Dong-A Style

“Unlike almost every other food culture, the Koreans seem to have f****ed up their food the least.” – Anthony Bourdain

Who's that handsome guy?

Who’s that handsome guy?

Well said, Tony. It’s true. It would seem that nothing is sacred in the world of food once it hits our shores. Our so-called “Chinese” cuisine has birthed things as perverse as egg rolls and fortune cookies. Tim Ferris (another of my spirit animals) points out in The 4 Hour Chef that chains in China have had big success selling “California beef noodles.” You know the Japanese were probably scratching their heads at “California rolls.” We’ve even managed to Americanize something as humble as traditional Mexican food. Was the world really made a better place by the invention of the chimichanga?

Crouching Kimchi, Hidden Rice

Crouching Kimchi, Hidden Rice

Korean food is served in America without alteration. They have not dumbed down their complex, spicy flavor profiles for our vulgar palates. Kimchi, their famous fermented cabbage? Sure. Drink-able sweet potato? Why not. Beef intestine stew? It’s all there. If you’ve eaten Korean food in this country, it’s very likely you would find the same things in any Korean home. And if you haven’t ever eaten it, you’re about to find out that living near an air force base has its perks.

Meet Anastasia: Native of Seoul, good friend, and hairdresser extraordinaire.

I’m lucky to know Anastasia, and especially lucky that she knows her way around Korean food. As luck would have it, Tinker Air Force Base and its surrounding hamlets (Midwest City, Del City, Moore) which straddle Oklahoma city are a hotbed of Korean cuisine. Anastasia’s favorite place (and now mine) is Dong-A in Moore, a short journey down I-35 from Oklahoma City. The restaurant is located in a strip-center next to an other-worldly Korean grocery store which carries colorful, indecipherable packages of things like squid jerky and cylindrical rice dumplings. The whole things smacks of the kind of authenticity you’d expect from a side-street in Seoul.

Spicy Kimchi Stew

Spicy Kimchi Stew

Together with our friends Louden and Igor, we trekked South for an enormous, unforgettable meal. Anastasia conversed with the restaurant’s Korean owners and got us a seat in the barbecue room. Cordoned off from the larger dining room, this chamber of secrets is like having your own private kitchen for the evening. Each table has a built in grill which allows you to––you guessed it––cook your own food. And by food (and this is the best part), I mean meat.

A meal for 4???

A meal for 4???

We had only a small sampling of what the menu has to offer, but the three meat dishes alone probably could have fed the whole Romney family, sister-wives included. Before our beef-stravaganza we had pork belly, the fatty king of all the meats. Brought to the table raw and seared on our personal grill with garlic and a menagerie of side-dishes, the sweet meat allowed us to taste the whole spectrum of Korean flavors. You could try the meat on its own, or add a little bite of spicy vinegar lettuce. Or maybe you’d prefer kimchi, bean sprouts, or a little dip into sesame oil and chili paste. The whole idea is to mix and match and try new combinations, all of which are add new strong flavors and textures.

Pork

Step 1

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Step 2

Following on the heels of the pork was Bulgogi, Korea’s quintessential marinated beef. Sweet and rich like teriyaki, the beef was nicely complimented by the salty sesame and the tang of kimchi.

Bulgogi. A little rare for my taste.

Bulgogi. A little rare for my taste.

Finally there was Galbi: one beef to rule them all. These are the short ribs, bone in, which allow you to gleefully tear at the meat with your hands (that is, if you enjoy eating like a savage as much as I do). Marinated in soy before we grilled it, this was definitely the meat with the most flavor, even if eating it required a little more fortitude.

She's a beef stylist too.

Watch out, she uses scissors for more than styling your hair.

To say Korean food is “different” is a massive understatement. I mean, where else do you get to use scissors as a utensil? It is indeed un-f***ed up, offering meat dangling with tasty fat and fermented vegetables pungent and spicy enough to make your hair stand on end. This is not food for wimps. But it is a seriously distinct cuisine, like Vietnamese or Indian, which developed its own way of using ingredients and spices. Dong-A is as good as it gets in the Oklahoma City area, offering a fabulous menu beyond what you grill yourself. Not only that, the portions are huge, and everything comes with the obligatory Korean side dishes, all for very reasonable prices (think <;$10 per person).

So if you’re not squeamish about raw meat (why are you reading this?) and you want to try something totally, unapologetically unique, then take the drive down to Moore. I promise there’s nothing else like it.

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Dong-A is open Tuesday-Sunday for Lunch and Dinner.

Dong A Korean Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Mad Meal

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How bout a bite of… cocktail?

A trip to New York always yields a million things to write about: Sights, experiences, adventures that are just too numerous to recount in the detail they really deserve. I mean, I saw Phillip Seymour Hoffman play Willy Loman in the broadway production of Death of a Salesman AND brushed shoulders with Emma Stone in the same theater. Why aren’t I writing about that??

Well friends, it’s because I wanted (more like needed) to write about my last meal in Manhattan. I needed to commit it to paper while the memory is still fresh, before it fades into that ephemeral, warm recollection of something life-changing but long since passed. That last meal was at none other than Eleven Madison Park. It is indeed located on Madison Park in the flatiron district of Manhattan.

The dining room is a grand, high-ceilinged art deco lobby of a great, unfinished skyscraper, intended to be the headquarters of Metropolitan Life as well as the tallest building in New York before being cut short by the great depression. The restaurant began as a creation of the infamous Danny Meyer, it is now run by executive chef Daniel Humm. An impeccably executed farm-to-table blend of nouvelle cuisine and molecular gastronomy, it sets the standard for chef-owned restaurants.

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Goat butter, cow butter, sea salt.

Did I mention it has three Michelin stars? Oh, and it was also named among the top 10 restaurants in the world this year. Getting these accolades is no easy feat. Not only does the food have to be delicious, inventive (which basically means something “weird” needs to be in there nowadays, with the advent of molecular cuisine), and beautifully plated, but if you want to get that third star instead of just two, the service must be perfect. The staff needs to know the menu and wine list inside and out, the tablecloths must be spotless, and even the water holding the table’s flowers must be crystal clear. Aside from not having flowers on the table, Eleven Madison Park goes above and beyond these requirements.

The menu is beautiful in its simplicity. I mean just look at it:

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You get four courses, picking your dish based on its main ingredient while the prep on each remains a surprise. But if you ask me what to get at a place like this, I’ll tell you go big or go home. And that means the chef’s tasting menu.

No quantity of adjectives can convey the experience of a meal there. My most humble attempt will simply be to take you through the 13-course tasting menu that occupied a rapturous and unforgettable 3 hours:

Hors D’oeuvres

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The meal begins with a mystery: What’s in the box!? But faster than Brad Pitt at the end of Se7en, my curiosity got the better of me. Voraciously tearing into the neat package, I discovered our first course: black and white cookies. Although they looked like the classic New York bakery sweet, equal parts chocolate and vanilla, there’s a twist: these are a savory take on the pastry. The “black and white” are truffle and Parmesan, sandwiching a small dollop of goat butter over brioche. Savory, buttery, just a small bite to tease the palette and anticipate what’s to come.

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Apple

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Ahh, nothing like waking up to a nice, warm cup of tea with some eggs and toast. The next course was precisely that: neatly arranged little sunny-side-up quail eggs, no bigger than my thumbnail, on brioche with sea salt and bacon. To balance out the savory, the eggs are accompanied by a small cup of warm, herbal apple tea and a sprig of thyme.

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Yogurt and Chickpeas

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Ice-cold Greek yogurt lollipops with curry were sweet and a little tart, with crunchy shells dotted with fried lentils around a soft, creamy yogurt filling. For contrast, the chickpea panisse with a dab of yogurt were warm and savory.

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Smoked Sturgeon

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This was actually a smoked sturgeon “sabayon” (served in egg shells, no less). Know what sabayon is? It’s okay, I betray my own ignorance by admitting I didn’t know what it was either. Turns out its an italian custard made from egg yolks and whipped until light and fluffy. So this was a fish version of that dessert? Yes. Yes it was. It was the essence of smoked sturgeon in a warm, airy liquid that wasn’t quite foam but wasn’t quite soup either. With just a hint of chive oil, the flavor was breathtaking. This is the kind of dish which simply bears no comparison to anything else. The ingenuity of molecular gastronomy at its best is in this ability to produce completely new foods which manage to be bizarre in their originality while actually tasting delicious.

Clam

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Time for another surprise: a modern take on the New England clam bake! What you see is a pitcher of clam chowder surrounded by clam two ways (one with chorizo, another with apple), complemented by savory corn and potato cakes.

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Cocktail Hour

Our waiter tells us we’re invited back to the kitchen. Huh? Have they confused us for some important Manhattan real estate moguls? Has my blog really gotten that popular? Well, I don’t want to mess up what could be a fortuitous mistake by asking, so off to the kitchen we go. Inside there’s a small table (standing room only) set up for three, with a view of the entire kitchen. This is no mistake at all, but something Eleven Madison Park does for only a few customers! I guess they thought we were “cool,” or my constant picture-taking convinced them I would appreciate a little extra behind the scenes view.

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Family in the kitchen

A very nice pastry chef named Becky makes apple cocktails with liquid nitrogen-hardened pomegranate foam as we watch over 50 staff members meticulously prepare food at their stations (on a peak night there are more employees than customers!) The cocktail is light and refreshing and the kitchen is amazing to behold. After this little treat, it’s time to return to the dining room for more.

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Becky and the nitrogen

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Voila!

Almond

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“Variations” on the almond, to be exact, mainly a crispy chip over a tangy cream. This is mixed among greens (mostly flowers) and a balsamic vinaigrette, as well as a salty cured Mangalista ham.

Foie Gras

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Often mispronounced, never unwelcome: fatty goose liver. No upscale meal would be complete without it. This one was thinly sliced and coiled, making for a unique presentation, with a dark, sweet black sesame sauce and duck prosciutto.

Whey

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Whey and I go whey back (see what I did there?). But this isn’t just a workout supplement. This is the liquid runoff of yogurt, served warm and (appropriately) with buttermilk “curds,” as well as gnocchi and spring herbs to cut the heaviness of the broth.

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Lobster

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7 courses and we’re only just now getting to the first entree! This is lobster claw poached in Meyer lemon butter. I think that’s worth repeating: POACHED IN MEYER LEMON BUTTER. Served with shellfish bisque and “burnt leek,” which very cleverly cakes the roots of a fresh leek taking on the appearance of dirt.

Beef

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And finally, the heavy stuff. This was no ordinary beef, but cured and aged ribeye (the best cut, if you ask me), roasted and served with wood sorrel and roasted potatoes. Need I say more?

Cheuflada

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As much as my auto-correct wanted to make that “chef lady,” Cheuflada is actually correct. What is it? Well, since it’s not quite dessert, it’s the cheese course, of course! It’s a fragrant (read: stinky) cheese which is actually a thick liquid at room temperature. To give it balance and even a little something to hang on to, it is adorned with pearl onions, potatoes, and pickled whole mustard seeds.

Egg Cream

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Dessert begins with another New York classic: Egg Cream. This classy beverage transports you back to the soda fountains of yore, and Eleven Madison even uses an antique bottle to make seltzer. In a fun table-side presentation, I learn their egg cream uses orange oil (where the original used chocolate syrup) with the essence of cocoa nib. Mixed with milk and seltzer and stirred to frothy magnificence, the drink is a sweet and refreshing palette cleanser for what will be an incredible dessert.

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Cheesecake

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New York style cheesecake made with goat cheese. Sound good? Well, it is, especially topped with orange sorbet and a chilled vanilla “snow.”

Chocolate

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And now the grand finale: could it be anything other than chocolate? This most beloved ingredient still gets special treatment. The plate is a mountain of crispy flakes of “caramelized coco puffs,” and soft, frozen “chocolate snow” (think Dipping’ Dots). All of this is bordered by a sea of Meyer lemon cream sauce and just a touch of olive oil.

In a final touch of poetic creativity, the end is in the beginning. Another box appears before you containing the sweet black and white cookies which had been so successfully quoted at the outset. They’re at the same time unexpected, self-referential, and an ode to classic New York City food. I can think of no better metaphor for the restaurant itself, and the once-in-a-lifetime experience of its food.

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Eleven Madison Park on Urbanspoon

Simply Divine

Just look at that table. . . It’s waiting for you. But don’t let the austere presentation fool you. The simple place-setting gives no hint of what’s in store when you sit down. In fact, the table is a good metaphor for the whole restaurant. It is in the most unassuming of locations (an old Pizza Hut) on a street which usually does the opposite of excite me (May Avenue). But its out of the way location and bare-bones atmosphere are what they need to be and nothing more, turning your focus to what’s really important here: the food. And make no mistake, The Divine Swine is one of the most important and creative things happening in this city’s culinary scene.

Even the name is perfect in its simplicity. It tells you all you need to know, i.e. that this place specializes in pork. And of course you already know that pork is good. There is no meat more juicy, more flavorful, more layered in varying textures from tender meat, to buttery fat and crispy skin. Has there ever been a nobler ingredient around which to theme a restaurant? Out of the infinite number of things you can do with this meat, and I’m willing to bet The Divine Swine covers quite a few you hadn’t thought of.

Take brunch, the meal I was lucky enough to have with my parents at this Mecca of pork. We don’t often associate the stuff with breakfast (aside from bacon and the ham in eggs benedict, but those are just a given, aren’t they?). But this menu does not shy away from boldly going where no bacon has gone before. Just one example is the Candied Bacon French Toast ($8.00), proof of the time-honored truth that bacon really does make everything better.

In addition to the breakfast items served on the Sunday brunch menu, they have what would be your standard lunch fare of sandwiches and salads, but with pork. They have a Ground Pork Burger ($8.00, with bacon, blue cheese and red onion jam, naturally), a Pulled Pork Sandwich ($8.00), even Honey-Glazed Ribs ($6.00). Mom enjoyed the Chef’s Salad ($8.00), which the menu claims changes from week to week, containing on this particular occasion very thick-cut slices of bacon. Dad got the Chicken Sandwich, the menu’s concession to the fact that it’s not a perfect world, and not everyone is in the mood for pork all the time (though they do manage to slip some bacon mayo in there, at least!).

Really, it makes everything better.

As to what your humble food-blogger ordered, how could I resist something called The Whole Hog? Yes, this dish is the ultimate expression of this place’s genius; made up of sausage, bacon, ham, biscuits (mhmm) with pork gravy (that’s pork four ways!), all with a side of eggs and potatoes. It’s everything it sounds like: decadent, filling and, above all, delicious. The bacon and sausage are still sizzling in their own tasty fat, cooked perfectly crispy around the edges while still retaining their juiciness. Perhaps my favorite cut of meat was the ham; thick, pink slices of that pure, concentrated pork flavor I love. The biscuits are like cake, fluffy and thick, drizzled with gravy made from that same rich pork.

The Whole Hog

How about dessert after brunch? Why not! You only live once. Even if the candied bacon french toast was your entree, the desserts here are so phenomenal they’re worth the sugar crash later. I present as my evidence the Candied Bacon Sticky Buns. I think that’s worth repeating: Candied Bacon Sticky Buns. Just try to think about that for a moment without falling into a salivating reverie.

Unfortunately, they were sold out of the sticky buns by the time we were ready to order them, but we can’t say we weren’t warned! The sticky buns go fast, so the restaurant encourages you to order early. But the dessert we had, the Creme Fraiche Panna Cotta with blood oranges, was not at all a let-down. For those unfamiliar, it’s a wobbly, gelatin-based custard served chilled, usually with some sort of sweet sauce. After trying The Divine Swine’s version, I completely forgot about the disappointment of missing out on the sticky buns. There’s no bacon involved and it’s one of the best desserts I’ve ever had. Yes, ever. Pairing the typically light panna cotta with the richness of creme fraiche (the slightly more curdled, more cheese-like cousin of whipped cream) is a smart take on the dessert. And with a tart blood orange to contrast the sweetness, every precious, creamy bite is a perfectly balanced finish to a heavy meal.

Panna Cotta da Vida

From the savory to the sweet, the bacon to the creme fraiche, this place is truly an experience; providing one of those absolutely sensual meals we foodies can only hope to find very rarely. The food isn’t “fancy,” but it is definitely on the level of gourmet in its creative use of ingredients and its richness of flavors. And did you notice the prices? The Whole Hog is probably the best-spent $10 in town, and almost every other entree is cheaper than that. I would argue nowhere else in town offers food this good for anything close to the same value. Chef and owner Josh Valentine has done something very special for the city, providing a stripped-down, concentrated dining experience; a celebration not just of one ingredient, but of all the different and wonderful things that can be done with it. My hat is off to all involved, for creating something so exciting in an unexpected place, and for the proof that food can be something close to divine.

*Follow The Divine Swine on Twitter and Facebook for opening hours.

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