Go Away, Gastropub

I ran into a chef friend of mine at my son’s baseball game the other Sunday. I asked him what he was up to, and after a harrowing tale about his time as private cook for an online poker billionaire, he confessed he was putting wheels in motion to open a restaurant.

I asked him when, where and what. He wasn’t sure, but said he was scanning food trends for inspiration.

“Don’t do a pork belly bahn mi,” I said.

Gastropub burger with truffle fries

As serendipity would have it, I had also been discussing the possibility of opening a restaurant with a friend. A unique opportunity had arisen, and we were exploring it. Which got me to thinking about what kind of food I would serve. I would not serve a pork belly bahn mi.

I actually found myself thinking more about what I wouldn’t serve than what I would. And my main epiphany was that I would strictly avoid anything you might’ve seen on a gastropub menu — or EVERY gastropub menu — over the past half decade. What might that include? The most clichéd, overdone food trends ever:

• The aforementioned pork belly bahn mi, or anything in fact featuring pork belly (other than authentic Japanese ramen)
• Anything with sriracha — especially clever applications like srirachi aoili or sriracha ketchup leather
• Eggs where you weren’t expecting them (i.e. on a hamburger)
• Gourmet hamburgers (on brioche or pretzel rolls, with aioli, sriracha, bacon “candy”, bacon “jam”, pork belly, etc., or wagyu or sliders or classic with American cheese and iceberg)
• Fried brussel sprouts
• “House-cured” pickles. Fried “house-cured” pickles.
• Any kind of mac n’ cheese — especially lobster, bacon or truffle
• Sweet potato fries or truffle fries (your choice) served in cute little mesh metal baskets
• Tacos you would never see in Mexico (those served on Chinese steamed buns, those with Korean ingredients, those featuring black cod or pulled pork, ahi-mango combinations, etc.)
• Poké
• Roasted or fried cauliflower
• Wedge salad with bacon and blue cheese
• “House-cured” charcuterie boards (served on a wood plank with “handcrafted” mustard and “house-cured” pickles)
• Pot pies — chicken, turkey, pork belly or otherwise
• Grilled cheese sandwiches with weird cheeses

Not long after my vacation to Quebec a couple years ago, in which I catalogued fondly all the poutine I had tried, I was disheartened to see poutine suddenly proliferating on gastropub menus.

Typical gastropub in Any City, USA

When gastropubs first began appearing with the likes of Santa Monica’s vanguard Father’s Office, I was enthusiastic about the trend. It represented a vast improvement of the collective idea of a bar menu. And I’m not going to claim that I don’t enjoy a pork belly bahn mi or plate of fried brussel sprouts with my limited release double IPA. But people, really! Are there still chefs and restaurateurs out there who think they’ve struck an inspired new culinary vein in their re-interpretation of a deviled egg? Do we need another rustic tavern with gaslights and “Peasant” or “Table” in the name? Have we had enough of housemade tater tots?

No?

Okay… I’m gonna get myself a double IPA.

The bearded hipster who serves you at the gastropub

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The Japan Series — Totoro, We’re Not In Hokkaido Anymore

Actually, we knew we would be going to Russia as part of the voyage we were on. But we weren’t totally prepared for the experience.

One day we are wandering around a small northern Japanese city — tidy, orderly, polite, clean. The next, after crossing a narrow channel of water, we have exchanged slender, scampering salarymen for buff, blonde, steely blue-eyed guys in tight t-shirts, standing around smoking cigarettes, eyeing you suspiciously. We are now in Russia.

You see, just above the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido is another island, part of the same chain, but this one belongs to Russia. It used to belong to Japan, so you’ll still spot the odd Japanese-style building sticking out like a sore thumb here or there. But Russia — claiming it was their’s originally — took it back after World War II (Crimea, anyone?). More

The Japan Series — Imogen Dreams of Sushi

“Are we going to eat a lot of sushi in Japan?” my 7-year-old daughter, Imogen, asked before we left on our trip.

“You betcha,” I assured her.

“Just sushi!?” she clarified hopefully. And it was my sad duty to inform her that we would probably eat ramen and tempura and yakitori and other things as well.

Immy’s first sushi meal in Tokyo

In case you’re checking into this blog for the very first time, this is a theme that comes up with some regularity. That is, that Imogen loves sushi. She is an expensive date.

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The Japan Series — Salvation at the 7-11, Big Pig and More!

Our flight arrived in Japan around 3:30 p.m., which for us was 9:30 p.m. the previous evening. We left Los Angeles at 11 a.m., and flew 10 hours in daylight, although when we arrived in Japan it was the next day. On the flight, they served breakfast, lunch, and then breakfast again.

It was around 6:30 by the time we figured out how to take the trains into Tokyo and locate — on streets that do not have names — our Airbnb. We were hungry, although we weren’t sure if we were hungry for dinner or breakfast. I offered to go out and find some take-out while the family got settled, which suited everyone just fine.

Flynn and Willa at the Airbnb in Kanda

Tokyo, from a non-Japanese-speaking westerner’s perspective, is a bit confusing at first when it comes to food. There are many, many restaurants — our little pedestrian walking area of Kanda was chock full of them — but it is challenging to figure what many of them serve. You look into the dark restaurant, there are six seats, and bodies are hunched over plates of something. Many restaurants serve only one thing — eel, for example, which would not have gone over well with 3/5 of my family. The point being, that a jet-lagged gaijin fresh off the plane trying to find some quick, not-to-exotic takeout in a non-tourist neighborhood of Tokyo was not going to have an easy time of it. More

The Japan Series: An Ode to Ika

I always figured I could make a successful business helping the Japanese correct the English on their packaging and signage. That intuition was only reinforced on our recent trip to Japan, who’s sensational and rather wacky culinary culture I shall explore in a series of posts beginning with this one.

Squid cracker package

Helpful squid-centric Japanese observation #1: A good way to keep your kids from eating the rice crackers you brought back from Japan: Choose squid flavored. More

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