Monday, November 30, 2015

best thing i ate last week: cod confit a la catalana at Cobaya Niu

Sometimes I will read a dish description and have no clue how it could possibly taste good. This was one of those. The chef was Deme Lomas, the spot was Niu Kitchen, which was playing host to our 58th Cobaya dinner on Monday night. The dish was cod with dry figs, roasted onions, mustard and honey. Why would anyone put all those sweet things with a piece of fish?

Shows what I know. Here, the residual saltiness of the rehydrated bacalao, all unctuous and shiny, was balanced against the sweetness of the figs and honey; the zing of mustard for a bit of contrast, a nest of golden caramelized onions as a bridge between savory and sweet. The combination of salt cod and honey actually has a long history in Catalan cooking, which is Chef Lomas' focus at Niu Kitchen. Here's Colman Andrews in his book "Catalan Cuisine: Europe's Last Great Culinary Secret":
I remember a game I used to play with friends, in younger years, of trying to invent the most unlikely or revolting-sounding food combinations possible – things, I recall, like raw oysters with chocolate sauce and pineapple-clam cake. This dish, I imagine, must sound a bit like one of those to many readers – or at least like some mindless nouvelle (or nova) excess. In fact, though, salt cod with honey is neither nouvelle nor revolting. It's an old Catalan mountain dish, first mentioned in print in the seventeenth century and said to have been an invention of necessity – the union of two easily stored, well-preserved ingredients, eaten together simply to provide a kind of calorie-loading, essential for survival in cold climates during the cropless winter months.
The most exciting dishes can be those you don't expect to work. This one was the best thing I ate last week.

Friday, November 27, 2015

best thing i ate last week: pork braised in milk at Eating House

As I groggily arise, still digesting last night's Thanksgiving feast (while simultaneously plotting what to do with the leftovers), it occurs to me that I'm still a week behind on "best thing i ate last week." So let's catch up.

Sometimes for no good reason, restaurants fall off your radar screen. That had happened to me with Eating House. Though I've always had good meals there, somehow more than a year had passed without a visit. I've been back in twice in the past couple months, and it's been better than ever. The old "standards" are still around – the tomatoes with coconut ice, the chicken and "foiffles" – but much is new as well, including roughly half the menu now being taken over by vegetable-centered dishes.

(You can see all my pictures from the restaurant in this Eating House 2.0 flickr set).

Many of these have been very good, like the burnt cabbage with fried garlic and egg vinaigrette, and the red wine risotto with bitter radicchio, pistachios and dried black olives. But the star of my last visit was a pork dish.

The starting point is maiale al latte: pork braised in milk, an old school Italian dish that is about as traif as you can get, which yields fork-tender meat in a rich brown sauce of pork juices and fat emulsified in reduced milk that is almost like a porcine dulce de leche. But then chef Giorgio Rapicavoli does a few things his nonna wouldn't do. He adds crumbles of raw cauliflower, which sounds odd but works, the squeaky texture and fresh, vegetal flavor providing some contrast against all that richness. He adds meaty seared mushrooms and petals of charred onion, upping the umami quotient. He sprinkles it with charred vegetable ash, an intensified iteration of the caramelization that produces the sauce.

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Sunday, November 22, 2015

best thing i ate last week: Guillermo's Taco de Chicalada from Taquiza

Before I fall a full week behind, a quick "B.T.I.A.L.W." Competition was fierce, as everyone came strong for P.I.G. 6 last Sunday, but my single favorite bite of the day was "Guillermo's Taco de Chicaladas" from Chef Steve Santana of Taquiza. I learned from masa master Steve that "Guillermo" is Izzy's Oyster chef Will Crandall; I learned from a commenter here that "chicaladas" are the tasty little bits of pork from the bottom of the pot. Topped with a roughly chopped salsa and folded into a perfect two-bite sized taquito speckled with chiles de arbol, this was a perfect little package.

Runners-up: the chitlins and chorizo paella from Edge's Chef Aaron Brooks; the miso butterscotch laquered pork belly with black olive crumble and smoked banana purée from Alter's Bradley Kilgore. And there were plenty more great things too (you can see most of them in this P.I.G. 6 flickr set and read a recap here).

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Cobaya del Cielo with Chef Juan Manuel Barientos

There are few places in the United States where you can have as varied a sampling of Latin American flavors as in Miami. And yet there are only a handful of such restaurants here that strive to operate on the higher end of the dining spectrum. Decades ago Douglas Rodriguez did it with Yuca and then Ola, and more recently, Gaston Acurio's branch of La Mar in Brickell raises the bar for Peruvian food. But these types of places are still the exceptions.

Add El Cielo to the mix. Its chef is Juan Manuel Barrientos, a 31-year old who looks like he could be half that age, but whose flagship in Bogotá, Colombia has already been recognized in the S. Pellegrino "Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants" list. His ambitious tasting menus mix traditional Colombian ingredients with modernist methods and dramatic presentations. Earlier this year, he opened another iteration here in Miami, which a couple weeks ago played host to our 57th "Cobaya" dinner.

Here's how it went:

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya del Cielo flickr set).

After a bit of a head fake to start (we had our guinea pigs meet at a small café around the corner from the restaurant's location inside the Brickell on the River condo, where they were given a little snack for the walk over), we had cocktails out on the patio before being led inside to the dining room.

Things get kind of weird quickly. The meal starts with what Chef "JuanMa" calls "chocotherapy": liquid chocolate that is poured over the diners' hands, meant to be rubbed into one's skin and then licked off. It's messy, it's goofy, but it also gets everybody laughing and it smells great too.

That's followed by another cocktail, a "mistela" of aguardiente and passion fruit (which would probably have been better if served colder) and a snack he called "Follow the Stars" made up of a crisp sheet of nori topped with toasted sesame seeds, citrus curd and candied slivers of carambola (a/k/a star fruit). This uncannily reminded me of a snack I'd had five years ago at El Bulli, a nori cracker filled with tart lemon and sesame.

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Thursday, November 19, 2015

P.I.G. 6 [Pork Is Good] - a celebration of all things pig orchestrated by Chef Jeremiah

I'm not usually a big fan of the typical food events where a bunch of restaurants set up stations and everyone lines up to taste a bunch of tepid – usually boring – bites. "P.I.G." (i.e., "Pork Is Good"), which Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog of the gastroPod has now orchestrated for six years running, defies those generally low expectations. In fact, it's one of my favorite Miami food events of the year.

This all started back in 2009 when Jeremiah rounded up a small group of people at Harvey's by the Bay (a bar in an American Legion outpost which backs on to Biscayne Bay) and served them some chicharrones, smoked pork butt char siu bao, and a whole pig rolled porchetta style and roasted in a caja china (all the pics here; you can also see pics from P.I.G. #2, P.I.G. #4, and P.I.G. #5 – I clearly didn't read the Book of Armaments for the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch since I missed #3).

In the years since then, he's made it a collaborative thing, rounding up some of the best chefs in town and some from more far-flung locales, all to riff like on the theme of pig like some culinary supergroup. This year featured some of my favorite folks: Roel Alcudia (now consulting at Fooq's), Aaron Brooks from Edge, Will Crandall from Izzy's, Todd Erickson from Haven, Kurtis Jantz of the Trump Miami, Bradley Kilgore from Alter, Brian Mullins from Ms. Cheezious, Mike Pirolo from Macchialina and Bazi, Patrick Rebholz from Quality Meats, Steve Santana from Taquiza, and James Strine from Café Boulud in Palm Beach, plus special appearances by charcuterie wizards Craig Deihl from Charleston's Cypress and Kyle Foster (Colt & Gray and Rebel in Denver, and formerly Talula here in Miami), plus desserts from Josh Gripper of The Dutch and Giselle Pinto from Sugar Yummy Mama.

Somehow, this event just has good karma: the weather always holds up, there's always a crowd but it never feels crowded, there's no lineups with everyone elbowing each other to get to the food, the drinks flow freely, the chefs all bring their "A" game, and everyone has a good time. In more than three hours I still didn't make my way around to try everything, but here are some highlights (you can see all my pictures in this P.I.G. 6 flickr set):

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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

best thing i ate last week: "Amazon's Tree of Life" at Cobaya del Cielo

It was a runner-up a few months when I first tried it; it will get top billing this week. Juan Manuel Barrientos is the chef of El Cielo, a highly regarded restaurant in Colombia which last year opened a branch in Miami. JuanMa's creative, theatrical style fit well with our Cobaya thing, so we asked him to host a dinner for us.

We usually ask chefs to go completely off-menu, but I can understand why he'd include a staple from the restaurant, which he calls "Amazon's Tree of Life." Visually it's a stunner: an undulating copper frame mounted to a stone, supporting a flatbread whose surface is pocked with bubbles, almost perfectly duplicating the appearance of a baobab tree. And it's delicious too, the chewy, crusty, cheesy bread meant to be torn and dipped into a a bowl with a creamy coconut sauce dusted on top with a black squid ink powder. It was the best thing I ate last week.

(You can see all the pictures from the dinner in this Cobaya del Cielo flickr set).

Monday, November 2, 2015

best thing i ate last week: pork schnitzel at Cypress Tavern

Sometimes, change is good. A month ago news broke that chef Roel Alcudia was parting ways with The Cypress Room, which he had joined as chef de cuisine when Michael Schwartz opened the place a couple years ago. That wasn't the only change: after a bit of revamping, last week the Cypress Room became Cypress Tavern. It's not a complete gut job by any means: chef Bradley Herron, who has a long tenure with the Schwartz empire, is now manning the kitchen, and maybe 1/3 to 1/2 of the menu will still look pretty familiar. The lovely aqua banquettes are still there, but the starched white tablecloths are gone. As the new "Tavern" in the name suggests, it's been simplified and un-fussified, and happily, the prices have been notched down too.

I was in there Saturday night for dinner, and enjoyed it so much I was back for brunch the next morning. (You can see all my pictures in this Cypress Tavern flickr set). There was much that was good, but my favorite was a new menu item that's pretty reflective of the new style: a delightfully crisp, juicy pork schnitzel, served over a bed of braised cabbage and a puddle of creamy mustard sauce.

Runner-up: the bucatini carbonara, topped with a poached egg and an avalanche of shaved parmigiano reggiano, which I had the next morning for brunch. Sometimes this is how I like to get my bacon, eggs and toast.