There is a restaurant down the street from me that just might end up unseating the other restaurant down the street from me as the World’s Most Dangerous Restaurant to Have Down the Street from You (which is not to be confused with our other nemesis, The World’s Most Dangerous Food Cart to Have Down the Street from You). My will power, it is weak. When faced with the sweet memory of duck breast and lemongrass salad, I grow loose in the knees and wallet, and all I want to do is run down the street and place my order immediately. I hear the name of a certain restaurant, and I am like a seal that has been trained to bark on command. Spicy! Thai! Street! Food! Now! Completely puzzling, however, is the added desire to eat a particular meat dish from the other, newer dangerous place, a meat dish that, in any other place, I am sure I would loathe.
Picture this: super thin slices of steak (I know! I am talking about steak! Who am I?) are marinated in a savory, bright, citrusy mix of kelp and lime juice. Then the meat gets skewered and stuck directly into a roaring fire, searing in every possible place and becoming incredibly, impossibly juicy. The skewer, still sizzling, is brought directly to your table, where you try with all your might to maintain a sense of dignity and manners while you ravenously devour the meltingly delicious meat. No one is more surprised than me that I enjoyed this dish as much as I did. For a split second, I was transformed into a dedicated carnivore, a person who actually devoured meat. It was utterly bizarre.
A few weeks ago, the holidays in full swing, I was overcome with the idea I had to try and recreate the dish at home, a task made difficult by the fact that a) I didn’t really know what exactly made up the marinade enveloping the meat in question, and b) it is winter, and therefore my access to an open fire over which to cook things is fairly well nonexistent. The first problem was easily remedied, as a small amount of hunting around led me almost immediately to an old specials menu from the Dangerous Restaurant, and a bit more poking around led me to this great New York Times recipe for ponzu marinade, which happened to be the mystery flavor. Ponzu, as it turns out, is sort of like a Japanese vinaigrette, and can be used in everything from salads to marinades. One of the main flavor profiles in ponzu is kombu (dried kelp), which provides a hefty dose of natural glutamates to give the ponzu a fat (but not fatty), umami taste that rounds out your taste buds. It also helps break down the fibers in meat, tenderizing as it simultaneously flavors.
The other problem, I am afraid, could not really be solved, as winter in the PNW means cold and wet, and cold and wet are no friends of the grill. In a pinch, I fired up our stovetop grill pan as hot as it could possibly get, and hoped that it would do the trick.
To be quite honest, it was pretty close. The only thing missing was the melting, seared texture that can only be achieved by sticking a piece of meat into a wall of fire, but the flavor was dead on. Bright, but also slightly mysterious, there is a lot going on in each bite. I am waiting for summer to arrive so I can cook this dish again as I really want to (massive pile of fire, I await you), but, in the meantime, this version is certainly no slouch.
Ponzu Marinated Flank Steak
Sauce from Mark Bittman in The New York Times
2/3 cup fresh lemon juice, more to taste
1/3 cup fresh lime juice, more to taste
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1 cup good-quality soy sauce
1/4 cup mirin
1 3-inch piece kombu (dried kelp)
1/2 cup (about 1/4 ounce) dried bonito flakes (or, in a pinch, 1 tablespoon Vietnamese fish sauce)
1 pound flank steak
In a bowl, combine all ingredients except flank steak. Let sit for at least 2 hours or overnight. Strain.
Slice the flank steak against the grain into thin strips. Add the strips of steak to the bowl of ponzu, and marinate in the refrigerator, covered, for at least 1 hour. When ready to cook, drain the meat and set aside.
Heat an outdoor grill as high as it will go, or heat a stovetop grill pan on high. When the grill is incredibly hot, add the strips of steak, cooking as many as you can without crowding the meat. The meat will cook very fast, only needing a minute or so on each side. If your grill is not as hot as can possibly be, it might take two minutes per side. What you are looking for are crisp edges and a remaining quality of juiciness. It might take a bit of trial and error (depending on how thick your slices are and how hot your grill is), so start by cooking two or three pieces at a time and seeing how long they take. The meat is thin, so the cooking time should not be more than a couple of minutes per side.