Gut Instinct: A Bone to Pick

Written by Joshua M. Bernstein on . Posted in Opinion and Column, Posts.

AS A HOME cook, I consider myself a culinary MacGyver. When growling hunger hits, I rummage through the wilted dregs filling my fridge—a hectic New York schedule means days and weeks disappear before I grocery-shop. Rotting grub doesn’t depress me; instead, I take it as a challenge to create something edible out of food with one foot in a garbage bin.

I’ll shred softened cabbage, mince shriveled onions and garlic and cube tofu with a slightly pink hue. A hot wok, a splash of soy sauce, a spoonful of fermented black beans and dinner is served. In my household, not an edible morsel is wasted. My ability to conjure meals out of odds and ends, bits and bobs, fills me with penny-pinching pride.

But if I were a Japanese cook instead of a cheapskate Jew, I’d call this cookery makanai ryori. This term describes the delicacies that chefs in Japanese restaurants create for their communal staff meals. Cooks rely upon "waste" ingredients such as fish heads, vegetable scrapings and even nibs of wagyu beef to of every month, the West Village’s EN Japanese Brasserie (435 Hudson St. at Leroy St., 212-647-9196) offers intrepid diners its makanai-style Fish Heads, Eel Bones and Beer feast.

"Come on, don’t you want to eat fish heads, fish heads, roly-poly fish heads?" I asked my fiancée. She blanched, as if I asked if she wanted a boiling-water enema. "Uh, no." Though she’s a committed seafood eater, she prefers her fish filleted, not staring at her with deadened glazed eyes. "There’s all-you-can-drink Sapporo!" I added brightly. She rapidly shook her head on a horizontal plane. Plan B: "Hey, Julie," I called my eat-anything friend. "Want to come eat eel bones and fish heads?" "Yes, please!" she responded. "I will wear a dress—an elastic-waist dress."

On the first Thursday of June, we arrived at soaring, multilevel EN and parked ourselves at a communal table in the darkened lounge looking onto Hudson Street. Around us, a young, mainly Japanese crowd sipped from Sapporobranded pint glasses filled with bubbly golden liquid. Waiters brought steaming of their seemingly woebegone parts. By tureens of murky broth swimming and large, these repasts are reserved for with fish carcasses to the bar, while the restaurant staff. But on the first Thursday bartender hacked meat off a curved, browned, yoke-like length of… what the hell was that?

"That’s a bigeye tuna collar," explained Jesse Alexander, EN’s dapperly dressed co-owner, who was pouring Sapporo for the endlessly thirsty crowd. "We freeze them and save them for the event," which has been ongoing since February 2010. I nabbed a few slivers of the roasted fish. It was tender, tasting deeply of the sake marinade and miso, with nicely shellacked bits providing crunchy contrast. It was first-rate flavor from a second-class ingredient.

Less delightful were the deep-fried eel and fluke bones. Brown and brittle as pork cracklings, the paper-thin slices proved to be an oily danger. "I think I have bone caught in my throat," Julie gasped, grabbing for her glass of beer. "Don’t be such a wussy," I said, chomping a couple pieces. My karmic comeuppance came quickly: a bony shard dug deep into the roof of my mouth, causing me to yelp like my dog when I accidentally step on his tail. To her credit, Julie did not grin.

Not every edible doubled as a deadly weapon. I was addicted to the cold, vinegar-flavored rice that was filled with rosy pink bits of top-grade, butter-soft sashimi—the ends that are lopped off when preparing rolls. "Try this," Julie said, passing me a bowl of cloudy miso soup. It smelled delicately of fish, of days spent at sea. "Don’t worry, I kept the eyeballs out," she said. What a courteous dining partner!

I brought the bowl to my lips and slurped. It was rich and balanced, with umami depth and a dash of salt—a call to arms to drink more beer. While sipping the soup, a few chunks of something chewy and unidentifiable slid into my mouth. I chewed and quickly swallowed. What you don’t see can’t hurt you. Or so I’ve heard.

But dinner wasn’t a tour de force of shock and eww. There were custardy cubes of lightly fried tofu drenched in dashi broth, a light salad and planks of crunchy, breaded tonkatsu-style pork.

On the kitchen’s part, it was a wise call:

Man and woman, Julie and I discovered, can’t live on fish bones alone. 


Gut Instinct: A Bone to Pick

Written by admin on . Posted in Opinion and Column, Posts.


NOT LONG AGO, I spoke with a colleague who’d returned to New York after a lengthy absence. “I looked out the airplane’s window,” he said dreamily, like a teenybopper recounting a Jonas Brothers’ concert, “and when I saw the skyline I knew I was home. Ever feel the same way?” Uh, no.

I long ago lost that dewyeyed notion of the Big Apple. Though I adore this hurly-burly metropolis, I view my returns with the resigned acceptance of a factory worker punching Monday’s time clock: Damn, it’s time to get back to work. Besides, while the skyline is a great signpost, it’s not a superb signifier of home. I’m home when a taxi—the driver pissed because he ferried me to Brooklyn instead of high-fare Manhattan—deposits me on my tree-deprived Crown Heights block. I exit the cab. I grab my bag. Then I step toward my brownstone, my feet crunching across a carpet of greasy chicken bones.


“That’s so true!” my girlfriend said when I told her the theme of this week’s column. It was one of our rare moments of agreement, an occasion I’d be wise to commemorate with a plaque. “When a friend from Germany asked me to describe Brooklyn to them, I told her, ‘Chicken bones. There are chicken bones everywhere.’” I love mother-cluckin’, finger-suckin’ fried chicken as much as—often more than—the next carnivore. Within a week of Williamsburg’s Pies ‘n’ Thighs reopening I was right there, gnawing crunchy, peppery fried fowl. Mmm, good! However, I trash my desiccated fowl, instead of flinging it onto the street as indiscriminately as confetti from a wedding.

It’s a bone to pick: Why are there so many goddamn chicken bones on the ground? If, say, a Vesuvius were to erupt in central and eastern Brooklyn, future archaeologists would conclude that the borough’s residents subsisted on the limbs of domesticated birds and industrially processed snacks costing a quarter and bearing a mysterious moniker—Utz. As Brooklynites, is this the legacy we’re destined to leave behind?

Most days, I ignore the food flotsam cloaking my cracked blocks. It’s my daily scenery, like the Chinese food delivery men who bike down the sidewalk and the rats who skulk around the downstairs trashcan. These sights are so omnipresent as to be rendered invisible. But that veil of willful ignorance has been tossed aside thanks to Sammy’s arrival.

Sammy (aka Sam, aka the Samster, aka the Samwich) is a 5-year-old Welsh corgi mix that my girlfriend and I rescued from a shelter. He’s a lanky pooch, low to the ground, with one ear permanently cocked.

This, combined with his rub-my-belly demeanor, causes drunk girls to exclaim things like, “I don’t even like dogs, but that one is C-U-T-E.” That causes my little black heart to swell with something that resembles pride, as if he bore my bloodlines, instead of being selected as randomly as a lottery ball.

Sammy is an excellent walker, a fearless explorer—a canine Shackleton, you could say. He investigates every rag, fast food bag and gnarled tree, marking his finds with a urine sprinkle or doo-doo log. This is acceptable canine behavior. I even envy the mutt: Sometimes I wish I could defecate wherever I please.

If, say, a Vesuvius were to erupt in central and eastern Brooklyn,
future archaeologists would conclude that the borough’s residents
subsisted on the limbs of domesticated birds.

What displeases me is when Sammy discovers a chicken bone. The leash goes taut and Sammy snaps up the wing or the leg with the swiftness of a rattlesnake strike. “No, Sammy! Nooooooooo!” I say firmly, tugging his collar. This makes Sammy gag. Then I pat his back till he coughs up the bone. Which he then eats again. To short-circuit the scenario, I’ve taken to scanning the ground as zealously as my dog. Oftentimes, we’ll lunge for a bone simultaneously, my size-nine sneakers beating his snout by a whisker. Other times the dog’s quicker on the draw. In war and chicken bones, there’s no such thing as a tie.

“Drop it,” I say authoritatively, repeatedly, as if experiencing a strange Tourette’s tic. “Dropitdropitdropitdropit.” I grab the bone jutting from Sammy’s sharp teeth and pull. He counters with dogged determination. We yank back and forth. Man versus beast. Beast versus man. Later or sooner, I glimpse myself in a storefront’s window, dragging a 20-pound dog around by a splintered bone. Absurd. I release. Sammy crunches happily.

“Let’s go home,” I tell the damn mutt, eager to give my hands a thorough, scalding cleansing.