Friday, June 24, 2016

Birch - Providence, Rhode Island


I lost count at fifty. So let's just say there are at least fifty sheets of kohlrabi, layered in soft, translucent ribbons, that made up this dish. They're marinated with cherry leaves, interspersed here and there with apple, Vietnamese coriander and lemon balm. The whole fragile assemblage is laid atop a base of tangy creme fraiche. It's beautiful, delicate, brightly flavored, unexpected – and also the best kohlrabi dish I've ever tasted.

Not that there's a robust competition for that honor. But I'm actually a big fan of the unloved and alien-looking vegetable. Apparently so is Ben Sukle, the chef at Birch in Providence, Rhode Island, which he opened with wife Heidi in 2013.

I keep lists of restaurants for dozens of cities I've never visited, as if I might get airlifted one day without warning and need to find a good meal. I didn't have a long list for Providence, but I did have at least this one name.[1] I'd heard of Birch by way of DocSconz, who'd gotten there early and then made his way back the following year.

So when I had reason to visit Providence this past Sunday,[2] I didn't look that hard for a same-day return flight, and instead lingered for dinner. It was time well spent.

As that kohlrabi dish suggests, Sukle's approach at Birch is vegetable-forward, with a strong focus on the local and seasonal, including a few real oddities here and there ("preserved hardy kiwiberry"?). Just from looking at his menu, you'd likely hazard a guess that Sukle's spent some time in the New Nordic church, and you'd be right: his resumé includes a one-month stage at Rene Redzepi's Noma, and it obviously made an impression. But there's a difference between inspiration and apery. This isn't all reindeer moss and gooseberries; Sukle's taken the spirit and ethos of the style and adapted it to his native New England ingredients in a way that feels natural and uncontrived.

That menu comprises four courses, with three choices for each. I unabashedly enjoy solo dining, but one downside is not getting to try as many things. Happily, there was a solution: though not listed, Birch will also do a chef's choice, 8-course tasting in smaller portions. Perfect.[3]


The dining room at Birch has a wonderfully simple layout: it's a square about 20 feet across, occupied by a u-shaped counter lined with comfortable stools on three sides. A couple servers present and remove plates and drinks from the middle. It's similar to places like Momofuku Ko or Blanca or Catbird Seat, or if you want to go a few years earlier, L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, except that the kitchen remains hidden behind a closed door. To me, it's actually reminiscent of an old school horseshoe-shaped diner counter, and engenders a feeling of intimacy and camaraderie.

(You can see all my pictures in this Birch - Providence, Rhode Island flickr set).


The seasonal focus is on display from the start with a bite of asparagus, the stalk of which had been tempura fried and then wound with a paste of black garlic, truffle and nasturtium, the purple-shaded bud unadorned. The fried stalk was so delicate as to almost disappear in one bite; the raw tip retained a pleasing vegetal snap.


Following the kohlrabi, a dish of raw scallops paired with turnips in a broth infused with cherry blossoms, dusted with lemon zest, and topped with arugula flowers. The white-on-white composition looked like shards of alabaster in a shallow pool. The sweetness of the cold fresh scallop played against the firmer, earthy chew of the turnip, both bound by the salty, tangy, faintly floral broth.

(continued ...)

Thursday, June 23, 2016

best thing i ate last week: grilled cabbage at Birch (Providence)


This past Sunday I found myself in Providence, Rhode Island for 24 hours; a fortunate opportunity to pay a visit to chef Ben Sukle's restaurant, Birch. Here's an excerpt from a nearly-finished recap of an outstanding meal:

Instead of the usual slab of meat that invokes the end of the savory dishes on the tasting menu, Sukle went with a tranche of grilled cabbage. The edge was black with char, the interior was soft and silky without being cooked to sulfurous mush. Folded within was creamy rutabaga and caramelized sauerkraut. Speckled on top was an assortment of toasted seeds – sunflower, cumin, sesame. A broth of dried apples was poured tableside. This was a fantastic dish.

More to come soon.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Cobaya Muñoz at 1111 Peruvian Bistro


Diego Muñoz is a superstar chef. He spent the first part of his career working at some of the world's top restaurants: the Adriàs' El Bulli and Andoni Luis Aduriz's Mugaritz in Spain, Pascal Barbot's Astrance and Guy Martin's Grand Vefour in France, Massimo Bottura's Osteria Francescana in Italy, then off to Australia at Bilson's in Sydney. After literally cooking his way around the world, he returned home to Peru, where he ran the kitchen at Gaston Acurio's high-end tasting menu flagship, Astrid y Gaston, for four years. During Muñoz's tenure, Astrid y Gaston worked its way from No. 42 to No. 14 on the much-hyped (and much-criticized) S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list. When Ferran Adrià was in town last year for a "Gastronomy Congress" at Miami Dade College, Muñoz was one of the chefs on stage doing a demonstration, along with David Gil and Fran Agudo of brother Albert Adrià's restaurant, Tickets.

Then at the beginning of this year, Muñoz left Astrid y Gaston, with plans to embark on another year of world-wide cooking adventures. So when I stumbled across a small Peruvian restaurant that Muñoz had opened a few months ago in Miami, with no fanfare whatsoever – well, surprised would be an understatement.[1] We put the Cobaya wheels in motion to set up a dinner, which we were able to schedule while Muñoz would be in town this Friday.


Muñoz's restaurant, 1111 Peruvian Bistro, occupies the space that used to be home to BoxPark,[2] in the ground floor of the Axis Brickell condo building. It looks much the same, the most notable addition being a mural across the top of the open kitchen which appears to track Muñoz's career – I recognized the El Bulli bulldog, that shaggy sheep looks like the ones roaming the Basque countryside outside Mugaritz, the bowtie must belong to Tony Bilson, and there's Casa Moreyra, which houses Astrid y Gaston. At the end, beyond the palm tree, is 1111.

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya Muñoz at 1111 Peruvian Bistro flickr set).


Once we got everyone settled into a few communal tables, Chef Muñoz introduced himself to the group, and servers started bringing out the first round of an eight-plus course dinner.


Many food cultures have their versions of meat-on-a-stick. For Peruvians, it's anticuchos. Veal or beef heart may be the most traditional, but it could be just about anything: chicken livers, steak, fish, shrimp, or, as here, octopus. The meat had a nice spring to it without being chewy or bouncy, It had been rubbed with an anticuchera sauce bright with chiles, vinegar and spices, and was served over a creamy corn purée with a crispy potato alongside and a dab of salsa carretillera on top.


Peru's most famous dish, though, is surely ceviche. But Muñoz is not a traditionalist: he has made ceviches of sea urchin, clam, apple, melon, avocado, and I'm sure any number of other ingredients. Here, the base was the customary cubed whitefish, but it came swimming in a creamy, tangy leche de tigre, garnished with soft chunks of avocado and potent sliced fresh chiles, then given an Italian accent with briny capers and a drizzle of olive oil. It was a very good ceviche, and oddly reminiscent (in a good way) of a vitello tonnato.[3]

(continued ...)

Monday, June 13, 2016

best thing i ate last week: philly cheesesteak at Philly Grub


When I was in high school a long, long time ago, I worked one summer at a place called All American Heroes in the Aventura Mall food court. (It happened to be in the same space that was occupied by the gastroPod for a brief time last year). It offered the usual assortment of cold cut subs you'd find at any Subway wanna-be, but the real specialty of the house was the Philly cheesesteak. By the end of that summer, I fancied myself a legitimate cheesesteak-slinger, and had gotten pretty adept at that double-spatula chopping action on the flat-top.

You'd think that after having cooked countless hundreds of them, I'd also be absolutely sick of cheesesteaks. But that moment never came. At the end of my shift I'd still happily make myself one – usually with provolone, sometimes mushrooms (I was fancy even then) – and enjoyed it every single time.

So I was intrigued when I saw signage going up for a place called "Philly Grub" on a, well, pioneering stretch of NW 54th Street in Little Haiti that's often part of my daily commute. It opened a few months ago, but its hours (11am-6pm Mon-Sat, 11am-5pm Sun) never coincided with mine. I finally made it in this weekend, and was reminded of what I loved about that summer: the cheesesteaks.


(You can see a few more pictures in this Philly Grub flickr set).

There's not much to the place: a counter to take your order, a couple tables, a ledge around the wall with some stools. And there's not much to the menu either: your basic Philly cheesesteak, with a few options (Whiz, provolone or American; onions, peppers, mushrooms, lettuce, tomato and pizza sauce if you wish), along with a chicken cheesesteak, a vegetable Philly, plus sausage, meatball, and Italian cold-cut hoagies. But you'll appreciate the bare bones approach when you see that all the sandwiches are $7.76. Sides – Penn-Dutch style potato salad, a pretzel, or chips – will set you back an extra $1.76, or you can splurge on the pierogies with grilled onions and sour cream for $2.76. For Philadelphia nostalgists, there's also Italian water ices and TastyKakes for dessert.

It is a finely crafted sandwich that you'll get for your $7.76. The beef is tender, well-seasoned and cooked through – still juicy, not entirely dried out, but not sopping its way through the bread before you can finish. For tradition's sake, I abandoned the fancy pretensions of my youth and got crazy with the Cheez Whiz; there's a reason for those traditions sometimes. It comes on a real-deal Amoroso roll, with just the right balance of crusty and tender, like Peter Falk in Princess Bride.

That cheesesteak wasn't just the best thing I ate last week; it was almost as good as the ones I used to make.

You can read some more about Philly Grub and its owners in this piece in the Miami Herald.

Philly Grub
99 NW 54th Street, Miami, Florida
786.857.6906


Monday, June 6, 2016

best thing i ate last week: korean blood sausage by James Strine at Duck Duck Goose


P.I.G., the annual celebration of porcinity organized and hosted by Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog of the gastroPod, is consistently one of my favorite local food events of the year. It always seems to have good juju: the chefs bring their "A" game, the guests are in a good mood, the music's tight, the weather's right. So when Jeremiah said he was spreading his wings (sorry), and doing something called Duck Duck Goose, a P.I.G. style party but with an avian bent, featuring ducks from Lake Meadow Farm and D'Artagnan, I had high hopes.

I was not let down. It was a little steamy out there Saturday afternoon, but it was an auspicious first run for what I hope will become another regular event. Picking a favorite dish was tough. I could have easily named Aaron Brooks' (Edge Steakarroz con pato, a sort of Peruvian paella infused with multiple layers of Peruvian chiles and cooked over an impressive open fire rig. Or Jeremiah's ma.po'outine, a hybrid of ma po tofu and poutine with duck fat fries and some serious ma la Sichuan zing. Or Brad Kilgore's (Alter) elegant foie gras and rabbit pavé with layers of fermented sunchoke yogurt and mushroom dashi gelée, crowned with golden raisins and preserved marigold petals. Or Steve Santana's (Taquiza) creamy, duck-fat enriched tamal colado served with pulled roast duck and a dark, rich mole negro.

But for me, it was the Korean style blood sausage that James Strine, from Café Boulud in Palm Beach, that stood out among several great dishes. The sausage – soft, meaty, with a ferrous tang – was bound with sweet potato noodles and sticky rice, and served with smoked duck and a tea-smoked duck egg, with everything brought into sharp focus by a pungent, cutting chile oil made from local Datil peppers, dried and infused into oil with other aromatics.

If you missed Duck Duck Goose, well, you missed out - you should hope, like I do, that it comes back around next year.

You can see all my pictures in this Duck Duck Goose flickr set, or flip through them here: