Monday, October 24, 2016

Cobaya Gabe at Bourbon Steak

It's hard for me to believe it's been six years. But sure enough, it's been that and then some since our first Cobaya dinner with Chef Gabriel Fenton of Michael Mina's Bourbon Steak in Aventura, back in May 2010. That was only our sixth experiment, and in our eagerness to push chefs to work outside of their comfort zones, we told Gabe that he could cook whatever he wanted – as long as it wasn't steak. It was our bit of rebellion against the then-common trend of big-name chefs opening nothing but steakhouses in Miami.[1]

It was a great dinner, but man, was that dumb.

We've been looking to make a repeat visit for some time, and it finally happened last week. This time around, we told Gabe – who I think is one of South Florida's most skilled chefs – he could really cook whatever he wanted.

That was smart.

(Full set of pictures can be seen in this Cobaya Gabriel Fenton flickr set).

We started the same way every meal at Bourbon Steak starts: with some of their outstanding duck fat fries, here, dusted with truffle and accompanied by some candied bacon. While we usually insist that everything at our dinners be off-menu, these (1) are not actually on the menu at B.S.; and (2) would be worth making an exception anyway. Also making the rounds as folks gathered at the bar was some hearty antelope chili, served with fingerling potato chips, and flavorful Florida grass-fed beef satay skewers.

Once we settled into B.S.'s private dining room, dinner started with oysters a few different ways: Wianno oysters on the half-shell, garnished with ponzu and a brunoise of green apple, and also with crispy shallot and a coin of chorizo (?); and, even better, a really excellent rendition of classic Oysters Rockefeller.

Next, something you wouldn't likely ever find on the menu at Bourbon Steak, but executed at the exact same level: buffalo sweetbreads. The delicate, cloud-like sweetbreads were encased in a crisp shell laced with hot sauce, and served over a silky celery root purée topped with crumbled Pt. Reyes blue cheese.

(continued ...)

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Boragó - Santiago, Chile

As I mentioned in Part 1 of my Chile travelogue, before we'd decided to visit Chile, I knew very little about the country's food. In fact, there was only one restaurant I could name: Boragó. Boragó's chef, Rodolfo Guzman, opened the restaurant in 2007 after taking an interesting path into the kitchen: he studied chemical engineering, went to culinary school when a broken ankle ended a career as a professional water-skier, then spent time working at Andoni Luis Aduriz's restaurant Mugaritz in Spain's Basque Country before returning home to open his own place.

It took several years, but eventually, Boragó drew the attention of the International Dining Mafia: it now ranks No. 37 on the "World's 50 Best Restaurants" list, and No. 4 among "Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants" – whatever the heck those rankings mean. I think the whole concept of these numerical rankings is goofy, before even addressing the many other valid criticisms lodged against the "50 Best" list. But it can still be a useful tool for finding restaurants, particularly in regions that don't get as much critical attention otherwise.

One of those criticisms is that the restaurants on the list tend to have a certain sameness to them: high-end, expensive tasting menus, chasing the same fashionable ingredient trends, plated according to the same aesthetic. On the surface, Boragó might seem to fall into that camp: another pricey, tasting-menu place. But from its inception, Boragó set out to explore the largely unheralded ingredients and cooking methods of Chile's native peoples, and it dives deep. When you order the "Endemíca" tasting menu at Boragó, you are given not a menu, but a map: literally, a map of Chile, stretching along the Pacific coast of South America from the northern desert of Atacama to the Tierra del Fuego in the south, the last stop before Antarctica.

My recap here reconstructs what I have gathered about our meal from the contemporaneous descriptions as they were presented (which came at us in a mix of English and sometimes rapid-fire Spanish, depending on who brought the dish to the table), Instagram posts from Chef Guzman, and some independent research after the fact.

(You can see all my pictures in this Boragó - Santiago, Chile flickr set).

A "chilenito" is usually a sweet layered cookie like an alfajor filled with manjar (milk caramel, a/k/a dulce de leche); but here, as the first bite of the meal, it took the form of a thin, crisp cracker layered with creme fraiche, tart sea strawberry, and as the top layer, a preserved edible leaf. Sea strawberry would be the first of many ingredients I'd never encountered before. Called "frutilla de mar" in Chile, it's a coastal succulent with a tangy-sweet flavor that is indeed similar to strawberry, with a hint of salt.[1]

Even with after-the-fact googling, I couldn't figure out why this dish was called "chuchum" on the menu we received after the dinner. Served balanced on some branches, it was like a miniature tart in a potato shell with layers of locos (Chilean abalone), creme fraiche and membrillo.

chupe de hongos de Quintay
The next course was served in a wide ceramic bowl, which was brought to the table wrapped in cloth. Inside the bowl was a "chupe" – a stew – of wild mushrooms from Quintay, a town on the Pacific coast due west from Santiago. At the base of the bowl was a thick purée of the richly flavored mushrooms, which had been hung over embers for five hours. Arranged above the purée were several pickled and dehydrated leaves. The server finished the dish by pouring into the bowl whey from pajarito (kefir?) yogurt which had been infused with eucalyptus. This was like the flavors of a forest, concentrated in one bowl: the earthy, meaty mushrooms, their flavors deepened over the smoke; the pickled leaves; the woodsy scent of eucalyptus, all of it pulled together in the lactic tang of the whey. It was a unique and memorable dish.

(continued ...)

Monday, October 3, 2016

best thing i ate last week: pan con tumaca at Alter

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.

Unfortunately, Saturday was the last lunch service at Alter, which is too bad: the 5-course lunch tasting for $39 was one of the best meals you will ever find at that price. (You can see pictures of the whole meal in this Alter - Lunch flickr set; the pan con tumaca was an extra sent out by the kitchen). But the trade-off will be a reinvigorated focus on dinner service at Alter, including an upcoming addition of some grilling stations outside to do some live fire cooking. Good things coming.

223 NW 23rd Street, Miami, Florida

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

best thing i ate last week: ice cream sandwich at Cream Parlor

Sometimes, it's the simple things that deliver immense satisfaction. I'd just finished brunch at Pinch Kitchen on Biscayne Boulevard, and noticed that the new ice cream place across the street, Cream Parlor, had finally opened. I took a peek inside, and was pleasantly surprised at what a charming little place it was, loaded with vintage tchotchkes on the walls, mismatched coffee mugs, and flowery grandma plates. It also turns out to be a lot more than just an ice cream shop: there's a pretty extensive breakfast menu, plus sandwiches, tartines, salads, and healthy-sounding vegetable dishes like curried chickpeas and sriracha lentils.

The ice cream flavors veer more playful rather than artisanal: Red Velvet Cake, Prince-inspired Purple Rain, technicolor-hued Unicorn Poop. Among many other options, you can construct an ice cream sandwich from your choice of flavor and cookie, which I did with their salty peanut ice cream and Belgian chocolate and bacon cookies. I highly recommend the combination. What's more, the couple running the place, Johnny and Ainsley Tsokos, are as sweet as their ice creams.

(Some more pictures in this Cream Parlor flickr set).

Cream Parlor
8224 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami, Florida

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

first thoughts: Phuc Yea - Miami MiMo District

It's hard for me to believe it's been five years.

But it's been almost exactly five years to the day since I checked out a curious little pop-up restaurant in a non-descript café in downtown Miami. September 8, 2011 was opening day for Phuc Yea!, a little experiment in Vietnamese flavors by Aniece Mienhold and Cesar Zapata, the team who had previously been at a fun little spot in Buena Vista called Blue Piano. (You can read the report here and see more pictures in this flickr set.) I came away pretty excited by what they were doing: banh cuon so good we immediately ordered two more rounds; tasty salt and pepper smelts; a salad of pig ears marinated in nuoc cham, then fried crisp and served over cubed watermelon; chewy pork riblets with a soy caramel glaze.

That was five years ago. The Phuc Yea pop-up had its three-month run. Then Cesar and Aniece went on to do something different, opening The Federal, which they styled as a "Modern American Tavern," serving buffalo pig wings, creamy duck rillettes topped with marshmallow fluff, and biscuits so good that Williams-Sonoma started selling them. (You can read my thoughts on The Federal here).[1]

But, like me, they never forgot about Phuc Yea, and never gave up on the idea of reviving it. That idea became reality this past week, as they opened a new Phuc Yea in a permanent home in the "MiMo District."

This one is all grown up, in a beautiful bi-level space in an Art Deco style building along Biscayne Boulevard.[2] There's a raw bar and small lounge with a few tables at the entrance, some more tables outside, and upstairs, a dining room with moody, dramatic lighting and another big, welcoming bar, plus plans in the works for an outdoor patio in the back when the weather cools off.

(You can see all my pictures in this Phuc Yea - Miami flickr set).

The menu brings back many of the dishes from the original pop-up, plus several new items too. Most notably, there's now a raw bar featuring oysters on the half shell with a lemongrass and ginger mignonette, a daily crudo, steamed gulf shrimp and lobster, which can be ordered a la carte or as a seafood tower. There's also a "cajun wok" section of the menu, inspired by the hybrid Vietnamese/Cajun crawfish boil restaurants which seem to have originated in Houston and are catching on elsewhere (some good background on the phenomenon in this Southern Foodways video and this piece by Robb Walsh). You can get crab, shrimp, clams, or in season, crawfish, served up with a choice of sauces: cajun, green curry, garlic butter, or chili garlic.

We started with an old favorite, the banh cuon, or pork rolling cake: chewy wide rice noodles, swimming in nuoc cham, that Vietnamese elixir of fish sauce, citrus, garlic and chiles that winds its way like a Bootsy Collins bass line through so many dishes here,[3] garnished with savory ground pork, nubs of cha lua sausage, earthy wood-ear mushrooms, funky dried shrimp, fresh cucumbers and cilantro. It still hits all the right spots for me. So did the meaty, chewy pork riblets, which now also get smoked for an extra layer of flavor.

For something new, I really enjoyed a simple, bright, clean dish of fresh mango and chunky cucumber, tossed with slivered red onions, toasted garlic, dried chiles, bean sprouts and herbs. A light wash of nuoc cham intensifies the flavors, like salting a slice of watermelon. This is a great thing to cut the richness of a buttery seafood boil or a big steak.

(continued ...)