Friday, January 12, 2018

best dishes of 2017: part 3

We left off Part 2 of my "Best Dishes of 2017" (you can see Part 1 here too) in San Francisco. We stay in the Bay Area for Part 3 here, with a trip up to Healdsburg, then detour to Las Vegas, swing back to the east coast for a quick trip to Boston, then back home before ending the year in Santa Fe, New Mexico. As always, the "best" here is meaningless – this is just a compilation of some personal favorites from among several great meals over the course of the year.

mid summer in Sonoma - SingleThread
Our summer getaway found us on the West Coast, a trip which included a couple days in Healdsburg. The wine country in the northern reaches of Sonoma County is among my favorite places on earth, and now it has a restaurant to match the beauty and bounty of the area: Kyle Connaughton's SingleThread (see more pictures in this SingleThread Farm flickr set). SingleThread is about as fully realized a vision of the Japanese combination of kaiseki dining and ryokan as you'll find outside of Japan: a restaurant, supplied by its own nearby five-acre farm (run by spouse Katina Connaughton) plus contributions from neighboring farmers, fishermen and foragers, with a small, luxurious inn on premises (we regretfully didn’t stay at the inn, instead renting a house up the Russian River so we had room for the whole family and some friends).

This was, from start to finish, just a magical meal – refined and beautiful and flavorful, intimately expressive of season and place.

After a glass of bubbly and a platter of snacks on the rooftop garden terrace, we were brought back inside to the dining room and greeted with a spread that could do double duty as a centerpiece. There’s maybe a dozen different items laid out across the table, interspersed among an arrangement of branches and blooms. I won’t try to recount everything here, and in any event the contents vary from day to day and season to season like the "hassun" course of a kaiseki meal, but I particularly recall the cold slivers of geoduck in a neon peach-hued stone fruit gelee; a tart, bright, green tomato gazpacho; a creamy corn panna cotta with an accent mark of fermented cucumber; silky purple baby eggplant agebitashi with a sesame and plum curd; an intensely rich mousse of potato and salt cod; ripe, fat mulberries from nearby Middlteton Farm. And it's all as delicious as it is beautiful.

wild king salmon ibushi-gin - SingleThread
From an ornate tapestry of dishes to bare-bones simplicity: wild king salmon, caught in Half Moon Bay, smoked in an ibushi-gin (a type of donabe, or Japanese stone pot, which are something of an obsession at SingleThread), swimming in a vinaigrette of negi (Japanese scallion) bolstered with the magic of shio koji, garnished with a dollop of char roe and a tiara of finely slivered myoga (young ginger) and radish. When I had the smoked salmon at Willows Inn, I was pretty certain that would be the best salmon I'd ever eat in my life. Now I'm not so sure.

poached foie gras, tea of last year's tomatoes - SingleThread
So often, foie gras gets fruity accompaniments as a foil for its richness. Here, instead, Connaughton goes vegetal. A disk of poached foie, with a texture like cool butter, is awash in a "tea" of last year's tomatoes, plus an assortment of radishes and their greens in various forms: fresh, preserved, dried. The peppery crunch of the radishes does the same job without the usual cloying sweetness. And then another bit of magic comes from an aged sake poured with it – again, a far cry from the customary sweet Sauternes – which magically pulls it all together, one of the most memorable pairings of the whole year.

Sonoma grains, nettles, kasuzuke - SingleThread
I know, we're four deep into this list and we're still haven't left SingleThread. What can I say, it was pretty good. This bowl of Sonoma grains, bound in a luminous green nettle purée, garnished with kasuzuke pickled vegetables, a farro verde beignet, a bouquet of herbs, sprouts and petals from the garden, and a tableside drizzle of an intense aged rib cap jus (presumably a byproduct of the American wagyu served in the prior course), was served as the final savory item on the menu, in the same fashion that a rice dish usually acts as the anchor of a Japanese meal. It was incredibly gratifying and delicious, and felt like something of a summary and recapitulation of all that preceded it.

agedashi tofu - Aburiya Raku
In October, a conference brought me to Las Vegas, where I always find time to visit Aburiya Raku (read my thoughts and see more pictures in this Aburiya Raku flickr set). It's the first place I tried fresh, house-made tofu and it's still one of my favorite places to order it. The pro move is to go half-and-half: a half order of the "Raku's tofu," served cold with garnishes of katsuobushi, chopped chives, minced ginger, and green tea salt; and a half-order of the agedashi tofu, fried, doused in an enriched dashi broth bobbing with little mushrooms, and topped with a dollop of ikura, shredded nori and more chopped chives. It's so good.

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Monday, January 8, 2018

best dishes of 2017: part 2

We started last Friday with my "best dishes of 2017: part 1" – a compendium of personal favorites from the past year. We resume here with a highly pedigreed fried chicken sandwich, take quick treks through New York and Philadelphia, then detour back to Miami before swinging out to the west coast.

fried chicken cemita - La Pollita
La Pollita was a short-lived Mexican-themed pop-up run from a trailer in the Midtown Garden Center by Luciana Giangrandi and Alex Meyer, who had previously worked at such places as Eleven Madison Park, NoMad, Scarpetta and Animal (read my thoughts and see more pictures in this La Pollita flickr set). The trailer is gone but the duo still seem to be kicking around Miami – I'm looking forward to what's next from them.

They've got a short list of tacos, served on fresh tortillas pressed from masa supplied by Miami masa maestro Steve Santana (of Taquiza), and the cochinita pibil I tried was very good. But the standout item was the fried chicken cemita. A hot, crispy, juicy tranche of fried chicken. A crunchy, vinegar-laced, herb-flecked cabbage slaw. A dollop of mashed avocado for some richness. A creamy, mildly spicy Valentina aioli. A sesame-seed flecked bun with just the right heft: substantial enough to be a meaningful component of the sandwich composition and to keep everything together until the last bite; but not so much as to overwhelm the stars of the show. It is just about perfect.

sea urchin, chickpea hozon - Momofuku Ko
Hey, look, it's another great meal I never got around to writing about, at David Chang's Momofuku Ko, where the kitchen is run by Sean Gray (see more pictures in this Momofuku Ko flickr set). I never got to the original incarnation of Ko, legendary for its relatively affordable tasting menus, brutally uncomfortable stools, and impossible reservation system. In its newer digs down a tiny East Village street literally called "Extra Place," it retains some of its original punk sensibilities – the dining counter circling an open kitchen, the cooks presenting the dishes, the hip-hop soundtrack – but it's all pretty buffed and polished, kind of like a Gucci biker jacket.

The tasting menu still carries a couple of the original Ko classics – the "Ko egg" with caviar, crispy potatoes, onion soubise and sweet potato vinegar, the shaved frozen foie gras – but one of my favorites of the evening was a next generation Ko dish. It's deceptively simple: lobes of cold, sweet sea urchin, a scoop of chickpea hozon (a creamy, miso-like fermented paste), a drizzle of grassy olive oil. There's a subtle contrast of marine salty-sweet against earthy salty-sweet; of the delicately creamy texture of the uni against the thicker, peanut butter-y hozon, mirrored by the two orange shades on the plate. Pretty cool.

cherry blossom, amazake - Momofuku Ko
Another of my favorites at Ko was another deceptively simple composition: a dessert of cherry blossom dusted ice cream, served over creamy, sweet amazake (rice fermented with sake lees or koji), drizzled with a sauce of preserved cherries. It was simultaneously delicate but powerful, homey but elegant.

carrot crepe, littleneck clam, sunflower - Olmsted
Olmsted, Greg Baxtrom's Brooklyn restaurant with a backyard garden that does double-duty as a pre- and post-meal hangout spot, has been much talked about (see more pictures in this Olmsted flickr set). In a way, all the chatter possibly sets expectations a bit too high, for what is just a really fun, delicious, casual, cozy, clever, relatively affordable neighborhood spot run by someone with chops honed at Alinea, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Per Se, and Arzak. The menu changes all the time – they were on a yakitori bender during our visit, while also serving Hyderabadi inspired duck chakna, truffle-dusted rutabaga "tagliatelle," and simple but delicious sauteed soft-shell crab with pickled peppers and ranch dressing  – but this one dish seems to have become a signature, and for good reason. A goldenrod hued carrot crepe serves as the platform for a salad of wispy slivers of multi-colored carrots, petals, sprouts, and sunflower seeds, concealing a rich clam and carrot stew underneath. It's unusual, unexpected, and delicious.

tout le lapin - Le Coucou
Daniel Rose's path was a somewhat unusual one. The Chicago native was inspired to move to Lyon to study cooking after taking classes at the American University in Paris. After years at the Institut Bocuse and apprenticeships around France, he opened his first restaurant – Spring – in Paris. It wasn't until a decade later that he returned to the States to open Le Coucou in New York with Stephen Starr (see more pictures in this Le Coucou flickr set). In a way, the place makes it feel like the last couple decades of dining history never happened. There are pressed white tablecloths and long wax tapers on the tables; the menu isn't a collage of small plates, but good old fashioned hors d'oeuvres, poissons et viandes (though a category of "gourmandises" features otherwise uncategorized indulgences like quennelles de brochet and veal tongue with caviar).

But the cooking is more precise, focused, bright and clean than the butter and cream laden juggernauts of the older era that Le Coucou otherwise invokes. And nowhere was that more evident than in a dish called "tout le lapin" (all the rabbit), a production which comes to the table in three different serving vessels (the picture here is better focused, but this one gives a view of the whole spread). The saddle is rolled and cooked and then sliced into rounds which are seared and browned, then napped with a loose sauce that takes the ferrous richness of rabbit offal, cuts it with an acidic vinaigrette, and brightens it with fresh mint. Alongside is a gratin dish of the rabbit's legs cooked down with soft, sweet onions. And finally, a pot au feu of the foreleg, in a golden broth bobbing with carrots and turnips. It's all wonderful.

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Friday, January 5, 2018

best dishes of 2017: part 1

I know, I know, you're supposed to do these "best of the year" wrap-ups before the year actually ends. Well, I'm just glad we've made it through to 2018, so I'm not going to sweat the timing all that much. Looking back, it was a somewhat odd year of eating for me. We traveled – London, Paris, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Santa Fe – but they were all mostly short jaunts, a few days here and there that were over almost as soon as they began. Meanwhile, I'm feeling increasingly out of touch with developments here at home; the list of new Miami restaurants I haven't yet tried grows longer and longer.

Sometimes that's purposeful: just because it's new doesn't necessarily mean it's interesting or good. Sometimes it's geographically driven: one of the more interesting phenomena of the past year, to me anyway, is the abundance of independent restaurants opening outside of the usual trifecta of Wynwood, South Beach and Brickell. I'm thinking of places like Ghee in Downtown Dadeland, No Name Chinese and Shelley's in South Miami, Doce Provisions and Ella's Oyster Bar in Little Havana, Sherwood's Bistro in Little Haiti, Finka Table and Tap and Amelia's 1931 out west. Some of those are easier for me to get to than others, but those I've gotten to have provided some of the most interesting eating of the past year. And sometimes, let's be honest, inertia sets in.

As always, despite that word "best," I make no pretense of this being any sort of objective listing, only my personal favorites of the places I had the good fortune to visit in 2017. They are not ranked, but rather are listed here in roughly chronological order. For ease of digestion, I'll be breaking this up into three parts.

cockles, pil pil sauce - Bazaar Mar
I wasn't sure Miami needed a second Bazaar restaurant from Chef José Andrés, but I'm glad we got another, and the seafood-focused menu at Bazaar Mar is sufficiently different from the original that they're both worthy of a visit (you can read my thoughts and see more pictures in this Bazaar Mar flickr set). There are lots of flashy, showy dishes there, but one of my favorites was one of the simplest.

The larger dishes on the menu tend to skew a bit more traditional, but that doesn't necessarily mean boring. I loved these little cockles, fresh from the tank, in a Basque-style pil pil sauce, an emulsion of garlic, parsley, olive oil and fish juices.

José Andrés' accomplishments this past year far transcend the restaurant world: through World Central Kitchen, he delivered over two million meals to over seventy locations in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. He also continues to run restaurants that make some great food. José for President!

khandvi - Ghee Rancho Patel Cobaya dinner
Chef Niven Patel of Ghee is making some of the most exciting food in Miami right now, and over the past year he's gone from doing pop-ups at his home in Homestead to opening two restaurants featuring his version of farm-to-table Indian cuisine. We got a taste back in March, shortly before his first spot in Downtown Dadeland opened (read my thoughts on our Cobaya Rancho Patel dinner and see more pictures in this Cobaya Rancho Patel flickr set).

A special treat: khandvi, or as our menu called them, "chickpea roll-ups." This was something I'd never tried before, and for good reason: Niven says you're unlikely to ever see these unless your mother or grandmother is making them, as getting the batter – a mixture of chickpea flour and yogurt or buttermilk – and texture right is a bit of alchemy that could keep molecular gastronomists busy for a while. I was glad someone knew how to do it: these light, fluffy crepes, reminiscent of Japanese tamagoyaki, and seasoned with toasted black mustard seeds, julienned cilantro and curry leaf, were absolutely delicious.


roast bone marrow - St. John Bread and Wine
February featured a whirlwind trip to London and Paris, three days in each, which included a visit to one of the culinary stations of the cross: Fergus Henderson's St. John restaurant (actually, its sibling, St. John Bread and Wine in Spitalfields) (read my thoughts and see more pictures in this St. John Bread and Wine flickr set).

Of course, you have to start with the roasted marrow bones – Henderson's most famous dish, one that has been lovingly duplicated countless times in countless restaurants around the world, one that Anthony Bourdain declared his "always and forever choice" for his Death Row meal. The formula is now well-known: roasted femur bones; toasted bread; a pile of parsley salad; a mound of coarse sea salt. Scoop the oozy marrow from the bone, spread on to the toast, dress with a sprinkle of salt and a pinch of the salad, and enjoy. I've had it dozens of times, but never until now the original. And yes, it's the best: the marrow at the magic borderline between solid and liquid, the acid and salt and herbaceous bite of the salad right on the edge of too aggressive without crossing the line, with just the right punch of caper and shallot. I can't say it better than Fergus himself:
"Do you recall eating Raisin Bran for breakfast? The raisin-to-bran-flake ratio was always a huge anxiety, to a point, sometimes, that one was tempted to add extra raisins, which inevitably resulted in too many raisins, and one lost that pleasure of discovering the occasional sweet chewiness in contrast to the branny crunch. When administering such things as capers, it is very good to remember Raisin Bran."
raw Orkney scallop, hazelnut, clementine, winter truffle - The Clove Club
Our dinner at The Clove Club, chef Isaac McHale's all-grown-up supper club in Shoreditch, was one of my favorites of the year; two dishes from that meal appear here (read my thoughts and see more pictures in this Clove Club flickr set).

In "The Physiology of Taste," Brillat-Savarin famously wrote, "The discovery of a new dish confers more happiness on humanity than the discovery of a new star." I can't say for certain that this is an entirely new dish; I can say it's the first time I've had this particular combination of raw scallop, slivered raw button mushrooms, crushed hazelnuts, clementine and black truffle, all assembled over a jet-black squid ink purée. The scallop itself – from fisheries in Orkney, in the outer northern reaches of Scotland – is beautifully plump and fresh and sweet. It's complemented by a fascinating interplay of earthy and nutty flavors, brightened just a hint by the citrus. Speaking for myself, anyway, it's a lot more exciting than the latest "cold brown dwarf."


rabbit, celeriac, smoked bacon, tarragon - The Clove Club
Tasting menus often tend to peter out (for me anyway) as you approach the "big protein" stage, with creativity and finesse giving way to a push for satiety. Not here. This rabbit dish is a tour de force, making use of all the animal in a variety of ways – a ballotine threaded with green leaves, a pinkish slice of loin, tiny chops from the ribs, a wee rabbit heart, a cromesqui of offal, pulled together with a bright green herb sauce redolent with tarragon, then finally drizzled tableside with a rabbit broth. Fantastic.

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Tuesday, January 2, 2018

best thing i ate last week: green chile dosa at Paper Dosa in Santa Fe


One of my New Year's resolutions: post more frequently. So let's start 2018 on the right foot by getting back to these "best thing I ate last week" posts - a nice way to keep current without doing the usual more lengthy exegesis (and fewer footnotes!).

We just spent a few days between Christmas and New Year's Eve in Santa Fe, a place with some great food traditions which bridge Mexico and New Mexico, in much the same way that Tex-Mex has become its own particular idiom. One of the challenges I always face when choosing where to eat in these types of communities is how closely to hew to tradition, particularly with limited dining opportunities. Do I look for the most "authentic" places (whatever that means), or do I just look for good food?

I went in the latter direction for our last night in Santa Fe, and it worked out great. Paper Dosa (see more pictures in this Paper Dosa flickr set) is a South Indian place run by chef Paulraj Karuppasamy which began as a catering business, then started doing weekly pop-up dinners, and in 2015 opened as a full-blown restaurant. The menu features about a half-dozen appetizers and chaats, several choices of dosas and uttapam, rounded out with a few curries. It reminds me quite a bit of Hopper's in London, where we had a great lunch early last year.

Everything at Paper Dosa was eye-poppingly good, but the standout was a dish that sort of came full circle: a delicate dosa (a crepe made of fermented rice and lentil batter) stuffed with local green chiles and melted cheese, served with traditional accompaniments of sambar (a sort of lentil stew), plus coconut and tomato chutneys. This wasn't one of those goofy "fusion" dishes, like where some French or Italian dish gets some incongruous Asian ingredient thrown into it. It tasted entirely South Indian, and entirely New Mexican, all at once. And it was the best thing I ate last week.

Happy New Year, all, and welcome to 2018.

Paper Dosa
551 W. Cordova Road, Santa Fe, New Mexico
505.930.5521


Sunday, December 24, 2017

first thoughts: No Name Chinese - South Miami


2017 has been the year of the "to-do list" for me. The agenda of new restaurants I've been meaning to try continues to grow, and unlike the past several years, the usual forces of attrition (i.e., closures) haven't whittled it down quite as much as usual. Making it even more challenging, those openings haven't been limited to the ever-popular trifecta of Wynwood, South Beach and Brickell. It's good news for the residents of the outer bands of Greater Miami; it's a challenge for those trying to keep up with all the latest additions.

Witness, for example, No Name Chinese, which opened late this spring in South Miami, on a quiet corner behind the Shops at Sunset Place. No Name[1] is the second spot from the team of wine buff Heath Porter and manager Craig DeWald (their first is Uvaggio wine bar in Coral Gables), who decided they wanted to open a place serving contemporary Chinese cuisine using local ingredients paired with unusual wines.[2] They brought in Pablo Zitzmann to run the kitchen, who was last seen at the now-closed Trust & Co. in the Gables, and before that worked with Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Jeremy Ford at Matador Room, Ricky Sauri at Nobu and then Bloom in Wynwood, and Michelle Bernstein at Sra. Martinez, among others.

(You can see all my pictures in this No Name Chinese flickr set.)

Zitmann's menu at No Name is inspired by traditional Chinese dishes and flavors, but takes plenty of liberties. So there's a crispy turnip cake (law bok gow), a Chinese dim sum standard, but it's done in the style of a Japanese okonomiyaki topped with lap cheong sausage, shiitake mushrooms, Kewpie mayo and katsuobushi, the shavings of smoked, dried skipjack tuna wriggling in the heat. Turnip cake and okonomiyaki are a couple of my favorite things, so this makes me very happy.


Shrimp toast, usually a greasy fried indulgence, here comes on as healthy-ish as avocado toast: house-made shao bing bread topped with a clean, bright minced shrimp salad, its flavors amplified with a squeeze of lime and a dusting of "crunchy garlic bomb."


Smashed cucumber salad, another Chinese staple which everyone is riffing on lately, sees the cukes marinated in soy sauce and chianking vinegar, then plated over a creamy sesame sauce and topped with a shower of sesame seeds and a bouquet of fresh herbs. It's the kind of thing you keep going back for more bites of as you eat the rest of your meal.


There's an abbreviated selection of about a half-dozen dumplings – not quite enough to start supplying a fleet of carts, but enough to satisfy some dim sum cravings. No Name's shu mai are nearly bursting with a juicy paste of Key West pink shrimp and crab, topped with trout roe for a little pop and contrast. The "angry dumplings" are filled with spicy minced chicken, and dressed with a zippy chili garlic sauce, crispy shallots, more of that "crunchy garlic bomb," and a last minute dusting of orange zest to perk up all those flavors.

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