Monday, January 26, 2015

A Weekend of Dining (and other things) in Tampa / St. Petersburg - Edison Food + Drink Lab, Ted Peters Smoked Fish, Fodder & Shine

I was shocked when I learned that Mrs. F had never been to Bern's Steak House, a Tampa institution that goes back to the 1950's, looks like a bordello, serves excellent in-house dry-aged steaks, and has one of the most remarkable wine lists of any restaurant in the world.[1] I resolved the next time we had a free weekend that we'd remedy that oversight. So over the MLK Day long weekend, we reserved a room at the Vinoy in St. Petersburg, a Mediterranean Revival style grand old dame built in the 1920's (of the same era and in much the same style as the Biltmore in Coral Gables) and made plans to hit the road.

As it turns out, Bern's was fully booked the entire weekend. But even though the motivating purpose of the endeavor was defeated, I still had a list of places along Florida's west coast to visit. It's only a few hours away, but I've not spent a lot of time on Florida's Gulf Coast, and in my admittedly limited experience the dining options seemed dominated by chains and tourist traps. But with a little more digging, I found plenty – both old and new – that intrigued.

edison food + drink lab

On the new side, we visited edison food + drink lab, a two-year old restaurant that sprang out of a pop-up called KitchenBar. But it seems that new and old are not so easily separated: the chef/owner behind Edison, Jeannie Pierola, had been the chef at Bern's and then its more casual sibling SideBern's for several years before going out on her own. The restaurants couldn't be more different: where Bern's is all red velvet and filigree, Edison's design motifs run to corrugated metal and unfinished concrete. Bern's is for the most part resolutely, delightfully stodgy; Edison is much more contemporary in spirit.

(You can see all my pictures in this edison food + drink lab flickr set).

Edison's menu consists mostly of small plates, happily not so precious and dainty that they can't be shared. Escargot and cipollini onion crostini were doused with a black garlic bagna cauda. A salad paired fried green tomatoes with preserved lemon goat cheese, together with arugula and shaved fennel.

Oysters were dappled with ink-black charcoal butter and a sweet corn mignonette. I loved these flavors – I only wished the oysters themselves were either warmer or cooler, not in-between. A New England-meets-the-Caribbean chowder, swimming with slices of fat sea scallop, plump clams, shrimp, corn, hearts of palm and serrano chiles, smartly used a coconut bacon dashi as its base, loaded with flavor but avoiding the heaviness of the typical cream-laden version.

Squash blossom "rangoons" were stuffed with lump crab meat and fried, served over a blood orange ginger jam. Avocado leaf seared tuna came with a crash scene of ingredients that actually mostly worked: green mango salad, aji amarillo sorbet, fish sauce caramel, tamarind peanut crunch. For dessert, the components of rocky road ice cream, and then some – dark chocolate cremeux, marcona almond nougat crumbles, frozen marshmallows, torched meringue, vanilla ice cream and lashings of chocolate sauce – were taken apart only to happily be put back together again.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

CobaYeo at Khong River House

For Cobaya experiment #47, we returned to the site of experiment #30, almost exactly two years ago: Khong River House, just off Lincoln Road on Miami Beach. In the interim, there had been changes in the kitchen – owner John Kunkel had lured Chef Patricia Yeo down from Chicago to head up the restaurant – and we were excited to see what was new.

Chef Yeo worked with Bobby Flay at several of his New York restaurants before opening several of her own places, first in New York and then Boston, including Om and Moksa. In 2012, she left Boston to join Chicago's Lettuce Entertain You group, for which she served as creative director of a fast-casual Asian mini-chain, Big Bowl. Some of you may also remember her from her appearance on Bravo's Top Chef Masters show. She only recently joined Khong and has been in the process of making its menu her own.

But when we do Cobaya dinners, we don't want the restaurant menu, and I was happy that Chef Yeo did not constrain herself. Rather, she put together a "belly" themed menu for our dinner featuring some form of belly in each course.

(You can see all my pictures in this CobaYeo flickr set).

To start things off: clam bellies. Served family style for the table to share, these plump, juicy clams were lightly battered and fried, together with a zingy aioli spiked with lemon and capers. I've paid one visit to Khong since Chef Yeo took over, and from my limited sample size, this dish (even though there was nothing Asain about it) is characteristic of her style: very bright, defined flavors. There's an angularity rather than a roundness to her cooking, if that makes any sense: you taste each component distinctly and vividly.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Best Dishes of 2014 - Part 3

We're in the home stretch. Here is Part 3 of my favorite dishes of the past year. This last set includes several more welcome additions to the Miami dining universe: N by Naoe, Oolite, L'Echon Brasserie, Mignonette, Proof, Seagrape, plus dishes from chefs Diego Oka, Danny Grant and Brad Kilgore. There's also a few items from visits to the Northeast (Toronto, Boston, Maine and Quebec) and a couple great meals in Chicago a couple months ago. In case you missed it: Part 1 and Part 2. You can also see all the pictures in this Best Dishes of 2014 flickr set.

Bento Box – N by Naoe (Brickell Key, Miami) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from N by Naoe)

A few minutes after you're seated, a three-tiered bento box is brought to your table. It's unpacked to reveal six compartments, each stocked with several different items – similar in style and quality to the elaborate bento that starts a meal at Naoe.

So what's inside? This day: a battera roll of madai (sea bream) and pickled kombu with fried canistel (a/k/a eggfruit); tender braised pork jowl with mustard and miso, with boniato, white asparagus and local green beans; house-made jackfruit seed tofu topped with Hokkaido uni, with junsai (a/k/a water shield, a sort of slippery aquatic plant); a bit of Maine lobster with avocado and pea shoots; grilled black-bellied rosefish (a local deepwater fish in the scorpionfish family) with key lime; the same fish in a different preparation, simmered, with roasted eggplant and okra; sashimi of snowy grouper with komochi kombu (herring roe that have been laid on seaweed) and delightfully sticky aori ika (big fin squid) pressed with nori. Also, in typical Japanese fashion, a rice bowl (studded with bamboo shoots), pickles (eggplant and kombu), and soup (corn miso with slivers of daikon radish and leek).

Snapper Crudo – Oolite (Miami Beach) (see all my pictures from Oolite)

I was crushed when Kris Wessel closed his beloved Red Light a few years ago. He wrote a beautiful menu for Florida Cookery in the James Hotel, but didn't stay long in the kitchen. Then this summer he resurfaced at Oolite, a new spot off Lincoln Road with a pronounced focus on healthy eating. There are still some old Red Light classics – Wessel's fantastic New Orleans style BBQ shrimp, and his smoked, guanabana glazed ribs – and some great new things too.

One of my favorites in the latter category is Oolite's snapper crudo:  lean, sweet pinkish-white slivers of local fish, bathed in ginger-infused citrus juices, and garnished with floral, sweet lychees or rambutans and chewy green pumpkin seeds.

Raie a la Grenoblaise, Cervelles de Veau MeuniereL'Echon Brasserie (Miami Beach) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from L'Echon)

You can go old-school [at L'Echon]: there are seafood platters, pâté de campagne, steak tartare, moules and frites. Or you can find things more unconventional: hamachi crudo with black garlic soy, crushed tomatoes and olives, pan-roasted veal brains with brown butter and blue crab tartar sauce, a tartine topped with foie gras and nutella. There's also plenty in between, like this skate wing a la grenobloise, prepared with brown butter, capers, slivered grapes, and dried cranberries over a celeriac puree.

Yellowtail and Peruvian Potato Stew – Chef Diego Oka, "Cobayapalooza" dinner (Wynwood, Miami) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Cobayapalooza)

Diego Oka's yellowtail dish was, for me, one of the most intriguing of the night. While ceviche tends to get all the attention these days, there's an incredible diversity to Peruvian cooking, which his dish highlighted. The fish was served over a curry-spiced, chocolate-dusted potato stew, which had a fascinating, nubby texture and great depth of flavor. A translucent quinoa crisp, peanut butter powder and a sauce of huacatay (Peruvian black mint, with a zing sort of between typical mint and basil) completed the dish.

Lamb Loin Crepinette – Chef Danny Grant, "Cobayapalooza" dinner (Wynwood, Miami) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Cobayapalooza)

Danny Grant of 1826 provided the last savory course, and it was a good one. He wrapped a lamb loin, cooked to a rosy pink hue, and a meaty farce, in a shiny pig skin crepinette. One of the slices was topped with a perfect curl of frozen foie gras. A sauté of corn and tiny chanterelle mushrooms, and a textbook glossy reduction perked up with the Moroccan, ras al hanout style "Tangier" spice blend, completed the dish.

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Monday, December 29, 2014

Best Dishes of 2014 - Part 2

Picking up where we left off in our Best Dishes of 2014 – Part 1, here are the next twenty. The end of Part 1 coincided with the last days of our two week, twentieth anniversary trip to Japan. Part 2 here starts in Los Angeles, where I took Frod Jr. during his spring break for a quick college tour. I've never spent much time in LA and never particularly wanted to – I've always envisioned it as embodying some of Miami's worst features, on steroids. But I'll say this: there's some good eating there.

This set also includes a few great new additions to the Miami  restaurant landscape – BlackBrick, Zak the Baker and Niu Kitchen – and some outstanding one-off dishes from the increasingly deep pool of local talent, including Jeremiah Bullfrog, Timon Balloo, Brad Kilgore, Conor Hanlon and Giorgio Rapicavoli.

Jeremiah and I happened to be in NYC at the same time in June, and lucked into a last-minute seating at Atera – which was one of the best meals I had all year.

(You can see all the dishes in my Best Dishes of 2014 flickr set).

Chicken Gizzards with Beets and Endive, Agnolotti Alla VaccinaraBestia (Los Angeles) (see all my pictures from Bestia)

There are some combinations that sound so absurd that they have to either be fantastic or complete train wrecks. Needless to say, when I see them on a menu I'm drawn to them. The pan-roasted chicken gizzards with roasted beets, Belgian endive and capra sarda cheese at Bestia is a perfect example. There's nothing about this that makes sense, and yet it works beautifully, a compelling combination of assertive, often bitter flavors and substantial textures that I thorougly enjoyed.

The agnolotti at Bestia was not quite as far out there, but still was another bold – and delicious – dish: glossy pillows of pasta filled with silky braised oxtail, dyed the color of dark chocolate with cacao mixed into the pasta, and napped with a lush butter sauce speckled with pine nuts and currants.

Country Ham, Hushpuppies and Honey ButterSon of a Gun (Los Angeles) (see all my pictures from Son of a Gun)

Son of a Gun is the seafood-focused second restaurant of Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, who opened their first restaurant, Animal, to much acclaim in 2008 (South Florida connection: they went to culinary school in Fort Lauderdale and worked for Michelle Bernstein at the Strand before heading out to LA). We ate a lot of good things at lunch there – hamachi crudo with tart apples and crunchy sprouts topped with a kalbi vinaigrette, their brilliant little lobster roll – but  the surprise hit was a platter of salty-sweet Broadbent country ham served with a pile of hot, crispy hushpuppies and a swath of creamy honey butter. Wrap a slice of ham around a hushpuppy; swipe through the honey butter; and smile.

Twice Shucked PeasRustic Canyon (Santa Monica) (see all my pictures from Rustic Canyon)

Back when he was at vegetarian restaurant / yogu studio Ubuntu in Napa, there was a huge groundswell of interest in the work chef Jeremy Fox was doing. He was a 2008 Food &; Wine Best New Chef and a 2009 Starchefs Rising Star. Then he left Ubuntu (which has since closed), and Fox seemed to fall off the map for a bit. His name would come up in any number of projects, but most never quite seemed to go anywhere. These days, he's at Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica, and seems to not get nearly as much attention as he did five years ago.

The food we had at Rustic Canyon wasn't flashy. Indeed, it was the opposite: humble, ego-free cooking. But man, was it good. Our spring visit was the right time to catch a signature Fox dish: his twice-shucked peas, paired with macadamia nuts, white chocolate, chocolate mint, and a consomme of the pea pods. This was a clean, utterly beautiful dish. A brief side note: the smashed fingerling potatoes doused in chicken giblet gravy were so good we got two orders.

Squid Ink GarganelliOrsa & Winston (Los Angeles) (see all my pictures from Orsa & Winston)

Here's yet another great meal I haven't gotten around to writing about. I loved the off-the-cuff, improvisational feel at Josef Centeno's Orsa & Winston. You can do an eight-course $85 tasting menu, or a more abbreviated five-course $60 option that gives little hint of what's coming: "Crudo - Soup - Grain - Meat - Sweet".[1] If you want, you can choose to add extra courses at $12 a pop. There's also a smattering of a la carte dishes, also mostly intended as supplements to the chef's choice menu. People talk about the "tyranny of the tasting menu," but the approach here gives much more of a "Choose Your Own Adventure" feel to the experience.

The dishes sent out on any given night change, even during the course of a service from one table to the next. We had a lot of good things, but my favorite was this pasta dish of jet black squid ink garganelli, bound with a stinging nettle pesto, and topped with crispy golden bread crumbs, bright citrus zest and powdery shavings of pecorino cheese.

Carla's Garden TomatoesSubatomic Sandwiches (Miami Beach) (see all my pictures from Subatomic)

Back home in Miami, Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog had opened a sub shop (since closed) in the gift shop of the Wolfsonian on South Beach. During off hours, he would occasionally throw together some pop-up meals. These were a lot of fun, and I was particularly happy with this elegant but simple dish: backyard tomatoes, served with perky squash blossoms, a smooth gazpacho sauce and crispy bread crumbs. It tasted just like the garden, in the best possible way.

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