DEFCON Dining: Moneycat Brunch

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Justin Yu's Moneycat Brunch pops up over at Umai Japanese Restaurant">Umai Japanese Restaurant, every Sunday between 9 and 3, or until food runs out. It's been running for about a month now, and I've been lucky enough to make it for two installments. There's only one more Sunday of Moneycat, so you'd better make a point of it this weekend.

I'd had the previous experience of two insightful and delicious vegetable dinners prepared by Chef Yu to encourage me to attend Moneycat. My kids had not, and I was a little worried about how they would receive brunch fare so far out of their ordinary. Children, especially mine, are at once incredibly flexible and utterly intractable diners, depending on their mood. When it comes to meals centered around breakfast foods, I'm afraid they fall into the intractable rut. Pancakes, eggs, grits, repeat.

I knew a handful of the items destined for the Moneycat menu, as I'd seen posts from a couple of local bloggers, Tastybitz and Phaedra Cook, lucky guests at the first installment. I also knew that the menu could be expected to change from week to week, so surprises were in store. Surprises or not, this would be a bit of a challenge for my kids, who are put off by fish heads and funk. Things easily could have approached DEFCON 1.

I was pretty sure we were going to be okay as soon as my kids sat down. They got coloring books. Cool coloring books. Conversation-starting coloring books. As my older daughter drew a fish bowl around a fish intended for the poaching pot (she's a sensitive soul, and a rebel to boot), and the younger added color to a doomed carrot, my wife and I selected their meals.

Beverages were brought as we perused the menu, arranged by Justin Vann, soon to be FOH guy at Yu's soon to be Oxheart. The Enabler, a blend of Manzanilla Sherry and Orange Juice, turned the mimosa on its head. The lusty, musty thrill of sherry undercut the orange juice, creating a drink of significant depth and arresting brightness at once. Tinglingly tart, the Lasercat combined hibiscus and sparkling Rose, and was both refreshing and stimulating.

Coffee service by David Buehrer and Ecky Prabanto of Greenway Coffee (Blacksmith coming soon) featured a nutty and sweet cappuccino chased by a puckering shot of espresso, all citrus and dark chocolate. Along with the coffee, we got a couple of David's handmade donuts. Forgive me for forgetting their filling; we ate them too quickly. I can tell you that they were textural perfection. I'm not a fan of raised and glazed donuts that seem to squish down to nothingness, sweet and insubstantial as cotton candy. These specimens had a delightful density to them, and just enough lingering sweetness to qualify as donuts.

The donuts, at least, were a hit with the youngest of our party. At five years old, Juliette has both an indefatigable sweet tooth and a love of blandness. Don't ask me how those go hand in hand. They just do. For her, we selected a sweet millet porridge with yogurt. Though it didn't tickle her fancy, it ended up being a surprise show-stopper for me. The porridge had a comforting quality, devilishly undermined by rivulets of tart yogurt and a scatter of bright cilantro. It was as if some happy accident had combined cream of wheat and dahi puri, and it took me completely by surprise. Without the yogurt and cilantro, my kid probably would have liked it better. It also would have been a far lesser dish. The slight sweetness, lactic tang, and herbal punch played off of one another to perfect effect, and needed that synergy to be fully realized.

Cecilia is my dining protege. She's generally willing to try just about anything that's not currently looking at her, if you catch her on the right day. As soon as I told her that the Maenamean Oxtail Soup was kind of like phở, her eyes lit up and her head nodded furiously. I knew the description would win her over. That kid would eat phở daily. I was right, too. The soup had a deep, beefy flavor redolent with spices, though absent noodles. Instead, it came with a large oxtail, its formerly tough connective tissues rendered as succulent meat jelly, the meat itself falling apart in shreds at the merest consideration of contact. Balancing all that richness and the heady waft of spice was a surprisingly bright hit of lime juice, making the soup an exercise in contrast, yet supremely balanced. It was deft and delicious, comforting and surprising. She didn't like it. I think maybe my description backfired on me; this isn't phở, despite its close affinity. If you promise a phở-obsessed 8-ear-old her noodle fix, you'd better deliver.

The day was not lost, though. She simply stole half of my wife's noodles with chili broth, braised pork, and pig's feet. I can tell you that they were delicious, based on the way those two squabbled over the last bites, and the small noises of pleasure that escaped their lips. It's purely anecdotal evidence, though, as I failed to secure a bite for myself.

I opted for the whole fried butterfish, served with coconut rice, a boiled egg, and a chili sauce containing, if memory serves, fermented dried shrimp. The fish were lightly crispy on the outside, with moist and buttery-rich, yet light, flesh underneath. Their delicate bones added a delightfully brittle crunch against the soft flake of the fish, and the pungent and electric flavor of the chili sauce brought everything into higher definition.

My kids squealed a little as I bit into the head of the first fish, but they quickly settled down when they saw how much I was enjoying it. Kids are funny that way, and it's one of the reasons I'm glad I took them. If you show your kids that food is not to be feared, but embraced, they shed their inhibitions rather easily. While I didn't get any of them to try my whole fish on that visit, I feel we took a step in the right direction.

My only quibble with the dish was the rice, which I felt was just slightly overcooked. It wasn't mushy, just a little past the point where the individual grains stood out clearly. I'm willing to accept the possibility that it was the intended result, as the softness was actually an interesting textural contrast to the crisp and crunchy textures of the fish skin and bones. It certainly didn't detract from the dish in any meaningful way.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the biscuits. They are a common thread between the weekly menus, and with good cause. They come flaky and tender (a feat in itself), bathed in a sticky and intoxicating combination of Sriracha and honey, with Sriracha-Honey Butter on the side for spreading. Their buttery insides punctuated by zippy slices of scallion; swathed in rich, piquant, sweet heat; they are a masterpiece of bread service. If they don't outlast this pop-up, it will be a sorry day for the world of baked goods.

I was proud of the kids. They both behaved themselves, and actually were more subdued than many of our boisterous fellow guests. They gave the food a fair go, even when it didn't particularly appeal. They tried (almost) everything, and everyone found something to love. So what if, for the little one, it was only the donut?

We returned the following week, extended family in tow, and reprised a few dishes, discovering new delights along the way. A Congee of Red Kuri squash with fried soy, tapioca, crispy shallot, brown butter, and egg was a particular highlight. Complex in both flavor and texture, the bowl swung wildly between extremes of mild and pungent, crunchy and yielding, while still retaining a cohesive character. Fried potatoes merged effortlessly with a fermented pepper sauce, fried onions, and kewpie mayo. The funk and heat of the peppers brought out the earthy sweetness of the potatoes in a way that makes me want to combine those two forever, every time I cook potatoes, regardless of appropriateness.

There are still easily a dozen items scattered among previous menus that I didn't try, and want to. I'm hoping they'll show up this Sunday. I know I will. You should, too. Get a little taste of what Katharine talked about the other day, and be thankful that some of these upstarts might finally be settling down.

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