to hand Angel the chicken fried steak, even after several voices of protest, which the server tended to talk over. Finally he got it right and I started disassembling my potato. Once cubed and smashed with the butter and sour cream, I cut into the steak. The done-ness was perfect. The aroma, intoxicating. The meat was very, very tender, almost buttery. The server had asked if I wanted steak sauce, I answered that question the way I always do: “Not if you did it right.” He smiled and agreed.
Here’s the thing about steak. You don’t need to be a master chef with intense knowledge of spices, herbs and other ingredients when it comes to steak. All you need for a perfect steak is the right amount of heat and to know when to stop cooking it. Add a pinch of salt and pepper and that’s it, perfection. The same can be said about grilled shrimp. A little butter and or lemon/garlic and once you get the heat and done-ness right, you’re done. There is simply no need to do anything else, at all.
Mostly because of the Malliard reaction.
Caution! Researched scientific information!
Louis-Camille Malliard was a French chemist who, in 1912, first released results of an exhaustive, yet delicious investigation into the browning of heated foods. When heat is applied to certain foods, a form of non-enzymatic browning takes place that occurs when the changes in amino acid structure reacts with a carbonyl group of sugars within that food item. Similar in many characteristics, though different at the chemical layer, from caramelization of sugar.
I don’t understand most of that either, but the bottom line is that applying heat to food actually changes not just the texture, but the taste of that food. Toast, for example, which is what I was researching when I came across this science stuff, does not taste like un-toasted bread. Not only a satisfying browning and crispy texture change, but a core taste change.
This applies to steak as well. Even though the inner part of a steak doesn’t change much, we are essentially wrapping it in a crunchy, well-tanned, maybe even scorched outer layer. That’s why it smells and tastes so good.
It is tempting to try to improve upon this, to put one’s personal stamp and flavor profile on steaks. We do this quite commonly with barbecued meats, sauces and rubs. However, steak just doesn’t need it. The same with shrimp/lobster. You don’t need to improve on its most basic and perfect taste.
But alas, Texas Roadhouse could not leave well enough alone. The shrimp didn’t really taste like shrimp, it was crowded out by whatever herbs and spices the joint dunked it in. The steak, cooked perfectly, tasted like it was savagely rubbed down with unnecessary flavor additives. It wasn’t awful, just completely unnecessary. Adam’s CFS had the exact same problem, too much superfluous seasoning.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a terrible meal, just a little less than it should be, a little less than it very easily could have been. After exiting, Angel added that next time she wanted a steak, we should just go back to the tried and true Ruby Tuesday’s in Festus. Or a dozen other places where the meat is better respected. The price, just over fifty bucks was fine, but no better than other places.
Adam summed it up very well later. "Went to the ol' Texas Roadhouse for dinner with the folks. Although I was feeling unimpressed with most of it as a whole, it was the Gather 'Round the Wait Staff and Get Everyone to Cheer for a Birthday that really sold me on never wanting to go there again."
The music, the noise, the stack of small service errors, just didn’t add up to expectations. I understand that some people and families like busy, active, even loud meals together, but that just isn’t us.
The nail on the head was that noisy table with the small kids. It turned out that this was the little girl’s sixth birthday meal. The staff pulled in a saddle mounted to a short saw horse, shoved the little girl on it, then gathered together and started clapping and chanting and cheering like it was a pep rally before a high school sporting event. This really snapped our tightly coiled, introverted brain springs.
Like I said, a lot of people seem to enjoy this level of raucousness, but it is just not for us.
We will not be standing in line for this in the future, there’s just no need.

Texas Roadhouse Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato