Monday, January 16, 2017

Cobaya DK with David Lanster and Kelly Moran


When we first started doing these Cobaya dinners, we saw it as, among other things, an opportunity to give fledgling young chefs an opportunity to test out their skills. So our most recent event, Experiment #68, felt something like a return to our roots: a small group (only 18 diners), a couple young chefs (only 19 years old!), outside of a restaurant (in a beautiful loft space overlooking the Biscayne Boulevard MiMo District, generously lent to us by Pietro Morelli, who also runs Made In Italy Gourmet in Wynwood).

The chefs were David Lanster and Kelly Moran, who first started doing "pop-up" dinners for family and friends when they were in high school to raise money for the Common Threads charity. They're now sophomores in college. To put that in perspective, when we first started doing these Cobaya dinners, David and Kelly were about eleven years old.

David's interests lie in the scientific aspects of cooking, while Kelly is the baker and pastry chef of the pair. But they're not diving into the culinary world with both feet quite yet: Kelly is studying at Tufts, while David is at University of Miami. So while DK Culinary Ventures is on something of a hiatus, David and Karen – with assistance from friends and former classmates – turned out an ambitious, fourteen-course dinner for us during their winter break.

(You can see all my pictures from the dinner in this Cobaya DK with David Lanster and Kelly Moran flickr set).





The meal started with a series of snacks: a "house salad" which used Ferran Adrià's spherification technique to suspend bits of tomato and carrot in an orb of lettuce juice, dressed with dashes of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and sea salt; savory pumpkin seed macarons sandwiching sautéed mushrooms, brie and celery leaves; a one-bite mojito cocktail assembled from a candied mint leaf flavored with citric acid and a rum gel; and savory, green-hued sunflower cakes topped with mandarin orange segments and chia seeds, visually mimicking their main ingredient.


A root vegetable antipasto salad was a beautiful presentation that made good use of vacuum compression, infusing each of the thinly sliced vegetables with a different flavor: the red beets with red wine, the golden beets with white wine, the parsnip with apple juice and ginger, the carrots with orange and caraway seed. They were then topped with a goat cheese gelato (yup, beets and goat cheese), and a crunchy rye bread crumble.

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Monday, January 9, 2017

first thoughts: Mignonette Uptown - North Miami Beach


For years, we were regulars at Hanna's Gourmet Diner, a shiny aluminum-sided diner along Biscayne Boulevard in North Miami Beach. Though it changed hands from the original owners some time in the 90's, Gourmet Diner maintained its quirky mix of retro Americana atmosphere and rustic French cookery. With its casual setting and several kid-friendly items on the menu, it was a place we could comfortably bring the whole family. And while the kids ate penne with pink sauce, I could have celery root salad, French onion soup, trout meuniere, tenderloin tips in bordelaise sauce, or their reliably good roast duck. Always with a side of the vegetable souffle of the day, and sometimes, a fruit tart for dessert.

Gourmet Diner moved out of the space a couple years ago. Happily, Daniel Serfer and Ryan Roman, chef-owner and co-owner of Mignonette oyster bar near downtown, spotted it and had a good idea. Now, it's Mignonette Uptown. I was there for "friends and family" last Thursday.[1] It was great to see the old diner back in action, and even more so, as a second iteration of one of my favorite Miami restaurants. (You can see all my pictures in this Mignonette Uptown flickr set).



They kept a lot of the good "old bones" of the place, while still sprucing it up considerably. So the long white marble counter in front of the kitchen is still there (a perfect fit for an oyster bar), but there's a movie theater style marquee above it, like in the original Mignonette, displaying the rotating daily selection of oysters. The same old marble tables also line the windows facing Biscayne Boulevard (or maybe they just bought the same exact ones), but a comfortable leather banquette has been added.

The menu is similar in format to the original Mignonette: there's an assortment of freshly shucked oysters, seafood towers, a CBGB (chowder, bisque or gumbo) of the day, a crudo of the day, and an assortment of mostly fish and seafood dishes, done either "plain" or "fancy." But the details bear the imprint of chef de cuisine Anthony Ciancio, who's done time in some very good places: Michael's Genuine, 27 RestaurantAlter, as well as Sean Brock's McCrady's in Charleston.



So you can get a classic like Oysters Rockefeller, done with watercress, Pernod and a dusting of parmesan.[2] Or you can get Buffalo Scallops, napped in hot sauce butter with crumbled gorgonzola, quartered radishes, ribbons of celery and shards of crispy chicken skin.



The "fancy" main course options are perhaps even more finessed than those at the downtown location. A fat tranche of cod, which flakes into broad, silky ribbons, is served over batons of yuca and napped with a champagne beurre blanc dotted with caviar and then crowned with twirls of fried yuca and wispy dill sprigs. Pan-seared striped bass is served over a creamy onion soubise; its accompaniment, "peas and carrots," sounds pedestrian but surprises with dark purple roots and subtly minted peas nestled over a carrot purée garnished with pea shoots and fancy flowers.

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Friday, January 6, 2017

first thoughts: Cake Thai - Wynwood, Miami

About a year and a half ago, I sung the praises of Cake Thai Kitchen, a tiny spot in Miami's Upper East Side opened by chef Phuket Thongsodchareondee (a/k/a "Cake"). From this little hole in a wall, Cake was putting out some of the best Thai food I've eaten in this city. This was not the "regulation issue" menu of so many other local Thai spots; Cake offered some boldly-flavored street foods, executed with that percussive attack of spicy / sour / salty / bitter / sweet / herbaceous that brings such joy when Thai food is properly done.

The only thing I couldn't unreservedly recommend about Cake was its location. It was actually great for me personally, a few miles from home and literally just a one-block detour from my usual commute. But despite some new upmarket neighbors – Paulie Gee's on the next block, The Anderson around the corner – this particular stretch of Biscayne Boulevard remains somewhat dodgy, and the utilitarian-at-best venue might not be everyone's idea of a night out on the town.[1] If I wasn't solo, it was usually a take-out option for me too.


Well, now you can have your Cake and eat there too. [Go ahead, just kill me now].

A second Cake Thai has opened in trendy Wynwood, just off the "gateway" corner of 29th Street and NW 2nd Avenue. I made my way over there for lunch just before the new year (see all my pictures in this Cake Thai - Wynwood flickr set).

It won't be mistaken for the Four Seasons, but the dining room, with seating for about 30, is bright and airy, the walls covered with white tiles, the ceiling festooned with upside-down woven baskets for decoration.

The opening menu at Cake Wynwood is abbreviated in comparison to the original location: about thirty dishes, roughly half as many as on the Biscayne Boulevard menu. It's something of a "greatest hits," but also includes some items that were semi-regular blackboard specials at the mothership (the chive cake with chili vinegar and dark soy sauce, the chicken in red curry with pickled bamboo shoots). There's also at least a few things that are completely new, at least to me: a duck larb, some new soups and large format dishes.


The new kitchen gives Chef Cake a little more room to play, and so we can expect some more in-house pantry items to be making their way onto the menu. His nuea dad deaw – dried and fried beef jerky, made here with rich, fatty brisket buried under an avalanche of crispy fried shallots – is served with house-made sriracha sauce and pickles.


I never order pad thai. I'll invariably pick at it if the kids order it, and invariably be disappointed. Until I tried Cake's, which brings the proper balance of sour and spicy and funky to a dish that is usually just insipidly sweet. Some plump, fresh head-on shrimp also help elevate the dish. Fresh bean sprouts add crunch.

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Saturday, December 31, 2016

best dishes of 2016: part 3

We're coming in for a landing here – the final segment of my Best Dishes of 2016 (you can read Part 1 and Part 2 here).

(You can see pictures of all of them in this Best Dishes of 2016 flickr set).

pan con tumaca - Alter
Let me start here with the kind of superlative I'm usually loathe to state: Brad Kilgore's Alter was my favorite restaurant of the year, and for my money, the best restaurant in Miami right now (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Alter). Brad's cooking is creative, smart, beautiful, lush without being overly heavy, and most important of all, flat out delicious.

Now a year and a half in, he's not afraid to change things up either. The dishes that appear here were from the last lunch service at Alter on October 1 (partly a result, I have to imagine, of the attention drawn by Brad's newest project, Brava at the Arsht Center). Then last month, Alter quietly switched its dinner service to a predominantly tasting-menu format, with either a 5-course $69 or 7-course $89 options, and only a very abbreviated list of a la carte alternatives. And now another new piece, just added in the past few days: a more casual a la carte menu for the no-reservations outdoor bar area.

A recent twitter exchange hit on a nugget of truth: more often than not, when a dish is "revisited" or "reinvented" (or worse, "deconstructed"), the end result pales in comparison to the original.

The classic Spanish snack, pan con tumaca (a/k/a pan con tomate or pa amb tomàquet), is a simple thing: grilled or toasted bread, rubbed with raw garlic and tomato, drizzled with olive oil, and sprinkled with salt. And yet with the right ingredients – crusty bread, ripe juicy tomato, fruity peppery olive oil – it is magically good, and difficult to improve upon.

The version I had this weekend at Alter, though, manages it. A thin plank of sourdough, golden on its surface but with still a whisper of tenderness at its center. A daub of tomato butter, warmed with Aleppo pepper. Soft, crushed cherry tomatoes, bleeding their juices. Slivers of pickled garlic, as thin as Paulie cut in prison. Red vein sorrel – pretty, sure, but also providing a bit of grassy, tart contrast.

potato purée, smoked cod - Alter
The same lunch featured another successful "reinvention" – this incredibly luxurious version of brandade. The base of the dish was a rich, Robuchon-esque potato purée, enriched with local burrata (presumably from Mimmo's Mozzarella), and topped with flakes of silky smoked black cod, crisp puffed potatoes, and sweet-savory onion jam.

steelhead roe, maple cream, chive, crispy crepe - Willows Inn
One of my all-time favorite meals was a visit to Blaine Wetzel's Willows Inn, off the coast of Washington State on tiny Lummi Island. I was thrilled to have an opportunity to make a return visit in October (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Willows Inn). Sometimes those magical experiences are like lightning in a bottle, never to be captured again. But the second time was every bit as good, maybe better, than the first. Wetzel is a special chef and this is a special place.

There's nothing particularly showy or ostentatious about chef Blaine Wetzel's cooking. Quite the opposite, he willingly sets his ego aside and let the ingredients take center stage. That's not to diminish the skill with which he handles the wonderful things he finds in this little corner of the world, but rather to say that he really knows how to tell a story of time and place through a meal, eschewing unnecessary embellishment in favor of clarity.

An old favorite: a fragile, crisp crepe shell encasing steelhead roe and a maple cream, capped with finely snipped chives on the ends. This is just perfect. 

smoked black cod doughnuts - Willows Inn
Followed by a new (for me), perfect bite: puffy, savory doughnuts, filled with silky smoked black cod, and sprinkled with sea salt and dried seaweed. I could eat a dozen of these.

herb tostada - Willows Inn
With the sun setting over the Rosario Strait outside, there was another burst of color at our table: what Wetzel calls an herb tostada. The "tostada" is a mustard green leaf, fried in a delicate tempura style batter. It's spread with an oyster and herb emulsion, and then then topped with an assortment of vividly flavored leaves and flowers: nasturtium, shiso, basil, mint, brassica flowers, and more. It's incredibly delicate but intensely flavored, with each bite yielding a different surprise. This is a beautiful, wonderful dish.

breakfast spread - Willows Inn
One final thought. If you go to Willows Inn, you'll likely stay at Willows Inn, and if you stay at Willows Inn, a word of advice: don't skip breakfast. It is outstanding. Served family style, the lineup varies from day to day. Ours started with some fresh, luridly magenta-hued plum juice, served in a coupe glass, followed by some local doughnut peaches with creamy fresh yogurt topped with toasted hazelnut butter. Then a really glorious breakfast smorgasbord: a runny soft boiled egg; a pile of buckwheat crepes; fat slices of gravlax with fresh farmer cheese; house-smoked bacon, pancetta, and an aged, spice-rubbed cheese; kale wilted in flaxseed oil with coarse salt; sweet plum jam, tangy late-season rhubarb compote, silky fig custard drizzled with honey; a fat slab of creamy butter. Assemble as you wish. I can't imagine a better send-off.

aji chopped with ginger and scallion - Myumi
Myumi is not your typical sushi bar (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Myumi). In fact, it's a truck – a converted FedEx delivery truck, currently stationed in a lot in Wynwood. From that truck, they serve an omakase only (chef's choice) menu with only two choices: do you want to spend $40 or $60? The omakase-only format means they know exactly what they need to buy, so they buy some very good stuff: fish and shellfish straight in from Japan, uni and ikura from Alaska, tuna from Ecuador. Some items get just a brush of shoyu, others more elaborate garnishes.

Maybe my favorite bite from my last visit was this nigiri of aji, the pleasantly oily, fatty fishiness of the minced horse mackerel counterbalanced by the zing of ginger and scallion, then topped with toasted sesame seeds.

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