Friday, August 12, 2016

Thirty Great Cheap Things to Eat in Miami

A disproportionate amount of my time and energy writing here is devoted to higher end dining (leading some people to think I actually eat that way all the time!). Yes, there's a lot more glamour in a fancy tasting menu than in the average daily meal. But not necessarily more satisfaction.

And as Miami rapidly becomes an increasingly expensive place to live, there's a particular joy when that satisfaction comes cheap. As we enter the season of Miami Spice, when everyone goes scrambling to sample all the $39, 3-course dinners, this year I decided to do something different.

So forgive me for the click-bait title, but here are thirty great things to eat in Miami[1] all of them under $11.[2] A few of these come from Miami's most celebrated chefs and restaurants. Others come from places with no websites or social media managers, made by cooks whose names I will never know. Many are not terribly Instagram-friendly. What they all have in common is that they make me very happy when I eat them.

Though it was not my original purpose, and though it's obviously skewed somewhat by my own personal predilections,[3] I suspect this list might just give a more complete picture of our city than the latest restaurant "hot list" – not just the million dollar dining rooms in the South Beach and Brickell towers, but the many Latin American and Caribbean and other flavors that give Miami its – well, flavor. I'm always gratified to see exciting things happening in the Miami dining stratosphere; but there are good things closer to the ground too. Here are some of them.


1. Pan con Croqueta ($10)

I wrote recently about All Day, and won't repeat myself here. Instead, I'll mention something that only occurred to me in retrospect: how comfortably it traverses the territory between new school coffee house and old school Cuban cafecito shop. Sure, the coffee beans are a lot better than the regulation-issue Bustelo or Pilon, and they don't need to put an avalanche of sugar into an espresso to make it taste good, but there's not as much space as you might think between a fancy Gibraltar and a humble cortadito. All Day even has a ventanita where you can order from the sidewalk. And, they've got an excellent version of a pan con croqueta, with warm, creamy ham croquetas and a runny, herb-flecked egg spread, squeezed into classic crusty pan cubano.

(More pictures in this All Day - Miami flickr set).

All Day
1035 N. Miami Avenue, Miami, Florida
305-599-EGGS


2. Croqueta Sandwich ($5.90)

If All Day offers a new-school version of a pan con croqueta, the prototype can be found at Al's Coffee Shop, hidden away inside a Coral Gables office building. Despite the obscure location, it's usually full of police officers and municipal workers, who know where to find a good deal. The croqueta sandwich here starts at $4.65; you can add eggs for an extra $1.25. Bonus points: on Tuesdays, those excellent croquetas are only 25¢ apiece all day.

Al's Coffee Shop
2121 Ponce de Leon Boulevard, Coral Gables, Florida
305.461.5919


3. Curry Goat ($10; $7 on Thursday)

For as long as I've been in Miami – which is a long time – B&M Market has been open along a dodgy stretch of NE 79th Street. Run by a sweet, friendly Guyanese couple, this Caribbean market with a kitchen and small seating area in back turns out fresh rotis, staples like braised oxtails, jerk chicken, cow foot stew, and my favorite – the tender, deeply-flavored curry goat. A small portion, with rice and peas and a fresh salad, is plenty, and will set you back $10 – or go on Thursday when it's the daily lunch special, and it's only $7.

(More pictures in this B&M Market - Miami flickr set).

B&M Market
219 NE 79th Street, Miami, Florida
305.757.2889


4. Brandon's Breakfast ($19)

Wait, I thought we said $11 and under? I know, but the thing is, the "Brandon's Breakfast" – named for a fellow chef who used to cook with Blue Collar chef/owner Daniel Serfer at a prior restaurant – can easily feed two people. It includes a massive slab of brioche french toast, a bubbly buttermilk pancake, fluffy scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, crisp hash browns flecked with red peppers, even some fresh fruit! This is like a Denny's Grand Slam (a Danny's Grand Slam!), but made by someone who really cares about serving good food.

(More pictures in this Blue Collar - Miami flickr set).

Blue Collar
6730 Biscayne Boulevard
Miami, Florida
305.756.0366


5. Spicy Crispy Rice and Homemade Fermented Pork Salami Salad ($10)

Cake Thai Kitchen is a regular rotation place for us – I'll stop in to pick up from there just about once a week. Several things from their menu of Bangkok style street foods could have wound up on this list: their properly funky and spicy papaya salad, the grilled pork shoulder and roasted rice salad, their simple but perfect garlic cabbage. I've chosen this salad of crispy rice and homemade fermented Thai "salami" because it embodies everything I love about Cake's food: the unabashed jolt of hot chiles, the tang of sour sausage, the cleansing crunch of fresh vegetables, the bright cheer of fresh herbs. I'm going to be sad when they move from their hole-in-a-wall on Biscayne Boulevard to new digs in Wynwood.

(More pictures in this Cake Thai Kitchen - Miami flickr set).

Cake Thai Kitchen
7919 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami, Florida
786.534.7906


6. Ackee and Saltfish ($10)

You can get a traditional Jamaican breakfast of ackee and saltfish at Clife's Cafe, now located in Little Haiti after moving north from Wynwood. The combination of creamy, starchy ackee fruit and silky, salty, rehydrated dried cod somehow makes me think of a classic breakfast from another culture: lox, eggs and onions. Rounded out with dense, chewy dumplings, a slab of yam, and starchy bananas, this breakfast may fill you up until dinner.

Clive's Cafe
5890 NW 2nd Avenue, Miami, Florida
305.757.6512

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Monday, August 8, 2016

best thing i ate last week: orange chocolate souffle at Pinch Kitchen


I'm not much of a dessert person, but there are certain things that hit certain spots for me. The combination of orange and chocolate is one of them, going back to a childhood fondness for the mandarin chocolate sherbet at Baskin Robbins (the flavor was discontinued many years ago, but memories persist). So when I see a dessert with orange and chocolate, I have trouble not ordering it.

Somehow I missed it on my first visit to Pinch Kitchen, a new-ish restaurant opened up on the northern periphery of the "MiMo District" along Biscayne Boulevard by a couple Pubbelly alumni, John Gallo and Rene Reyes. But their short list of desserts includes an orange and chocolate soufflé, baked right inside hollowed out oranges, and served with a classic creme anglaise. I went back for brunch this weekend to try it (and a couple other things).

The soufflé is airy and light but intense with chocolate flavor, drawing some extra citrus perfume as you scrape your spoon across the inside of the orange skin. I don't know if Baskin Robbins is ever bringing back mandarin chocolate sherbet, but this is a good substitute.

Also very good: a wahoo tartare from the daily specials at Pinch, given some tangy brightness from a fine brunoise of fresh peach, and some zing from fresh red chiles.

(There are a few more pictures in this Pinch Kitchen - Miami flickr set).

Pinch Kitchen
8601 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami, Florida
305.631.2018

Monday, August 1, 2016

best thing i ate last week: etouffee brute at Dusk


The last time I was at Cena by Michy (which would, alas, turn out to be the last time I would ever be at Cena, which closed a couple months later), Michelle Bernstein introduced me to her latest chef de cuisine, Mike Mayta. He – and his wife Keily Vazquez, who together also ran Illegal Bakery – were joining a distinguished group of alumni who have passed through Michy's kitchens and dining rooms: Timon Balloo, Lindsay Autry, Jason Schaan, Berenice de Araujo, coctkail master Julio Cabrera, wine savant Allegra Angelo.

Cena is gone, but chefs Mayta and Vazquez have found another place to ply their trade, with a pop-up called Dusk, operating in the Crumb on Parchment space in the Design District (probably not coincidentally, also run by Chef Bernstein). They've put together a menu of a baker's dozen of dishes, some with Latin leanings (ajiaco pot pie, brisket saltado), others a bit more gastropub-y (chicken 'n' biscuit with chicken liver mousse, chorizo scotch egg), and some with a little bit of both (yuca fry poutine).

We made our way through a good bit of that menu Saturday night, and enjoyed everything we tried. My favorite – very possibly influenced by its having been inspired by the Burger of the Day from Bob's Burgers – was the "Etouffee Brute." This Cajun-Italian hybrid combined risotto style carnaroli rice, bound and enriched by a ruddy seafood stew studded with strips of nubby octopus, bolstered and warmed with 'nduja sausage, flecked with slivers of dried okra, and crowned with a plump, juicy head-on royal red shrimp.


A strong runner-up was a summery dessert from Keily Vazquez which combined dainty little blueberry pies with a delicious sweet corn ice cream.

You can see all the pictures from our dinner in this Dusk - Miami Design District flickr set.

Dusk is operating Thursday-Saturday evenings in the Crumb space, from 6pm to 10:30pm, with plans to be there through September.

Dusk
3930 N.E. 2nd Avenue, Miami, Florida
786.292.6799

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

first thoughts: All Day (Downtown Miami)


Most of the time, I skip breakfast. I know, they say you're not supposed to, most important meal of the day, blah blah blah – but a cup or two of my inartfully home-brewed coffee first thing in the morning and I'm usually good to go. And yet, I actually love breakfast foods, especially those on the savory side of the aisle: eggs, toast, bacon, sausage – these are all wonderful delicious things. And I'll gladly eat them any time of day.

So I was pretty excited when I heard about All Day, a spot that recently opened in the "Arts & Entertainment District" on the northern edge of downtown Miami. The concept is pretty straightforward: good coffee and egg dishes, served all day. I was even more excited when I learned it was run by Camila Ramos, the talented barista and former head of Panther Coffee's retail operations.


The coffee menu at All Day – posted on the wall in green neon behind a massive Marzocco espresso machine – is a bit enigmatic and designed to foster a conversation. "01 - Double Shot" is straightforward enough, a double shot of straight espresso (pulled with Ruby Coffee Roasters' Creamery Blend; the Panther alumnae is now a free agent and uses beans from several different roasters). But "02 - & Milk" requires some more user input: what's your preferred ratio of milk to coffee, do you like your milk foam wet or dry?

(You can see all my pictures in this All Day - Miami flickr set).

The ten choices also feature drip, pour-over, and cold brew coffees, including a nitrogen gas infused version with the thick, frothy texture of a well-pulled Guinness; esoterica like "Royal Tea" (an infusion of coffee cherry husks and evaporated milk, also given the nitro treatment); and a rotating daily special (currently a concoction of cold brew and rosemary limeade).

I am not really a coffee geek, and won't pretend to be. So I can't tell you much other than that the espresso I had on my first visit was bright and rich and creamy; the "& Milk" I had on my next visit, with a 2:1 espresso:milk ratio (in Miami we'd call this a cortadito; in San Francisco you might call it a  "Gibraltar"), was even better. I usually drink my coffee black, but the short pour of milk nicely tempered the acidity of the coffee.

Can we talk about something I actually know something about?

The food menu at All Day, created by chef Charles Lutka, who ran Gigi for the past five years, is very egg-intensive. There are three variations on the theme of breakfast sandwich. The first of these, the "Runny & Everything," combines a sunny-side-up fried egg with a couple slices of bacon, sharp cheddar cheese, lettuce, and a thick slab of tomato, all served on a puffy, everything-spice dusted brioche bun. Though nominally a sandwich, this is – as the name warns – a gooey, fork and knife affair. It was a good combination; I think a sturdier bread might give it a little more architectural integrity, something more up to the task of sopping up that runny yolk.


The Pan Con Croqueta was another tasty combination that I wound up giving the Costanza treatment. A variation on a Cuban breakfast staple, this sandwich was anchored by a couple plump, crisp-edged pork croquetas, resting atop a runny, green-hued, herb-flecked egg spread, with some gouda cheese for a little extra creaminess and thin-sliced pickles for some tart contrast. Even the sturdier Cuban bread couldn't quite hold together the runny egg salad, though this was another delightfully happy mess. I suppose if I want to keep my hands clean, I should try the "One Handed" next.

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Sunday, July 17, 2016

Cobaya Qui at Pao

Every time we do one of these Cobaya dinners, there are always any number of things which can go wrong. We ask the chefs to push themselves, to truly treat it as an experiment; and not every experiment succeeds. We encourage ambition, even when sometimes the reach may exceed the grasp. A dish just may not work, or the execution may falter when the scale goes from a test run in the kitchen to a service for a big group.

Then every so often we miss in the opposite direction, and fail to instill the trust or confidence that emboldens a chef to go outside of their comfort zone.[1] Even a very good meal can be something of a disappointment – for us, anyway – if it doesn't offer something different from the usual restaurant experience.

I'd been to Paul Qui's restaurant Pao in the Faena Miami Beach once before, very shortly after it opened (and wrote about it here, where you can also get much of Chef Qui's back story). I had a good meal – some dishes were great – but it felt restrained, like there was a lot more reverberating under the surface. It almost seemed as if he was cooking for this room, trying to match the polish of the gilded (literally!) ceiling and multi-million dollar Damien Hirst sculpture that is its centerpiece. I wanted to see what he could do if unburdened by those expectations, and just allowed to cook.

Qui and his chef de cuisine at Pao, Derek Salkin, did exactly that this past Thursday for fifty of us guinea pigs. And this one got pretty much everything right.

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya Qui at Pao flickr set).


After a welcome cocktail, a variation on a blackberry bramble, which some enjoyed on the terrace, we settled into several communal tables to start dinner.


A couple small bites to start: first, kumamoto oysters, topped with sake granite, in a frothy puddle with flavors of shiso, umeboshi and tomato. Next, upright lumpia, their crisp shells filled with foie gras, tangy, floral passionfruit, szechuan peppercorn for zing, crumbled pistachio for nutty depth.


This first full course was an unusual one, but I liked how it all pulled together. The base of the plate was covered with a film of slippery, silky rice milk, dotted with olive oil, an herbaceous green purée, and flower petals. That was the platform for a scoop of creamy, milky fresh ricotta, laden with shiny smoked trout roe and ribbons of white kimchi, the fermented cabbage adding some kick and contrast. A twisted black garlic cracker topped the odd but tasty composition.

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