(suribachi & surikogi--Japanese mortar & pestle--for crushing sesame seeds into tonkatsu sauce)
Haru Hana (28 W. 32nd St., NYC)
The summer I spent in Japan witnessed three months of the healthiest eating I have ever enjoyed. Though 100% culture-shocked coming from the Midwest--and sad to have to momentarily retire the word casserole--I was committed to trying new flavors and textures. True, among the bizarre (and absurd, in retrospect) items I had packed from home was a box of Chef Boyardee pizza mix (in case I needed an emergency pizza fix). Still a bit wonky with my amateur finger muscles, my very first evening there I accidentally tossed a brown-gravy drenched potato across the room with my chopsticks, which I then staked into my steak before scrambling to clean up the mess, ergo triggering a roomful of horrified gasps (no one had informed me planting your chopsticks upright into your food wished bad fortune to the family!) And so what if my knees had become strangely calloused after a week of showering (no one explained to me that the shower head actually detached from its hoist three feet off the ground, with a retractable cord--those were some painful and awkward showers!) And true, the über-evangelical younger me took a suitcase of Gideon Bibles to share the gospel with a country less than 1% Christian (that's correct, I planned on bringing Jesus and Chef Boyardee to a pagan and pizza-less nation). I won't even discuss my first experience with their toilets on this food blog! The stories are enough for a book--or a movie starring Jonah Hill (imagine him as a youth ambassador for the U.S. Senate living in a peaceful mountain village full of Buddhist and Shinto shrines).
I absolutely credit that life-altering summer for making me a much more adventurous eater (and thinker). And while the majority of what I consumed contributed to some significant weight loss that summer, a few dishes I also enjoyed fall into the comfort category. I luckily stumbled upon two of them a few days ago.
Leaving my most recent dentist appointment across the street from the Empire State Building (who gets to gargle and spit while looking at the Empire State Building?!), I was naturally starving. I never eat before someone works on my mouth, and after having a dentist fiddle with my teeth for a few hours, my stomach always starts to growl. Taking a walk along 32nd Street (affectionately referred to as K-Town for its endless Korean eateries and karaoke bars--24 hour Korean BBQ is a godsend after a late night at a midtown bar), a Japanese sign caught my attention. Outside, plastic figurines of some of the dishes made me chuckle, but I instantly noticed they offered okonomiyaki--a dish I had loved in Hiroshima, but rarely find in America.
Okonomiyaki at Haru Hana is offered either with mixed seafood or caviar & cheese. I went the seafood route, and was extremely pleased. My photos were admittedly rushed, but the base of this dish is like a Japanese pancake/omelette, with egg, flour, shredded cabbage, and scallion, all studded with very tender pieces of crabmeat, octopus, calamari, and shrimp. It is quite similar to a cross between egg foo young and a scallion pancake you might order at a Chinese restaurant, only stuffed with seafood. This is then glazed with a thick, sweet sauce, often compared in flavor to Worcestershire sauce, a drizzle of mayonnaise, and then bonito flakes (dried, smoked skipjack tuna) that literally "dance" in the steam coming off of the plate. It's like an umami breakfast, lunch, and seafood feast all rolled into one. You cut it like a pizza, and should enjoy it while it's hot. The version at Haru Hana was delicious, although more of an Osaka-style rather than the Hiroshima version (both styles are popular in different regions) I enjoyed over fifteen years ago (which was prepared table side, had noodles baked in, and stood significantly taller). Yes, it's that good that I recall the taste and textures a decade and a half later.
Another Japanese comfort food I love it tonkatsu, a deep-fried pork cutlet. Panko breadcrumbs yield a crunch unlike any other. I also love this dish as katsudon, when served with an egg and sauce on a bed of rice. But when I saw Haru Hana offered a mozzarella katsu, well, there was really no debate. Paper thin pork loin is stuffed with mozzarella, dredged in panko bread crumbs, and served with a salad, rice, vegetable curry, and a bowl of miso soup for just $10.50 at lunch. The pork was wonderfully tender. I also loved that they brought the mortar and pestle to the table so I could grind my own sesame powder to add to the tonkatsu sauce (almost like a thick, smoked apple, sweet BBQ sauce) for dipping the strips of the cutlet.
Service was extremely friendly and very attentive. The atmosphere was casual, yet beautiful with dramatic lighting on cherry blossoms, and columns that looked like tree trunks. The rather extensive menu (and sake selection) certainly offers far more than what I sampled, including a variety of sushi, ramen and noodle dishes, as well as hot pots and a selection of Korean dishes. But if what I enjoyed is any indication, this would be a wonderful place to take a friend or a casual date. The prices are reasonable, the food tasty. I already cannot wait to return. Follow them on Twitter for crazy specials, like 50% off special sushi rolls.