Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Surprise Me

I love variety in a meal. That's why I like assembling large groups at Asian restaurants and ordering a varied, interesting menu for the table. And that's why I like going to tapas bars, Venetian cicchetterias, and dim sum parlors, where one can compose a meal from a number of small plates. But I also appreciate the kind of variety that's the result of the chef's choice, be it a tasting menu or a daily combination special.

Japanese cuisine lends itself to variety of both the small plates and chef's choice kinds. I've written about Sugiyama, the stellar Japanese kaiseki restaurant, where the courses always follow a pattern, with the specifics varying day by day. I've written about the gender-bending ladies' set at Ise. And I've written about Ariyoshi, where I recently shared a bunch of small plates with friends.

I went to Ariyoshi for lunch today and ordered the special lunch set. For this meal you choose a main course from a list of about 15 items, and it's accompanied by the side dishes of the day. My main course was sautéed pork with Japanese eggplant. It was good, but I was even more pleased by the selection of daily dishes. There was a tako sunomono (vinegared octopus), one of my favorite Japanese cold items, three small slices of excellent salmon sashimi, a little bowl of green beans with miso and sesame seeds, a square of fresh, soft tofu, and some pickled radish. The meal also comes with salad and miso soup, all for $12. Lunch inspired me to write about the element of surprise.

At Korean restaurants the surprises come with the banchan, the array of side dishes that are served with every meal. There's always kim chee, and usually spicy daikon chunks, but after that the choices (usually a total of 6-8) vary by restaurant and/or day. You may get a few vegetables, like spinach, watercress, bean sprouts or potato salad (with mayo). Perhaps some cooked mackerel, or fish cake, dried fish jerky, dried tiny fish, or, if you're lucky, marinated spicy raw baby crabs. Maybe some cold shredded beef, or some indeterminate innards. Some restaurants serve more elaborate banchan than others, but it's always fun to see what I get, even if I only really like about half of the items most of the time.

Of course, the pot-luck party is another way to mix variety and serendipity. Rather than one person ordering for a table, rather than all diners agreeing on what to share, rather than the chef composing a menu, the variety is the result of disparate guests' choices and talents. Nothing's worse than a pot-luck event where most of the guests are culinary losers, but when someone like my friend Robert in Berkeley arranges one of his holiday pot-lucks, where most of the guests are serious foodies, not to mention engaging conversationalists, then we're really cooking.


Blogger Steph said...

I am the same way - I think I would enjoy eating with you! I love variety. Nothing makes me more happy than a lot of little plates. I love the banchan, and the lazy susan asian food thing. There is nothing better than sharing a lot of tastes with a group of friends.

7:49 PM  

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