What better way to round out a hectic week then with happy post about my many adventures over the past week. I kicked off my whirlwind schedule with the Washingtonian Best of Party last week, and started out the weekend with a super-fun chef throw down hosted by Cadillac, and ended the weekend with this little gem of an experience at good old Toki Underground.
Back in March, I waxed poetic about new kid on the block Toki Underground. No, not as in the hit 80’s boy band, although I think the addition of a little multicultural variety to that group would have been a nice. and that would have been hands-down the coolest name of any of the guys in the group. What was your name…Jordan? Oh please…meet TOKI! Yeah, now THAT has a nice ring to it, but I digress.
No, Toki Underground is a hip little new restaurant that opened up in the heart of the burgeoning H Street Corridor right here in our own backyard in DC. For those who have never been, or who do not know the city so well, this area is an up-and-comer. It sort of reminds me of what Alphabet City looked like when I first moved to NYC, full of small mom-and-pop stores, smarmy bodegas, bars and restaurants filled to the brim with character. I loved every minute of living in that sort of no boundaries environment where almost any idea could fly with enough imagination. Nowadays (shiver) when returning to that area, it is smattered with sleek high rises and polished restaurants. I guess gone are the days of the good old dive bar and restaurants created out of good old fashioned passion and elbow grease.
H Street is a little off of the beaten path, but a stones throw from the hustle and bustle of the workaday district. Just over the bridge, a long stretch of road lined with the beginnings of trolley tracks, that have yet to be put in motion, leads the way to a bevy of restaurants with the greatest of personalities. There is a distinct, artsy, hipster feel to this area, teetering on the extreme verge of becoming the next “it” place for young restaurant owners to build their dreams. Cozy spaces and lower rents drive an appeal for now, but mark my words, this place will hit its stride sooner than later and feel the boom of popularity. Current shop owners will regale in the stories of what a steal they got for their space back before it took its foothold. DC is starting to open its eyes and embrace the foodie scene more and more, and I can’t see this sliver of the city passing them by.
Toki Underground is perched in the most ideal of locations, atop favorite local bar, The Pug, and adjacent to one of the cities most renowned eating institutions, Granville Moore’s, known about town for decades to serve up the most irresistible steamed mussels in the District.
This visit was a special one for me for three reasons. First, it was my very first time visiting the restaurant. I have tried MANY times to get here to try the food, but each time my plan waylaid somehow, so I was so thrilled to finally be trying the dishes that have been getting rave reviews all over town. Second, I was very excited to accompany my friend Alexis Thornlow, whose boyfriend, Chef Erik Bruner-Yang, conceptualized the restaurant and made it a reality, along with his gang of friends, equally as devoted to the success of this place. I am really happy for them both that they are seeing such success come out of a dream that they both worked very hard on. Alexis, a talented and visionary graphic artist, is the brains behind the logos and many of the unique aesthetic touches found about the interior, as well as the website, menu and business cards. Third, I heard through the rumor mill that Toki Underground was slated for a featured spot on The Cooking Channel’s wildly popular show, Unique Eats. Alexis was kind enough to have me join her, her friends and family for my very first run at testing out the goods.
When I arrived, a very anxious Alexis was standing out front, biting on nails and waiting patiently for the events to unfold, no doubt wishing the best for the guys inside. Now 4:30pm, the network had been taping for hours, having arrived to the location at 8:00am. Chef Yang came down for a breather and to greet his cheering section. It was neat to see everyone interacting. You could tell that there were a lot of close bonds of friendship and that this dream was becoming a reality for a lot of people standing on that small strip of concrete sidewalk outside of the store-front. The energy was palpable.
As the scheduled 5:00pm opening of the doors grew closer, the crowd grew bigger and a line began to trickle down the sidewalk about ten paces. Around 5:30pm, the doors opened up and the Cooking Channel’s film crew stepped out into the sunny exterior to scan the scene and take a few interviews from the anticipatory crowd. This ended up being a great experience for me, as I happily volunteered to say a few words for the show about all that I had heard and all of the dishes that I so carefully planned to devour. (Can you say eyes bigger than stomach?)
So, first on-screen media experience down, and ready to eat, we embarked up the stairs, walls artfully adorned with carefully crafted graffiti, and emerged into the belly of the restaurant. It is a small restaurant most definitely, but it has a very street-eats feel to it and plenty to look at. Back to NYC for a minute, but it made me think of the pizza places that line the streets of the Big Apple, like my very favorite Joe’s Pizza in the West Village. They may be small, but they crank out the absolute best slice of pie that you will get anywhere. Same feeling popped up here, only this place did it a little better.
Instead of autographed pictures of celebrities and dingy old subway murals that are the trademark of the pizza establishments, this asian-flared counterpart was a veritable feast for the eyes. Small enclosures held miniature figurines and kitschy artwork was scattered about the walls making me feel like an infant that had discovered my hands for the first time, eyes darting from place to place, mesmerized by my surroundings. There was a lot to take in.
Although there were a few tables in the mix in the main seating area off of the bar, most of the seating was lined along the walls bar-style, equipped with casual stools. There was also a seating area directly in front of the kitchen, allowing curious guests to watch the chefs in action.
And, while this event happened to take place in the day time, I am told that this little hot spot comes alive at night, with dimly lit ambiance, some nice beats, and what better for those marauding drinkers from neighboring bars, but the restaurant stays open late night, feeding the hungry all the way through to the closing time of their night on the town.
The staff all seemed to get along like siblings, making it a very comfortable and relaxed environment to spend time in. I came to learn that it was this group of long-time friends that came together to create the menu and get the eatery off of its feet, so seeing the comradere all made sense. It definitely gives you that feeling of rooting for the underdog, and as if you’d like to give them each a pat on the back for making all of this happen and executing it so well.
When it came time to order, I was prepared. I had reviewed the menu many times, and gotten all of the suggestions I needed in order to know specifically what I wanted to try. Decision made. It was steamed beef dumplings and curry ramen for me.
It was a little hectic getting adjusted to all of the cameras and crew floating around this space as we waited for our impending meal. I will admit, I am not great with chopsticks, so I am sure that there are several embarrassing moments caught on film of me fumbling and dropping my dumplings. No matter though, because the food was still yum when it hit my mouth.
Shortly after ordering, the first course arrived and it was presented so beautifully that I almost didn’t want to eat it! I am a HUUUUGE dumpling fan, and I absolutely could NOT wait to jump in and try these out. The best part is knowing that these particular dumplings were inspired by Chef Yang’s family, born from time spent in the kitchen with his mother, grandmother, and grandfather, learning the art of sculpting the perfect little pouch of goodness. That sort of thought just warms my heart a little before even taking a bite.
Each dumpling was lovingly filled with fresh cut ginger, scallions, napa cabbage and a secret house-spice mixture (whatever it was tasted dynamite), and drizzled with the proprietary Toki tare sauce, which was a sort of soy tasting, tangy blend. I am not going to lie, but I could have sat there and ate about two dozen of these things. Perhaps try one of every variety. THEY. WERE. SO. GOOD!!! They had just the right blend of tang, fresh bite of scallion, and that crisp snap of ginger, all melding together with the tender beef to create a taste explosion. If I were Rachele Zoe, here is where I would enter my “I die” catch phrase. So, needless to say I highly recommend trying these if and when you visit. I prefer my dumplings of the steamed variety, but they also prepare them to your liking in a pan-fried and deep-fried version. In a word, YUM.
After eating my dumplings at lightening fast speed, I politely asked the server/bartender to space out my next feeding, as I needed to take in what I had just experienced. He so kindly obliged. After a little time on the sidelines, my ramen arrived. I opted for the curry ramen, as I had heard it was the most celebrated, packed full of flavor, and, let’s face it, I was pretty much sold the minute I spotted the addition of tender bits of fried chicken to the ingredients.
In it’s entirety, the dish included curry infused Tonkotsu noodle soup with five-spice fried chicken, seasonal vegetables, 1/2 boiled egg, red pickled ginger, sesame scallions, and nori.
So before I tell you what I thought, here is a little backgrounder on the ingredients, as some of them are not exactly mainstream, and so that you can say you learned a little something extra today.
Tonkotsu ( “pork bone”; not to be confused with tonkatsu) ramen usually has a cloudy white colored broth. It is similar to the Chinese baitang and has a thick broth made from boiling pork bones, fat, and collagen over high heat for many hours, which suffuses the broth with a hearty pork flavor and a creamy consistency that rivals milk or melted butter or gravy (depending on the shop). Most shops, but not all, blend this pork broth with a small amount of chicken and vegetable stock and/or soy sauce. The noodles are thin and straight, and it is often served with beni shoga (pickled ginger).
Nori is the Japanese name for various edible seaweed species of the red alga Porphyra including most notably P. yezoensis and P. tenera, sometimes called laver. Finished products are made by a shredding and rack-drying process that resembles papermaking. Originally, the term nori was more generic and referred to various kinds of seaweeds including hijiki. One of the oldest descriptions of nori is dated back to around the 8th century. In the Taih? Code enacted in 701, nori was already included in the form of taxation. In Utsubo Monogatari, written around 987, nori was recognized as a common food. The original nori was formed as a paste, and the nori sheet was invented in Asakusa, Edo (contemporary Tokyo), in the Edo period through the method of Japanese paper-making.
Five Spice is a mixture based on the Chinese philosophy of balancing the yin and yang in food. There are many variants. The most common is bajiao (star anise), cloves, cinnamon, huajiao (Sichuan pepper) and ground fennel seeds. Instead of true cinnamon, “Chinese cinnamon” (also known as rougui, the ground bark of the cassia tree, a close relative of true cinnamon which is often sold as cinnamon), may be used. The spices need not be used in equal quantities. Another variant is tunghing or “Chinese cinnamon”, powdered cassia buds, powdered star anise and anise seed, ginger root, and ground cloves.
Ok, now that everyone is up to speed on the players in this dish, back to Toki’s take on Ramen. I was really blown away by this dish because there was so much going on in the way of flavor. Before diving in, I took pause to break the yolk on my half-boiled egg and and toss it about to meld it together with the noodles. I think my first bite lasted about five minutes. My mind was darting back and forth, trying to identify the flavors and textures. Yes, this was more than just food, this felt like an experience. I am usually not too crazy about runny yolks on eggs, though I have to say I am becoming more and more a fan of them, but this was SUCH a wonderful addition to the dish. It really brought the flavors together cohesively and gave the broth a little thickness or “meat.” I couldn’t get over how that one small ingredient made such an impact, but I think what I was really tasting was each ingredient playing and interacting with each other in perfect balance.
The fried chicken was just perfection. I mentioned to Alexis that I could have very well taken about double the amount, and she pointed out that this was precisely why it is not on the menu as a side item. Apparently, everyone wants more of it, but they don’t offer it in order to stay true to the unique flavor of the dish and not overpower it with this five-spice encrusted goodness. I could see the point. I could also see why people would want more of it. It was just ever-so-lightly breaded and just the right amount of spice was added to give it a tasty flavor without totally overpowering the rest of the ingredients. Not an easy feat considering how potent the flavors within five spice can potentially be, so this was done just right. The chicken was completely tender and juicy, but had just enough crunchy substance to stand up against the broth.
I also opted for the additional lobster ball (pictured above) and extra noodles in my ramen. At first I was jarred when I heard the kitchen erupt, bellowing out “KAE-DAMAAAAAAAAAAAAA.” I wasn’t sure what the ruckus was, but was told that it is a tradition that the friends came up with to exuberantly announce each extra order placed for their hand crafted ramen noodles. If you go, it is definitely worth it to ask for the extra noodles. They are carefully made by hand, are as fresh as can be, and are the most melt-in-your-mouth, pillowy soft treats. Believe me, you won’t regret it. The lobster ball that accompanied was also a treat. A sort of appetizer-esque side order that was added as a special to the menu that day. It had a wonderful flavor and was drizzled with a delicious sauce that I suspect was the Toki tare. All together, a hearty and satisfying meal.
I finally reached my limit and had to call it quits, so I was able to take the rest of my ramen bowl home with me to enjoy the following day. I will tell you, these bowls are HUGE and the servings are borderline unbelievable for what you pay. The ramen costs only $10 a bowl, a steal for all of those fresh ingredients, and a half dozen dumplings adds up to only $5.oo for a half dozen. WHAT?! I know, crazy right? They also have a full bar, serving both beer and liquor. I also recommend trying the Calpico, which is a light and refreshing, yogurt-based, non-carbonated drink with a hint of fresh citrus. It is a perfect accompaniment to the flavorful food.
Before heading out, we were treated to one final tasty treat of warm, buttery cookies sprinkled ever so lightly with sugar. They were nothing short of amazing, and are served with ice cold milk, making you feel pleasantly like a little kid again, eating Mom’s hand made desserts. These were not Mom made though, rather cooked with love by pastry chef Heather Wade-Benderly. My compliments to the baker, as I generally am not so keen on dessert, but I could have devoured about a plate of these. These cookies had a nice exterior crunch to them, but having been warmed in the oven to perfection, the center was soft and a bit chewy; just enough to melt deliciously in your mouth. Anyone who needs baked goods for an event, or anyone who wants to sign on for some great Christmas cookies to pass off as their own, should most definitely look into contacting her over at Bakette.
So, belly full and food coma setting in, I picked back up with our Cooking Network friends for a quick wrap up on my experience. It was thrilling to be on camera, and nerve wracking at the same time. I just hope I didn’t manage to make myself look to foolish, and that I was able to express how much I enjoyed my experience here with clarity.
So, all said and done, Toki is definitely worth a try, especially if you have yet to dive into a fresh bowl of ramen. There is nothing that compares to the fresh version. I also expect to see big things to come for Chef Yang, as he develops his style and expands his creative mind to bring us many more wonderful things in the culinary capacity in years to come. So now I bid him luck in the words of my own cultural heritage…Slainte!