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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Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Clove Club | London


We only had three nights in London on this last trip, our first visit in a decade, but I think our dinner choices – Rules, St. John, and on our final night, The Clove Club – successfully captured a meaningful cross-section. Each of these places might seem quite different on the surface – the red velvet banquettes and gold-framed portraits of Rules are entirely unlike the abbatoir-like black-and-white starkness of St. John, which is equally unlike the cool modernism of the Clove Club. Though the spare, contemporary plates at Clove Club might appear to be from a different world than the straightforward, traditional dishes at Rules, there's a thread which runs through them: a deeply ingrained dedication to British ingredients.

The Clove Club, which started as a living room supper club run by chef Isaac McHale, has made itself a home in a 150-year old building that used to be the Shoreditch Town Hall. Now, you enter into a smart, cozy bar – where, it should be noted, several smaller dishes from the tasting menu are available on an a la carte basis, something I'll be keeping in mind the next time in town. You pass from the bar into an equally smart dining room, the centerpiece of which is a shiny open kitchen. Sometimes these layouts feel like a stage, where the diners are meant to gaze in rapt wonder upon the chefs. This one feels more like the loft of your tasteful London friend, the one with a fetish for blue subway tile and 1960's Scandinavian furniture. It's elegant, in an understated way; but more important, it's comfortable – it still feels like it could be a living room supper club, though in a pretty fancy living room.

Dinner can be either a five-course affair, currently priced at £75, or a more elaborate tasting menu for £110, which was the route we chose.

(You can see all my pictures in this The Clove Club - London flickr set; these are from a meal in February 2017).


The meal starts with a series of snacks, the first of which is something of a signature dish: buttermilk-marinated fried chicken, dusted with pine salt, and presented nestled in a woven basket filled with pine branches. It is like the platonic ideal of a chicken nugget. A glass of Gusbourne Blanc de Blanc accompanies the snacks, and I'm pleasantly surprised to discover that very respectable sparkling wine is coming from this side of the English Channel, in West Sussex.



McHale turns his sights to his native Scotland next with a warm haggis bun, the funk of offal tempered by warm spices and a dusting of vinegar powder. Local ingredients take a Japanese turn with a rectangular laver (seaweed)[1] crisp that serves as the vehicle for a rich, oily mackerel tartare.

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Saturday, June 3, 2017

South Florida Syrian Supper Club Lunch


As much as discussions of immigration policy have dominated the news lately, I'll confess I didn't know until I read this Miami Herald story a few weeks ago that there were several dozen families of Syrian refugees who had been resettled in South Florida over the past couple years. Many have been relocated in areas where there is a bit of a community support network, like Miami Gardens, but others are in isolated areas like Homestead, making a difficult transition, after escaping from the horrors experienced in their homeland, all the more challenging.

Some local women have found a unique way to help. Shortly after President Trump signed an executive order implementing his Muslim ban, Kate Cruz was moved to action. Although she was already active in a non-profit (an organization called Project Motherpath that supports childbirth and parenting programs), her work until then had nothing to do with the Syrian refugee crisis. Still, she cold-called a local mosque in Miami Gardens and asked if there was anything she could do. They connected her with the Muslim Women's Organization of South Florida, and together they organized a "South Florida Syrian Supper Club."

It's a wonderful idea: a rotating group of Syrian women refugees prepare meals of traditional dishes in people's houses, typically for $50 per person, with the proceeds going to support the women and their families. In addition to sharing their food, they also share their stories – of what brought them here and what they've faced since arriving.


One of my work colleagues recently hosted a lunch at our office for thirty people, and it was a moving experience. Faten, Raja and Mona – with their children in tow – brought enough food to feed about three times as many people, Krista (herself a Syrian refugee) helped translate for them, Kate, along with Yasemin Saib and Sahar Shaikh of MWO, shared some more stories of what they're faced with and other ways people can help, and everyone ate incredibly well.

(You can see all the pictures in this Syrian Supper @ KTT flickr set)


This would have been worthwhile even if the food was lousy, but it was a pretty incredible feast. Some of it was familiar – kibbe balls with ground meat encased in a crisp bulgur wheat shell, smoky, creamy baba ganoush, tender grape leaves stuffed with rice, herbaceous tabbouli salad and fattoush salad garnished with toasted pita shards. Other dishes were new to me – chicken legs roasted with warm spices, served over rice studded with whole almonds toasted to a golden brown, an assortment of puffy pies filled with meat, or cheese, or generously dusted with za'atar spice. And still others had familiar names but were still different in their ways: falafel shaped like little doughnuts, chicken shawarma wrapped in thin, almost crepe-like bread, spiked with a tart green pickle and dolloped with a creamy, garlicky sauce.

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Monday, May 1, 2017

first thoughts: Charcoal Garden Bar + Grill - Wynwood


Ken Lyon is something of a grizzled veteran of the Miami dining world, one with a knack for spotting valuable restaurant real estate. He was way ahead of the curve when he opened Lyon Freres, a Franco-philic market and cafe, on Lincoln Road in the early 1990's, well before the tourists thronged and the rents skyrocketed.[1] More than a decade later, he was also one of the early pioneers of the then-sleepy Design District: in 2008, he opened Fratelli Lyon, an Italian restaurant, in the space which is now home to MC Kitchen. His jump into the Design District came not very far behind Michael's Genuine, which just celebrated its tenth anniversary.

Though Lyon's been around for a while, his latest project – Charcoal Garden Bar + Grill – is very much on-trend. It's in Wynwood. It's built entirely out of semi-portable shipping containers. And everything is cooked using a Josper charcoal grill/oven, the new favorite toy of chefs who like to play with live fire.

This time, Lyon may be a bit more of a trend-chaser than trend-setter. Wynwood has already been one of Miami's hottest restaurant neighborhoods of the past few years, elbowing its way in among South Beach and Brickell. The Josper has already made its way like wildfire (sorry) into Miami kitchens, being the theme of Deme Lomas' new Arson and a touted feature of Klima, Coya and Lightkeepers too. And while Charcoal pitches itself as the first full-service restaurant assembled from shipping containers in the U.S., I think there's at least one already in Washington DC plus a whole Container Park in Las Vegas with multiple restaurants; and of course locally, gastroPod was doing the shipping container thing two years ago, though not as a full-service restaurant.

But none of that takes away from something more important: Charcoal's a really nice restaurant. Everything at Charcoal is very simple and straightforward, depending for its success on good ingredients and solid execution. Happily, if our first visit is any indication, Charcoal is getting it right.

(You can see all my pictures in this Charcoal Garden Bar + Grill flickr set).

As you enter Charcoal, which occupies a corner of the Wynwood Yard multi-purpose space,[2] a cluster of containers forms a courtyard around an open patio which provides most of the seating. A cut-out container on one side offers some cover when the sun's out, while a double-wide along the back is also air-conditioned. There's a full bar to one side, behind which lies the kitchen.

The limited space and equipment of the kitchen gives the menu its focus. Starters are mostly things which require no cooking: cheeses, charcuterie, smoked fish, raw oysters. For the rest of the meal, an assortment of animals and vegetables are simply grilled or roasted using the Josper. Many of the fish and meats come from Florida waters and farms, including cuts from a whole lamb or pig brought in each week and butchered at their nearby commissary. Some of the vegetables come from an on-site garden, installed by my CSA farmer, Little River Cooperative (though probably not much these days, as the growing season is starting to peter out). You can then combine these with a choice from more than a dozen condiments, listed on a punch card. Ask nicely and you can sample more than one.


We started with some of that charcuterie. Most of it is bought-in, but one item – a pork and duck liver terrine – is made in-house. And it was very good, richly flavored but not overly heavy, and generously studded with pistachios and prunes. We coupled it with some 'nduja Americana from La Quercia, which makes a great version of the soft, spicy, smoky pork spread. There's also a really nice selection of cheeses, including some personal favorites – Point Reyes Blue, Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog, Vella Jack, Jasper Hill Harbison – which you can either order on their own or, for a small upcharge, add to the house salad which accompanies each main.

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