Monday, November 13, 2017

first thoughts: Stubborn Seed - Miami Beach


Summer in South Florida isn't good for much. Mangoes. Avocados. Royal poincianas. That's about it. It's the season of 90° heat with 90% humidity, hurricanes, and restaurant closures.[1] But we've made it through to the other side! The thermometer occasionally dips below 80°, most of the trees downed by Hurricane Irma have been cleared, and new restaurants are popping up left and right. Among them is Stubborn Seed, which opened in late September. It is the first of two new projects[2] from chef Jeremy Ford, who was last heading up the kitchen at Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Matador Room, though many more folks probably know him from his victory in Top Chef Season 13.

This is a much more intimate affair than his last gig. Ford has traded a big hotel restaurant for a corner spot in South Beach's quieter SoFi (South of Fifth) neighborhood, where about sixty seats are divided between a bar area with high-tops as you enter and a somewhat stark dining room in back, all buffed gray walls and dark wood tables.

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

The menu at Stubborn Seed is somewhat stark as well: it comprises fifteen items all told, which includes a "bread service" that was brought to our table without charge.[3] It's matched by a cocktail selection that is nearly the same size – in fact, the actual drinks menu is in the form of a newspaper which dwarfs the size of the food menu.



The bread service and the cocktails are a good way to start things off at Stubborn Seed. The bread is a puffy version of Colombian pan de bono, dusted with fennel pollen and coarse salt, and served with a dollop of an herb-flecked green garbanzo dip whose bright color matches its flavor. And you'll want to spend some time with these cocktails, because they're a production. The "Negroni a la Ford" is made with Del Maguey Vida Mezcal in place of the gin, plus Ancho Reyes, white creme de cacao, and Xocolatl Mole bitters, as well as a passionfruit marshmallow suspended across the glass which you can toast over a flaming sugar cube.[4] The "Silver Dollar Old Fashioned" is a D.I.Y. project which literally arrives on a silver platter, with a cut-glass decanter of rye, a dropper of house-made bitters, a shaker of simple syrup, and a big ice block in a glass. There's a lot of ungapatchka here, but you could skip the s'mores and the silver platters and they'd still be very good drinks.

It's possible you've heard this before, but dishes "are meant to be shared," and "come out of the kitchen as they're ready." We ordered several of the crudos and "snacks" (which collectively make up 2/3 of the short menu) and one larger dish to share; happily, rather than the confused multi-plate pile-up that often ensues, our meal was coursed out in a series of rounds that actually made sense. But pity the diner who just wants their own appetizer followed by an entree these days.[5]


When Ford was on Top Chef, I nicknamed him "Crudo Bro," because every dish he made was a crudo,[6] and because he is clearly a member of the Broheim Tribe.[7] So we had to try both iterations featured on the menu. The one pictured at top was a winner: meaty, fatty Hawaiian kajiki (blue marlin), paired with creamy buttermilk and spicy fermented chiles, kombu, ribbons of Asian pear, and dried sea grapes. It was great.

The other, featuring local snapper cured in JoJo tea, with slivers of heart of palm and clementine segments, awash in a green bath of sorrel and celery, was dominated by the cloying sweetness of the clementine. This dish needs something to perk it up other than the smoke from dry ice added to the bowl.[8]


This lavash cracker, spread with chicken liver mousse and dotted with smoked chili jam, was just delicious – crunchy, creamy, rich, spicy, sweet. Shared between two people, it makes for only a couple bites, and may well leave you pining for another.[9]

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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

é by José Andrés - Las Vegas


There's a phenomenon on social media lately that whenever a celebrity chef expresses an opinion on political or social issues, a chorus of those whose sensibilities diverge insist that the chef should "stay in their lane." In other words, talk about food all you want, but keep your politics to yourself. The reaction seems inherently ridiculous to me – if you don't like it, the "unfollow" button is a simple, elegant solution – and hypocritical. Unless, that is, all these "stay in your lane" folks are actually career political scientists themselves, or perhaps professional life coaches.

I bring this up here because Chef José Andrés is a powerful retort to that kind of nonsense, someone whose talk has been backed up by meaningful, thoughtful action. The day after Hurricane Harvey cleared Texas, he was in Houston feeding people. A month later when Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico, he was there within days serving meals. Over the past weeks, he's mobilized a brigade of food trucks and canteen kitchens to serve 100,000 meals a day, while getting minimal support from the federal government, in a territory with an almost entirely broken infrastructure.[1]

But this shouldn't come as a surprise. His charity work is not simply a reaction to recent events, but a commitment that dates back to at least 2010, when he founded a non-profit, World Central Kitchen, as a response to a devastating earthquake in Haiti. When, in mid-2016, then-candidate Trump described Mexicans as criminals and rapists, Andrés – an immigrant and naturalized U.S. citizen himself – didn't just gripe about it on Twitter. He pulled out of a multi-million dollar restaurant deal at a Trump property in DC, risking the inevitable lawsuit from the litigation-happy candidate. (Andrés countersued, and the case settled in April on undisclosed terms.)

All of which is to say: José Andrés can cruise in any lane he wants, as far as I'm concerned.

While the work he's doing now in Puerto Rico is infinitely more important, those lanes do actually include chef and restaurateur as well. Andrés' restaurants include the Michelin two-star Minibar, along with a mini-empire of places in DC, LA, Miami, and Las Vegas, the last of which I visited recently for a conference.[2] While there, I squeezed in a dinner at é by José Andrés, an 8-seat "restaurant within a restaurant" inside Jaleo at the Cosmopolitan.

(You can see all my pictures in this é by José Andrés - Las Vegas flickr set).


The format of é is patterned after the original iteration of Minibar in DC with a dollop of Vegas glitz. Its roughly 20-course tasting menu is unabashedly inspired by the creations of Andrés' mentor, Ferran Adrià, with whom Andrés worked at El Bulli in Spain before going on to tremendous success in the U.S. I'd visited é once before, though I hadn't realized how long ago it had been – nearly six years. The room, centered by a polished metal chef's counter surrounded by walls lined with tiny drawers and odd tchotchkes, hasn't changed much. One of the chefs said it was meant to make you feel like "You're inside Chef Andrés' head." (It kind of does.) The menu was almost entirely different, though there were some echoes of prior meals.


Guests are corralled at a table in Jaleo and offered a drink before the dinner at é starts. After a few minutes, the hostess divulges that the centerpiece on the table is also the first course: a cracker flavored with black olive, stuck with edible flowers.


Then upon entering the cloistered dining room, a cocktail: sangria, frozen and powdered to a slushie-like consistency, with compressed melon, sour cherry pearls, and fresh mint leaves.[3]


A cheese course of sorts: a soft-frozen manchego and beet rose topping a walnut cracker, "stones" of idiazabal cheese with a jamón and rosemary glaze nestled atop a bowl of river stones; and a "pizza" of San Simon cheese topped with oregano cream, dried tomato, and fresh shaved truffle.

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Thursday, October 5, 2017

Food For Good

Given the latest spate of disasters and losses, it's been hard to summon the passion to write about my favorite last meal. But if you're looking for a way to feed your appetite and do some good, here are a few suggestions:


Chefs For the Keys | Friday October 6 @ Riviera Beach Marina Village

A lineup of more than two dozen Palm Beach chefs will be participating in this event, with all of the proceeds of the $125 per person admission going to benefit Florida Keys food and beverage hospitality industry workers who have been out of work as a result of Hurricane Irma (use the link above to get tickets).


Recipes for Change | Saturday October 14 @ Casa Florida

Next weekend, chef Santiago Gomez will host an international brigade of chefs at Casa Florida in the Roam Miami (a/k/a the Miami River Inn), including Carlos Garcia of Venezuela's Alto, and also opening Obra Kitchen in Miami; Sebastian La Rocca from El Mangroove in Costa Rica; Mirciny Moliviatis of Guatemala; Xavier Torres of Miami's Drunken Dragon, and Renzo Garibaldi of Peru's Osso Carniceria. $25 will get you 6 bites, $50 for unlimited bites and a drink, with 100% of the moneys collected going to the families of local farmers affected by Hurricane Irma (use the link to get tickets).


Or, you can make a contribution to World Central Kitchen, an organization spearheaded by Chef José Andrés, which was on the ground in Puerto Rico two days after Hurricane Maria, and has already delivered over 100,000 meals and plans to deliver another 20,000 meals a day for the next several weeks. You can read more about what they're doing here. It's absolutely remarkable and vital work. Maybe consider matching what you'll spend on a dinner this weekend with a contribution to help feed those in need.





Monday, August 7, 2017

first thoughts: Gaijin Izakaya by Cake - Midtown Miami


A couple years ago I got pretty excited over a tiny storefront along Biscayne Boulevard serving possibly the best Thai food I'd eaten in South Florida: Cake Thai Kitchen. Since then, Chef Cake (a/k/a Phuket Thongsodchareondee) has gone on to open a second, more polished Cake Thai in Wynwood, and has plans in the works for another location in the Citadel, a food hall and multi-purpose space currently in development in Little Haiti. It's been wonderful to watch the ascent of a chef whose talent is matched only by his humility.

And now, he's doing something else: a Japanese style izakaya in the Midtown Miami space of "The Gang," which he's calling "Gaijin Izakaya by Cake."[1] It's called "Gaijin" to dispel any notions of authenticity and because, well, Cake is as Japanese as I am, but it's really not such a huge leap: before opening his own Thai restaurant, Cake worked for years with chef Makoto Okuwa at Makoto in Bal Harbour, one of the best Japanese restaurants in town.[2] His menu at Gaijin is long and ambitious (I've not seen it posted online yet but I've got pictures: Page 1, Page 2 and Page 3) and after a couple visits, I've still only just made a dent in it, but have already found several highlights.

(You can see all my pictures in this Gaijin Izakaya by Cake flickr set.)


Back in the day, when Hiro's Yakko-San was in a tight little spot on West Dixie Highway and there was almost always an hour-long wait, they used to make okonomiyaki, an Osaka-style Japanese pancake / omelet type thing, usually topped with seafood and/or bacon, then bedazzled with Kewpie mayo, salty-tangy-sweet okonomi sauce, aonori, pickled ginger, and wispy katsuobushi shavings that wriggle in the heat. It disappeared from Yakko-San's menu some time around their move to a larger space, and is otherwise an elusive dish to find. But they're doing okonomiyaki at Gaijin, and it's a good version, with a hearty, chewy base and a layer of crisp, salty pork belly underneath all those toppings.

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Monday, July 31, 2017

first thoughts: Nisei - Miami (Brickell)


It's been quiet here at FFT, which is partly just the result of lots of other stuff going on; but it's also a sign that there's not been anything in the Miami food world that's gotten me excited enough to post. Happily, the latter of those issues got fixed this weekend.

The fix was a dinner at "Nisei," a pop-up dinner series which is taking up residence for a couple evening weekends at B Bistro + Bakery[1] in Brickell. It's the product of chef Fernando Chang, who had previously worked at 26 Sushi & Tapas in Surfside, together with Eric Saltzman (formerly of Taquiza and now at Dizengoff),[2] and features an omakase menu of Nikkei dishes fusing Peruvian and Japanese flavors. While this style of cooking is nothing new in Peru, where Japanese culinary influences have long held sway, Nisei's menu brought some smart new ideas and really nice execution, particularly considering our visit was on only the second night of service.

(You can see all my pictures in this Nisei - Miami (Brickell) flickr set).

The meal starts in mostly Peruvian territory: a ceviche of fresh locally caught grouper, marinated in lime juice and bright, spicy aji limo,[3] and flecked with slivered purple onions and cilantro. It's easy to find ceviche in Miami – it's not nearly as easy to find one this fresh and clean.


The next dish nods to both Peru and Japan: the fried shiso leaf is an item you'll find at Japanese tempura houses, but the sandy texture of the crisp fried shell is borrowed from jalea, a classic Peruvian fried seafood dish. The leaf practically dissolves in one bite and a shatter of crumbs, and is served with a sauce that melds sarza criolla (an onion-forward salsa) and aji amarillo. It's good, but what I really want is for them to sandwich some uni in between a couple shiso leaves and then fry it (like so).


The next dish, maguro don, makes it all the way over to Japan, with a stop-off in Korea. Ribbons of lean tuna are mounted on a sheet of soft nori, nestled over short grain rice and kimuchi (an unfermented Japanese style kimchi), amped up with the rippling heat of Peruvian rocoto chile (Peru's not been abandoned entirely) and then rounded out with a bit of honey.

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