Sunday, May 31, 2009

Au Pied de Cochon - South Beach - First Look

[Sorry, this restaurant has closed]

Au Pied de Cochon The original Au Pied de Cochon was opened in Paris shortly after the conclusion of World War II. Its owner was a pork butcher in Les Halles market, who wanted someplace to feed his staff when they came off their shifts. Since that was often early in the morning, the restaurant was open 24 hours a day. The restaurant endeavored to serve all of Paris' social classes, from aristocrats to butchers, with simple traditional French fare. Though Les Halles market has since been moved to the outskirts of Paris, Au Pied de Cochon remains, and supposedly has never closed its doors (indeed, the story is that there are no keys).

The Miami Au Pied de Cochon just opened its doors this past Friday evening, in an old Art Deco building a block down the street from Joe's Stone Crab. Mrs. F tells me this was a pretty decrepit building previously, and since I don't remember it, I have to believe her. It looks quite nice from the street now, and inside it's done up in typical Parisian brasserie style, with long banquettes with brass-railed glass partitions and lots of red leather on the seating surfaces. It's a somewhat peculiar layout - some might say cozy, others slightly claustrophobic. The main dining room space is sort of chopped up by a long banquette, there is a large curved bar in the middle and directly across from it a big seafood case stacked with oysters, lobsters, crabs and big head-on shrimp, and then more seating to the far side of the bar. Piggie motifs abound, from the pink pig vases on the tables to the pig imprints around the bar to the murals painted on the walls.

When we arrived early Saturday evening the staff (which is a small army) were still getting briefed and ready for service, though there were a couple tables already being seated. We settled in at the bar, where they had a short list of wines by the glass (they plan to expand it) and, surprisingly, no cocktails menu. Since this is de rigeur on South Beach these days (along with the $15+ price tags), I'm sure it will come soon. Meanwhile, Campari and soda and a Makers' Mark old-fashioned were about $10 per. It was only after I'd ordered my drink that I saw them setting up an old-fashioned absinthe drip on the bar.

The menu reads like a lengthy greatest hits list of French brasserie cuisine - the well-stocked seafood bar (with items available either by the piece or in plateaus of various degrees of extravagance), terrine of foie gras, escargots, onion soup gratinée, steak tartare, bouillabaisse, duck confit, braised veal cheek, rack of lamb, several prime aged steaks ... and making a decision was not easy. Even though I've got no French roots and indeed only spent very limited time in France, there's something oddly reassuring and comforting about this kind of traditional line-up. Mrs. F stuck with apps and went with a smoked salmon platter, followed by steamed mussels; I had the "Perigord salad," followed by the namesake pig's trotter.

Before our appetizers were delivered, we were each brought a nice, warm, crusty baguette, tucked into a little wax paper bag, along with a little ramekin of creamy salted butter. So far so good. The Perigord salad was a garden variety mix of soft-leafed lettuces, with slivers of smoked magret (duck breast), several croutons topped with foie gras, toasted nuts, and grapes, dressed in a walnut oil vinaigrette. This is how to get me to eat a salad. They were very generous with the smoked duck and foie croutons (about five long thin slices of toasted brioche, topped with thin slices of foie gras terrine). Unfortunately, some tomatoes that someone had gone to the trouble of fileting (cutting off the seed pod and leaving just the "flesh") were unripe and rock hard. It could have stood some perkier lettuce as well. I'm also partial to the traditional addition of green beans, but that's just a matter of personal preference.

The smoked salmon appetizer was brought out on a long narrow platter and looked like it was practically an entire side of salmon, served with the traditional accompaniments of chopped hard-cooked egg yolk and white, capers, and diced onion, along with a couple of blini. As Mrs. F was starting to dig in, one of the service staff was unhappy with how she was going about it and offered to "prepare" it for her; intrigued, Mrs. F accepted his offer, and he set up a tray next to our table and dressed the salmon with all of its accoutrements, a charming gesture. It was good salmon and a remarkably generous portion, though the blini were unusually fat and doughy, almost more like crumpets.

Mrs. F's steamed Prince Edward Island mussels, done simply in white wine and herbs, were again a massive portion for an appetizer, brought out in a big cast-iron pot. This seemed like a 1-kilo serving, and the mollusks were fresh and briney, though I prefer the daintier Mediterranean mussels to the fatter PEI's.

The pièce de résistance was the namesake pig's trotter, again a massive portion including not just the foot but pretty much the entire next joint of shank as well, given a very light coating of bread crumb, and laden with all the slightly mysterious textures of which pig is capable - crispy skin, tender shreds-with-a-fork meat, rich fat, gooey gelatinous bits. This is not for anyone who doesn't like to work some for their dinner, as it requires a good bit of picking among various knuckle-bones and other inedible bits, but for aficionados of the porcine, it's all worth it. It also is not for those seeking a lean, low-fat piece of pork tenderloin. Let me put it this way - when a dip in the béarnaise sauce (just slightly overthick in texture, but nicely spiked with tarragon vinegar and herbs) cuts the richness of a dish, that's a bit of a heavy meal. I came nowhere close to finishing this, but happily brought it home and chopped up the remaining meat and other bits to have with some eggs and toast this morning. I wonder if there's any chance they will bring to Miami La Tentation de Saint-Antoine, a pigalicious fest of trotter, snout, ear and tail served at the original Parisian outpost.

The accompanying fries were a bit skinnier than I'm accustomed to at French and Belgian places, and also a bit soggier. These could use some refinement, though Mrs. F and I still managed to finish most of them off (they were awfully good dipped in the béarnaise).

Though we didn't need anything more, I felt obligated to try a dessert, and we split a crème brûlée. Again, this was not an easy choice, with lots of other French classics on the menu - ile flottante, crêpes flambeed with Grand Marnier, warm chocolate timable, apple tart, Grand Marnier souffle ... I'm certainly glad we ordered only one dessert, as this was a massive portion - usually served in a small ramekin, this crème brûlée came in something more akin to a trough, nearly a foot across. The burnt sugar topping was nicely crispy, but the custard base was almost too soft and quivery, feeling slightly underdone.

The wine selections were fairly limited but decent, with about 8 bubblies, a few Rosés, about 15 whites (with one French representative from each of Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhône, Loire and Alsace and the remainder from the rest of the globe) and about 30 reds (roughly half from France, and those mostly Bordeaux and Rhône). Prices range from $30s to upwards of $100 and most markups appear to be in the range of a 2x to 2.5x retail. One frustration is that vintages are not listed on the menu, though I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Vidal-Fleury Gigondas we ordered was a 2000 with some bottle age on it (this appears to be a late release from the winery).

Service belied both South Beach and French stereotypes, and was warm, friendly, solicitous and helpful. Everyone there seemed to know the menu well, and was eager to make recommendations. For only having been open one day, they seemed to be running pretty smoothly, and we had no notable service issues. There's also many old-school French touches like tableside preparations on several of the dishes - I felt a rush of heat on the back of my neck as the veal kidneys in mustard sauce were prepared for the next table over.

The food was not perfect, but it was good and showed promise, and a good French brasserie is always a nice thing to have around, especially one that is open 24 hours a day. But there is a bit of a disconnect between the quality and sophistication of the fare at Au Pied de Cochon and the prices in some instances. The Perigord salad seemed perfectly fair at $15.50, but $27.50 for a terrine of foie gras appetizer seems awfully steep even for this luxe ingredient (though I was sorely tempted by the $29 foie gras and apple tarte tatin appetizer, I refrained both due to the price and in anticipation of my trotter entree). A pork chop can be had for $21.50, but a Kobe beef burger is $25, duck leg confit is $27, the braised veal cheek is $33, and the steaks (all USDA prime and aged 21-28 days) are all in the $40s. On the other hand, the portions on some of the other items (like Mrs. F's $14.50 mussel appetizer or the gargantuan crème brûlée for only $7) made them seem like incredible bargains.

I'd just as soon see them work on the portion sizes and smooth out the menu pricing all around, rather than have such extremes. It's possible to have a reasonably priced meal here, but it can also quickly become quite expensive. While it's nice and cozy, it is simply not a fancy enough place to feel like you're having a $100 meal; and at some of these rates, the Miami Au Pied de Cochon is going to have a difficult time drawing in the butchers. But if they can straighten out some of the food miscues and pricing oddities, and make this more of an "everyday" rather than "special occasion" type of place, I suspect it will do quite well with the South Beach crowd.

Au Pied de Cochon
81 Washington Avenue
Miami Beach, FL 33139

Au Pied de Cochon on Urbanspoon

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Miami Pizza Crawl Part I

The first leg of the Miami Pizza Crawl kicked off last night, covering Wynwood / Design District candidates Joey's Wynwood, Pizzavolante, and Andiamo. We had a nice group of bloggers, chowhounds, and pizza fans on board for the crawl.

Four pizzas apiece at each place yielded the following menu:

Joey's Wynwood
Margherita - with mozzarella & tomato
"Joey" - with tuna, salami, gorgonzola, capers & spinach
"Carbonara" - with bacon, eggs, mozzarella & asparagus
"Dolce e Piccante" - with figs, gorgonzola, honey & hot pepper

Margherita "DOP" - with Italian tomato, oven dried Roma tomatoes, bufala mozzarella & basil
"Volante 100" - with local mozzarella, dandelion greens, tomatoes & arugula
"Bianca" - with fontina, 2 mozzarellas, goat cheese, arugula & thyme
"Cacciatorini" - with Italian tomato, local mozzarella, grana, California pepperoni & guanciale

"Soprano" - with broccoli rabe, Italian sausage, tomato sauce, parmesan & mozzarella
"Putanesca" - with olives, capers, anchovies, red pepper flakes, tomato sauce & mozzarella
"Genovese" - with rosemary potatoes, pancetta, caramelized onions, mozzarella & gorgonzola
"Popeye" - with spinach, roma tomatoes, tomato sauce, ricotta, mozzarella & basil

With 15 of us dining, we were able to get tastes of everything by splitting slices, and fortunately everyone shared nicely. Happily, bloggers less visually impaired than me, Paula at Mango & Lime and Trina at Miami Dish, got some great pictures and have already given their recaps. Probably the true highlight of the night was the chance to get together with several other kindred spirits who will happily spend several hours jumping from one pizza place to the next and debating which was best. Here are my thoughts:

Joey's -

First off, the space itself is really very nice. Right in the middle of a pocket of Wynwood's converted-warehouse art galleries, there's not much to look at outside, but inside the restaurant has a simple but sophsticated modern look with marble-topped tables and Globus chairs throughout. A solid selection of wines by the glass (including a fruity, slightly frizzante Lambrusco) was pleasing too, though I've been told by others who have gone there that they refuse to permit any corkage, which seems a foolhardy policy.

We started off the Crawl with the intention of trying a Margherita pizza at each place as a "baseline" reference standard, and then also explore some of each place's specialties. Yet we must not have had many pizza purists in the group, as the Margheritas at both Joey's and Pizzavolante seem to have not made many memorable impressions. I agreed that Joey's version was unexceptional. I did like the crust at Joey's, which was thin but firm - possibly my favorite of the night - and the tomato and cheese were in good balance, but their flavors didn't exactly jump out at you in any way.

It would seem you'd have to try the "Joey" at Joey's, yet I'll confess I didn't have complete confidence in the combination of tuna, spicy salame, gorgonzola, capers and spinach. I figured it had to either be outstanding or a complete disaster. It turned out to be much closer to the former than the latter. This was no doubt loaded with robust flavors, but the tuna and salami subconsciously played on my prediliction for the seafood/pork combo, and the other elements contributed their distinct flavors without overwhelming. I wouldn't exactly say they blended into a perfectly seamless whole, but this was actually much better than I anticipated and was one of my favorites of the night.

The "Carbonara" didn't quite work for me. It's hard to go wrong with bacon and eggs, but the bacon was indistinct, the asparagus was unnecessary and distracting, and it was missing the freshly ground black pepper that is the genesis of the name.

The "Dolce e Piccante" was another one that I was wary of, though it was highly recommended by our server. The combination of figs, gorgonzola and honey sounded cloying. Yet once again, this was much better than I expected. A dash of red pepper flakes provided some needed contrast, though I still thought there was too heavy a hand with the (good Italian) honey. This fell somewhere between dinner and dessert on the sweetness spectrum, and while I don't think I'd ever want to eat anywhere near a whole pie (half of a slice was more than enough), I enjoyed what I tried.

Pizzavolante -

[sorry, this restaurant has closed]

Next stop was Pizzavolante, the new pizza joint from Pacific Time chef Jonathan Eismann, which just opened last week. As I noted in my earlier comments, Pizzavolante is a very simple primitive layout - mozzarella bar and counter to one side, a few tables on the other, some bright orange plastic chairs, and a few more barstools around the windows where there are some more countertops for eating. While Joey's is someplace you might take a date, Pizzavolante is someplace you come to grab a pizza. Personally, I'm OK with that. I was surprised that some people were put out by the appearance of the mozzarella bar, where the cheeses are kept in large stainless bowls of cold water (as you must do with fresh mozzarella to keep the cheese moist). Anyhoo ... there are only five pizzas on the menu, and two of them are margheritas (one with local cow's milk mozzarella, and another, the "DOP", with fancy Italian bufala mozzarella), so narrowing down the choice to four was pretty easy.

The "DOP" Margherita was very good, though I couldn't say that it was appreciably better than the "plain Jane" Margherita I had last week on our first visit. Again, the real standout in the dough/sauce/cheese trinity was the cheese, though I'm not sure once they've melted in the wood-burning oven that the difference between the cow's milk mozzarella and the bufala mozzarella is worth the $4 price difference.

The "Volante 100" (made with toppings grown or produced within a 100-mile radius) really caught the attention of my tastebuds with the dandelion greens, which were just barely wilted and still perky and vibrant, along with local-grown tomatoes (mostly smaller red and yellow teardrops, I think) and arugula, as well as some of Vito Volpe's mozzarella.

I also liked the "Cacciatorini," topped with a scatter of nicely spicy California pepperoni and guanciale (jowl bacon). Of all the meat-topped pizzas we had, this was my favorite. I missed out on getting a good taste of the "Bianca," but white pizzas usually don't excite me that much anyway (though even some folks who were not white pizza fans liked this version).

I liked the thin crispy crust of Pizzavolante's pizzas, but thought it was perhaps taken to too much of an extreme, as the uncovered edges of the crust were so crispy as to be almost cracker-like. I understand they are still working on their dough recipe and hope they can find the perfect middle ground. They could also use a bit more variety to their pizza selections. I understand they've just opened and also that they're taking a simple approach to the menu, but no doubt Jonathan Eismann can come up with some more varied and creative toppings than what is currently on offer.

Another nice thing about Pizzavolante is the very reasonably priced selection of wines. A few of us split an $18 bottle of Mattabella Famiglia red (produced by a friend of mine in Long Island) which went down very easily with the pizza, and there are a number of other wines all priced at $18.

Andiamo -

Andiamo was something of a letdown after Joey's and Pizzavolante. I still love the funky location in a working car wash, with the big screen hung up outside showing the Lakers/Nuggets game, but the pizzas disappointed.

The Soprano had a nice layer of fresh, pleasingly bitter broccoli rabe, but the sausage was just bland, grey slices of mystery meat. The tomato sauce (very chunky, with some big hunks of whole tomatoes left in) also tasted somewhat industrial. The Putanesca was a twist on one of my favorite combinations for a pasta dish, but this was overwhelmingly salty (and yes, I fully anticipate that a dish with anchovies, olives and capers will be salty). The Genovese promised an interesting combination with the potatoes and pancetta, but the one overwhelming flavor was of garlic, which obscured everything else. The Popeye had nice fresh spinach leaves, but my slice pretty much missed out on any ricotta. The crust on all of these was somewhat doughy and gummy, compared to the nice thin crusts we had at Joey's and Pizzavolante. I'm OK with a nice doughy crust like a foccacia, if that's what a place is shooting for, but this wasn't that either.

While the pizza at Andiamo was perfectly serviceable, it paled in comparison to either Joey's or Pizzavolante. A good selection of beers did help wash it all down.

Favorite so far? If I could get the crust from Joey's done in the woodburning oven at Pizzavolante, and topped with Pizzavolante's fresh dandelion greens and the pepperoni and guanciale and Vito's mozzarella (and maybe a few other more varied combinations), I'd be quite happy.

Joey's Wynwood
2506 NW 2nd Avenue
Miami, FL 33137

Joey's Wynwood on Urbanspoon

3918 N. Miami Avenue
Miami, FL 33127

Pizzavolante on Urbanspoon

5600 Biscayne Boulevard
Miami, FL 33137

Andiamo on Urbanspoon

And Now for Something Completely Different ...

Hey, it's not all just New York chefs opening satellite restaurants here in Miami (even though it may seem that way with Scott Conant / Scarpetta, Alfred Portale / Gotham Steak, Laurent Tourondel / BLT Steak, Michael Psalikis / Eos ...) - there are L.A. chefs doing it too! UrbanDaddy reports that Apple Restaurant & Lounge, from Los Angeles chef Bryan Ogden (son of the legendary Bradley Ogden), will be opening Friday evening. Now, however, New Times reports that the opening is being delayed to next week on account of weather.[*]

I've been biting my tongue on this one, concerned that I've been too harsh on the influx of imported restaurants. Then I read this quote from one of the owners:

Bryan [Ogden] is the best chef I've ever worked with. In fact, I don't think Miami has ever seen anything quite like this before.
Haven't seen what, exactly? Arrogant out-of-town restaurateurs thinking they're bestowing magnificent gifts upon an unsophisticated, knuckle-dragging Miami culinary audience? The dubious proposition of an exclusive, clubby "VIP" restaurant/lounge in a depressed economy? Or is it the menu, which features such revolutionary items as shrimp cocktail, ceviche, tuna tartar, beef carpaccio, lobster bisque, caesar salad, $40 steaks, and truffled mac and cheese? Wow - to think we've been subsisting on grubs and roots all this time.

Apparently unafraid of setting the bar too high, Apple's website already describes it as "Miami's premier dining destination" and promises it will "feature a menu that maintains the highest level of quality to reflect the best of South Florida's bounty." That menu features Alaskan king crab, Maine lobster, oysters from British Columbia, Washington and Maine, and Maryland crab cakes (not quite local), along with Florida stone crab claws (not quite seasonal any more). A reference to "grilled local asparagus" was intriguing, but of dubious accuracy since it does not appear that asparagus is a viable Florida crop (though I'd love to be proven wrong on this). On a more positive note, ceviches feature Florida shrimp, yellowtail snapper and cobia, and fish entrees include grouper, red snapper and line-caught swordfish, all of which are at least potentially locally sourced.

I know when another L.A. guy, Govind Armstrong, first opened Table 8 in Miami, he expressed dissatisfaction with the ability to source local seafood and produce, but eventually found his way. Maybe Apple will be able to do the same. Or, maybe they won't need to bother, since they're already Miami's premier dining destination before they've even opened.

[*]Just as a sidenote, this has got to be the lamest excuse ever for delaying an opening. Delayed on account of rain? What is this, a baseball game? If you're waiting for the thunderstorms to stop, you're going to be waiting a few months. Welcome to Miami.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Michael's Genuine Food & Drink - Miami Design District

As much as it is a favorite of mine, I've found it somewhat difficult to write about Michael's Genuine Food & Drink. Maybe it's because I fear not being able to capture why I enjoy the place so much - it's pretty simple food, mostly - why do I find it so satisfying? Maybe it's because I can no longer count the times that I've been there since they opened two years ago. Do I try to describe the sum of dozens of visits over the past couple years, or simply describe one meal there as an example? I'll try to do both, and hopefully it'll all become clear.

I first experienced Chef Michael Schwartz's cooking more than a decade ago when he was the chef at the then newly-opened restaurant Nemo on South Beach. The food at Nemo was full of flavor but still executed with something of a light hand, and for years the place was one of my favorites. Schwartz left Nemo several years ago after a falling out with partner Myles Chefetz, and pursued a few other ventures. Some of these went by pretty quickly - a brief stint at Atlantic in the now-demolished Beach House Bal Harbour then owned by the Rubell family (both the restaurant and the hotel were hidden jewels for a brief period of time); a menu of "beauty cuisine" at the short-lived restaurant Afterglo in South Beach.

If there were a culinary award for "Comeback Player of the Year," Michael Schwartz would have won it in 2007. Following about a year behind Michelle Bernstein, who took a first bold step by opening up Michy's on a dodgy section of Biscayne Boulevard in 2006, Michael opened Michael's Genuine in late March 2007 in the Design District, another neglected neighborhood with no evening traffic whatsoever at the time (in any legitimate business activities, in any event). And people came.

My first visit there was about a week after they opened, and I was immediately hooked. Here was a restaurant that felt like a neighborhood place but was still classy enough to bring a date or a client; food that was creative without being goofy, made with high-quality ingredients and a focus on local products; the "small plates" menu options made it possible to try a number of different items; and the prices weren't crazy. You can follow something of a chronicle of my MGF&D experiences on this Chowhound thread. I said after my first visit:

My only hesitation in recommending it is the fear that it will become impossible to get in.

Oh well. Too late now.

The furnishings are low-key but classy, with simple wood tables covered with white paper and a polished concrete floor, the primary decoration being a few large artworks on the walls and some big red-shaded rectangular lamps hanging from the ceiling. It reminds me of the kind of places we've been to in the Pacific Northwest - comfortable, casual, but still nice enough for date night. There's outdoor seating in the atrium out front which is nice in the cooler months, and a second dining room adjacent to the main space has been added - though it has something of a Siberian feel to it, the food still tastes just as good there.

The menu is divided into "snacks," small, medium, large and extra-large dishes, as well as several vegetable side dishes. When they first opened, snacks were $4, and in two years that's only increased to $5-6. Prices across the menu have generally held steady, with most "small" and "medium" dishes being mostly in a $10-15 range and larger items (including the "extra-larges" which are meant to be shared) in the $20s-$40s.

The food at Michael's Genuine has a few defining characteristics: a focus on artisanal, high-quality ingredients; a dedication to local and sustainable products (including neglected species and cuts); and a purity and vividness of flavor. This is a place that features things like Poulet Rouge chicken (an heirloom breed descended from French stock now being raised in North Carolina and Georgia), Fudge Farms pork (more on this below); locally sourced fish that you'll almost never see on a restaurant menu[1] like pumpkin swordfish, cero mackerel, triggerfish, and golden tilefish; fresh local produce from Paradise Farms and Bee Heaven Farm; house-cured bacon and sausages; and "variety meats" like chicken livers, sweetbreads, beef cheeks, and pig ears all put to great use. Chef Schwartz styles himself as a disciple of Alice Waters (the chef, not the more annoying public persona of late)[2] and it really shows in the menu. He even has a "forager" regularly hitting the produce markets and farms to source great product for him.

But to focus exclusively on the ingredients and their provenance would pay short thrift to the creativity and quality of the cooking here, which puts out combinations like a beef cheek over a celeriac mash with a chocolate reduction and a garnish of celeriac salad (since replaced on the menu), or a crispy pork belly and watermelon salad with a soy-inflected dressing. Yes, much of the good stuff happens on the farm, but a good bit of it still happens in the kitchen too.

A Sample Meal

Let me start by describing the last meal we had at MGF&D a couple weeks ago. The "snacks" section of the menu is always a good place to begin, and this time around we had the crispy hominy, the puffed kernels fried and dusted with a sprinkle of chile powder and a squeeze of lime; the potato chips with caramelized onion dip, a favorite of Frod Jr. and Little Miss F (it also hits all the right nostalgic notes for the grown-ups); the falafel (another of Little Miss F's favorites, the balls of mashed chickpeas crispy outside and tender inside, and flecked with fresh parsley and mint); and a newer addition to the menu, crostini shmeared with a fresh goat cheese, an apricot thyme jam and a little sprinkle of micro-greens so fresh they seemed to still want to stand upright, a nice light warm-weather starter.

Michael sent out a new item he's been working on for us to try, a crispy corned beef dish. Keep your eyes out for this one. Many of MGF&D's dishes work with what I think of as "complementary contasts" - crispy and tender, salty and sour, the contrasts keeping the palate refreshed - and this was a great example. A slab of super-tender house-cured corned beef is given a bread crumb coating and seared for a crispy exterior, and is paired with a creamy remoulade/Russian dressing sauce, and some finely julienned sauerkraut-like pickled cabbage. Crispy, tender, creamy, salty, sour - like the best Reuben sandwich you've ever had. Mrs. F literally grabbed my arm after her first bite, she was so excited by this (but then she has a serious Reuben fixation - she basically subsisted on Reubens when pregnant with Frod Jr.).

We shared a couple more of the smaller dishes. The crispy pig ear salad is loaded with strips of shatteringly crispy strips of pig ear, tossed with tiny leaves of baby arugula, slivers of red onion, and thin disks of pickled radish (again with the pickled flavors - Chef Schwartz often makes great use of this flavor note). The strips of pig ear still visually reflect their origin (with a lighter strip of soft cartilage in the middle) but actually with the frying lose much of the ear-y texture some people find, well, eery.[3] Frod Jr. wouldn't stop picking these off my plate. A local grouper ceviche, with a dice of mango and avocado, was one of the few disapppointments - not bad, just lacking the punch that MGF&D usually delivers.

I followed with a Fudge Farms pork chop which nearly brought tears to my eyes. This is, simply, some of the best pork I have ever tasted - rich, sweet and densely flavored. A server once described this to me as the "prime beef of pork" and that's probably pretty close to the mark. And one of the things I so admire about Chef Schwartz's cooking is that he knows how to stay out of the way of a great ingredient. The pork chop is just brined and grilled, and served with simple pairings of an apple chutney and mashed turnips. And - as if to prove a point - this is not presented as a composed plate, but rather each of the accompaniments is in its own small bowl, so as not to mess with this great pork unless you choose to do so.

Mrs. F had the grilled octopus as a main. The octopus (a big fat whole tentacle served as a "medium" dish) is first slow-cooked in olive oil at a low temp, and then briefly finished on the grill for a little crisping of the exterior and light infusion of smoky flavor, and served over a bed of fat white gigande beans, roasted red peppers, olives and a salad of torn herbs and leaves, all given a good drizzle of olive oil. Frod Jr. tried a new item for him - the Harris Ranch shortrib, which is roasted, cooled, sliced off the bone into planks and then also finished on the grill, served with a hearty romesco sauce. Little Miss F had a pasta dish of home-made fettucine with shrimp, strips of zucchini, shards of fiore sardo cheese and a generous dusting of black pepper. On prior occasions I've found Chef Schwartz's pasta almost too silky and slippery, so much so that it doesn't effectively hold the condiment. This iteration was tender and soft but had enough traction to grip the buttery sauce.

The standout dessert of the night was a bowl of Meyer lemon curd topped with strips of candied peel, with a couple of dainty currant scones alongside as well as a couple Meyer lemon jellies. Like a mini English tea service for dessert, this perfectly captured the perfumey aroma of the Meyer lemons. Frod Jr. had his favorite, the chocolate cremoso. I'm still not sure exactly what "cremoso" translates too, but I know this dessert features a lusciously rich quenelle of dark chocolate, almost ganache-like in texture, with a sprinkle of coarse sea salt, a drizzle of peppery olive oil, a crispy sourdough crouton for scooping, and a cold espresso parfait for contrast. Though the combination of chocolate, salt and olive oil sounds exotic, it is actually a delicious spin on a traditional Catalan dish.

A Tour Through the Menu

I should note that some of the dishes I describe here may no longer be found on the menu. In fact, the menu changes quite regularly, and while there are some stalwarts, new dishes appear frequently, old ones come and go, some are just momentary inspirations based on what's fresh that week, and still others get tweaked here and there depending on what ingredients are at their best and what's interesting to the kitchen at that time. I have often said that I think this approach is one of the keys to a successful restaurant in Miami as, among other things, it gives the locals reason to come back repeatedly and provide a base business not subject to the fickle and seasonal whims of the tourist crowd. Indeed, I suspect the menu at Michael's Genuine probably changes more in any three-month span than the menu at Nemo has changed since Chef Schwartz left several years ago. Given the number of things I've tried, it should not surprise that I've not loved them all - but even when a dish goes off the mark, it rarely strays far.


One of the nice things about the "snacks" is that these almost always hit the table within 5 minutes of ordering. Several of the snacks are mentioned above - the crispy hominy, the falafel, the chips & dip, the goat cheese crostini - but my favorite item is the chicken liver crostini, a few slices of bread smeared with a rich chicken liver puree with just a hint of sweetness, mostly contributed by a scatter of caramelized onions. MGF&D's kimchee is an interesting take on the Korean staple, without any real whang of fermentation but with a fresh, crisp flavor and enough spice to perk up the taste buds. Deviled eggs are creamy, rich and, like the chips & dip, nostalgia-inducing, but not anything special unless you're really in the mood for deviled eggs (I often am).

Small & Medium Dishes

The designation of dishes as "small" or "medium" has often seemed somewhat arbitrary to me. Both are usually appetizer-size, though some of the "mediums" are more substantial and could serve as a small main course.

house salad - the components of this vary from week to week but almost always involve some nice cheese, some nice fruit, and toasted brioche croutons. One variation I recall had champagne grapes, shards of manchego cheese, and a veil of thinly sliced serrano ham. The current menu iteration includes pickled rhubarb, Georgia peaches and the wonderful Midnight Moon goat cheese. There's often another nice salad that features butter lettuce, oranges, hazelnuts, and avocado.

BLT salad - house cured bacon, cut thick, in a classic combination with curly frisee (with a bacon fat dressing, I believe), heirloom tomatoes, and Roaring '40s blue cheese.

panzanella - a simple salad of brightly flavored heirloom tomatoes (you will often see a huge stack of them along the bar in front of the open kitchen) and cubes of toasted bread tossed with a vinaigrette.

pork belly and watermelon salad - cubes of crispy pork belly and cool juicy watermelon, tossed with some slivered onion in a soy-inflected dressing. A happy combination of crispy, salty and sweet.

sweetbread salad - this one didn't stick around long but was nice, a salad of well-salted frisee, tossed with a tangy vinaigrette and some julienned preserved lemon, bits of bacon, and several nubs of fried sweetbreads, crispy on the outside and tender within. My kind of salad.

mussels - steamed with a spicy tomato harissa broth and served over sticky black rice. This boldly flavored dish was a carry-over from the Nemo menu, and is still good. It used to be a regular rotation item but I haven't seen it for a little while.

tuna tartare - Chef Schwartz has previously expressed his chagrin at the difficulty of taking this item off the menu even though he's not able to consistently locally source the tuna to be used for it. Tuna tartare is a ubiquitous dish these days but his is a nice version, paired with grapefruit and chile oil. Interesting that in the latest menu iteration, the original tuna tartare is gone, replaced with a yellowfin tuna crudo with preserved Meyer lemon and fresh hearts of palm.

tuna conserva - yellowfin tuna (brownie points for sustainability), presumably cooked low and slow in olive oil and then served cold in a 1/2 pint mason jar, along with toasts and accompaniments for some "DIY tuna salad" - aioli, capers, thinly sliced radish, finely diced preserved lemon. Like a good quality Spanish canned tuna, this is another item - like the roast chicken discussed below - where I suspect some inspiration has come from Zuni Cafe in San Francisco, which has for some time done a similar dish. (I should mention here that the Zuni Cafe Cookbook is one of my all-time favorites not just for the recipes but also for Judy Rodgers' wonderfully vivid, passionate and useful descriptions of cooking processes and concepts).

"buffalo" frog legs - little tiny frog legs, fried in a light-as-air tempura batter, and served with dipping bowls of a seriously fiery hot sauce and a cooling blue cheese sauce.

crispy grouper cheek - a tender nugget of meat from the "cheek" of the fish, given a crispy coating and served over lemon-infused fregola.

cero mackerel - a local fish which is not usually commercially fished, house-cured, and served with almonds and raisins and a fennel salad. I"m a fan of all the silver-skinned fish and enjoy seeing them put to good use. A more recent menu features a Spanish mackerel done two ways - one cured, the other grilled - and I'm looking forward to trying it.

yellowjack - only saw this dish once, a small filet quickly seared, topped with sea urchin roe, fresh lychee and served in a pool of dashi broth. This is about as "precious" as Chef Schwartz ever gets. While his food is usually more robust and straightforward, he is capable of successfully going elegant and delicate like this when the mood strikes him.

double-yolk egg - cooked in the wood-burning oven in a little ramekin with some melting cheese and roasted tomatoes. Outstanding when cooked right, but sometimes the wood-burning oven can be temperamental and this comes out under- or over-done.

rabbit pâté - a nice slab of house-made pâté, tasting more meaty than liver-y, and studded with pistachios. Usually served with some seasonal jam - may be a tomato jam, may be rhubarb, may be a pomelo mostarda. I actually prefer the rabbit pâté to the duck and foie gras terrine, which I found a little too tight-textured when I tried it once (but I'm always willing to try again).

chicken wings - not a fancy dish at all, the wings are doused with a Thai-style sweet chile sauce and served with a cool raita-like creamy cucumber sauce. More like bar food or "staff meal" than high dining, but for $8 that's nothing to complain about.

duck confit - MGF&D does a good confit, and the pairings change often. For a while this was done with a cauliflower mash and a pear & raisin chutney; more recently it gets a minneola glaze and is served with some frisee tossed with some spiced pumpkin seeds.

lamb-stuffed onion - a big fat Vidalia-style onion is stuffed with Moroccan-spiced ground lamb and roasted in the wood-burning oven and served over a bed of peppery arugula. A server suggested I peel off the charred outer layer of onion and cut up the rest and toss with the arugula like a salad, which worked out well, though this item is not one of my favorites.

porchetta di testa- a head cheese made with pork's head boned out, rolled and tied, and braised for a long time, then cooled, sliced thin, and served with some greens, thinly sliced radishes and capers. This was basically the recipe done by Chris Cosentino of Incanto in this video. The porchetta was more a textural experience than anything else, with each bite giving a little of the meat, the fat, the slightly crunchy ear. Chef Schwartz is an avid proponent of the nose-to-tail school of dining, and I recall one visit when he gleefully shared with us that they had a whole hog in the walk-in and were busily plotting everything the kitchen could make with it.

pork belly - one of the classic MGF&D dishes, a slab of pork belly is cooked slow till tender and then crisped on the outside, topped with some fresh kimchee, toasted peanuts and Paradise Farms pea shoots. A beautiful combination and possibly the greatest pork belly dish I've had. Also a Frod Jr. favorite.

crispy beef cheek - this was one of my favorites when they first opened up, a slab of tender cheek given a crispy coating, served over a bed of celery root puree, sauced with a chocolate reduction (not nearly as odd as it sounds), and plated with a mound of celery root salad for a nice tart contrast to the rich flavors of the beef, puree and sauce. This is another item that's gotten a recent update, with Chef Schwartz turning up the tart flavors even more by pairing with a mustard sauce and pickled onions and artichokes.

crispy pork cheek - another example of the crispy/tender salty/sweet thing, a pork cheek is braised down and then given a light breadcrumb coating to crisp the outside, served with a tangy BBQ sauce and a celeriac slaw. I've also seen a similar prep done with a pork short rib.

Fudge Farms pork shoulder - a different dish from the standard "large" Berkshire pork shoulder done with the parsley sauce and pickled onions described below, this one was slow-roasted till just about ready to fall apart, and served on top of a crouton to soak up the juices and topped with a fennel slaw. Melt-in-your-mouth tender, this was the dish that started my love affair with Fudge Farms pork.

Large and Extra-Large Dishes

At most restaurants that offer "small plates" I tend to gravitate towards those instead of the entree-sized dishes, both because they provide an opportunity to try more things and also because they tend to be more interesting. But there are several dishes at Michael's Genuine that belie this generalization.

kingfish - another of the mackerel family, this was cooked in the wood oven in a terra cotta cazuela along with some shrimp, mussels, calamari and chickpeas, bathed in a harissa-spiked tomato broth, and drizzled with aioli. A nice version of an under-utilized and sometimes difficult fish.

pumpkin swordfish - a local swordfish, grilled, and served over a vegetable ragout studded with tender cippoline onions, fennel, and artichokes, and drizzled with a vibrant saffron aioli. I've seen him do similar preparations with other fish include tilefish and golden trout.

Alaskan salmon - not local, but still a wonderful item when they're in season, I recall shortly after MGF&D opened having an Alaskan sockeye salmon steak (cut crosswise with the central bone intact rather than as a filet), a beautiful dark red, served over a flavorful potato, mushroom and fennel hash.

pork shoulder - a Berkshire pork shoulder is roasted till fall-apart tender, topped with some red pickled onions (making it reminiscent of a cochinita pibil), and the plate drizzled with a bright green, vividly flavored parsley sauce. The Anson Mills cheese grits which come with are just as good as the pork.

skirt steak - this one is a Frod Jr. favorite, a Harris Ranch steak is grilled and served over a potato, asparagus and fennel hash, accompanied with a brightly flavored herb salad and a black olive aioli.

pizza - cooked in the wood oven with toppings that change from week to week. An early iteration of the pizza featured shredded pork, sliced figs, caramelized onions and a sprinkle of cheese. More recently I had one with wilted stinging nettles. Savvy diners may notice that the pizza often is a vehicle for using up some other menu items (roasted pork, short rib), which I see as the mark of an efficient kitchen looking to avoid food waste.

whole "poulet rouge" chicken - I've only had the whole wood oven roasted chicken once and it was one of my favorite dining experiences ever. We sat at the kitchen bar, nursed a bottle of Oregon pinot noir, nibbled on some snacks, and waited (roughly an hour) while Michael tended to the bird in the wood-burning oven. When it came out, it was perfectly cooked and moist, dripping in its own juices, but with wonderfully crispy skin and a bit of smokiness from the oven. The bird is served with some plumped raisins, toasted pine nuts and a toss of arugula, and - if you wish - brought out whole to the plate. They'll happily portion it out for you, but then you'll miss the chance to pick at the carcass. Michael's recipe is basically a dead ringer for the famous roast chicken at Zuni Cafe. I happened to have a chance to try Michael's chicken and the Zuni chicken within a month of each other. My favorite? Michael's.


The more I try them, the more the vegetable sides become one of my favorite sections of the menu at Michael's Genuine.

brussels sprouts - so many people say they don't like brussels sprouts. I think they're just prepared wrong too often. Boiling or steaming just brings out the sulphurous odors - dry heat is the way to go, and Michael's, roasted in the wood-burning oven with cubes of juicy, salty pancetta, are delicious.

local green onions - I first saw these long fat spring onions at the local farmers' market last spring and within a week they were on the menu at MGF&D. Looking like fat scallions that are just starting to form a bulb onion at the base, these were wilted on the grill and served with an herb-infused provencal vinaigrette.

ramps - also quickly wilted, and served with a Vidalia onion coulis to give layers of onion flavor.

cauliflower - roasted in the wood oven and doused with a bright green parsley sauce. Simple and delicious, this is one of our favorites and I love to have leftovers for an omelette the next morning.

wood roasted carrots - big fat knobby carrots which I think came from Bee Heaven Farm, simply roasted in the wood oven to bring out their sweet earthy flavor.


Shortly after he opened Michael's Genuine, Michael Schwartz succeeded in luring his fabulous pastry chef from the Nemo days, Hedy Goldsmith, back into the fold. Her desserts match Chef Schwartz's cooking - unfussy, homey, and delicious. The classic dessert at MGF&D is the chocolate cremoso, but we've also really enjoyed the lemon curd, also mentioned above, a peanut butter and banana panini that would have made Elvis happy, a saffron panna cotta, and a great selection of homemade ice creams. One evening we got a sampler and tried a salted caramel (fantastic - Mrs. F wanted a pint to take home), Mexican chocolate (loaded with cinnamon and chile spice), and kumquat creamsicle (a classic old school combination, made new with the tart pucker of the kumquats).

There's always a "cheese of the week" and they're often worth trying as well, which is what I'll sometimes do in lieu of dessert. Probably my favorite discovery was La Tur, a luscious Italian triple-cream cheese, which was plated very simply with a square of oozy honeycomb from local Paradise Farms.

Service at Michael's Genuine can be either outstanding or adventurous. There is a core group of veteran waitstaff who are consummate pros and an absolute pleasure to dine with, but there's simply not enough of them to handle the entire restaurant. For the remainder, there's unfortunately a lot of turnover, and while a few of them have stuck around and succeeded, there are usually always at least a few fresh faces. It's almost never a matter of bad attitude, just sometimes a lack of experience.

The wine list has always done a pretty good job of providing decent value, and of late has made some notable improvements. I've always felt that the list slanted too heavily toward California cabs and Bordeaux blends, which I don't see as the ideal match for MGF&D's food. The selection of pinot noirs in particular has been bolstered lately, but I'd still love to see more options from the Rhone and Spain, which I think would be a better complement to Michael's menu. There's also a somewhat unheralded (at least by me) list of more than 20 mostly craft beers, including a creamy, malty Old Speckled Hen pale ale we had one evening in lieu of wine.

Michael's Genuine has certainly not lacked for champions since it opened, with the New York Times' Frank Bruni naming it fourth last year in the solipsistic list of Top 10 New Restaurants Outside of New York and Gourmet magazine listing it in its Top Farm to Table Restaurants. Now a little more than two years old, it's refreshing and gratifying to see the restaurant is still regularly finding new and interesting things to put on the menu, still dedicated to local, sustainable and artisanal foods, and still absolutely at the top of its game.

Michael's Genuine Food & Drink
130 N.E. 40th Street
Miami, FL 33137

Michael's Genuine Food & Drink on Urbanspoon

[1] Other than Hiro's Yakko-San, that is.

[2] I happened to be in the restaurant last year on the weekend of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival when Alice Waters was paying a visit to the restaurant along with Jamie Oliver. I have never seen Chef Schwartz so nervous and giddy.

[3]Personally I still fondly recall a stew of ears and trotters I had at El Meson de Candido in Segovia, but such things are not for everyone.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Morning Reading Material

Some interesting reading material this morning:

Don't forget the Miami Pizza Crawl starts tomorrow 6:30 pm at Joey's Wynwood, then moves to Pizzavolante and (if appetites allow) Andiamo. If you're hoping to join in and haven't done so yet, please join the Miami Chowdown Google Group and let me know so we can try to plan accordingly.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Eos - Downtown Miami

I may have come across as not so warm to Eos, the new restaurant in the Viceroy Hotel from the Michael Psilakis/Donatella Arpaia team. But, despite my mixed feelings about big hotel restaurants from out-of-town chefs, I was pretty excited by the preview menu I saw and was looking forward to trying it. We finally did so this weekend.

Actually, we started the evening at "Club 50," the lounge on the 50th floor of the Viceroy Hotel, which itself is just a small part of the Phillipe Starck designed Icon Brickell Tower development (the Viceroy's website actually says the club is for Icon members and hotel guests only - whoops!). The Kelly Wearstler-designed space is unique, combining 1930's era shapes with a 1970's era color palette (black and white marble floors, teal walls, lime green chairs) for a rather compelling Goldfinger-esque effect. There was a familiar face behind the bar - the former bartender from Sra. Martinez (and before that Michy's), whose name, I'm embarassed to admit, escapes me (my bar tab said "Freddy" but that doesn't sound right). I tried a "Viceroy Old Fashioned," a variation on the traditional drink made here with Ron Zacapa Centenario 23, a Guatemalan rum made with from a blend of 6 to 23 year old rums aged in former Bourbon, sherry and Pedro Ximenez barrels, along with a dash of simple syrup, bitters, and grapefruit and lime peels. It was a good drink, a little lighter on its feet than the traditional bourbon version. Mrs. F liked their take on a pisco sour.

The restaurant was somewhat challenging to locate. We went down to the 15th floor, and then had to pass through some unmarked black doors and around a hallway to find it (it may be easier if you go directly from another set of elevators from the hotel lobby). From the receptionist's desk, we wound around yet another hallway and eventually ended up in the restaurant, also done up in similar style by Kelly Wearstler with one wall of horseshoe banquettes and a few long rows of tables. By 8-9 o'clock the room was roughly half full (it's a pretty sizable space) and had a decent buzz without being terribly noisy.

The menu, created by New York wunderkind Michael Psilakis, is almost all small plates, priced mostly in a range of $10-15, which stay true to his reinvented contemporary Greek stylings. A good number of these are raw fish items with unusual pairings (many ambiguously labelled as "sushi/sashimi" - more on that below), supplemented by several vegetable items, and some cooked fish and meat dishes. There's also a short listing of larger fish and meat items which can be had as an entree or to split. Our waiter suggested ordering about 4 of the small dishes each for a meal or a couple and a larger item as an entree. We stuck with the small plates and had nairagi and salmon "sushi/sashimi", a botan ebi ceviche, a cheese plate, smoked octopus, lobster and uni risotto, and a spiedini sampler.

We weren't sure when we ordered the "sushi/sashimi" items whether this was intended as an "Option A and B" or a generic descriptor (we said "sushi" just to find out). After all, sushi really refers to rice (and more broadly to various items served atop rice), whereas sashimi is sliced raw fish sans rice. It turned out not to make a difference what we said, as each of these brought three strips of raw fish (no rice) bedecked with their unusual pairings. Chopsticks were brought out for eating these. The nairagi (a Hawaiian striped marlin, whose flesh has a whitish-pink hue) was very nice - fresh, a bit meaty and firm like a swordfish, and the pairing elements (pistachio, apricot and speck) worked nicely, the predominant one being the crisped-up speck.

The salmon, on the other hand, was an unmitigated disappointment - fishy and oversalted. I couldn't even tell you whether the unusual accompaniments of mastic (a resin derived from a Greek evergreen tree), rhubarb and pickled mushroom might have been successful, as the quality of the fish and overseasoning made it impossible to notice anything else.

The botan ebi (Japanese prawn) ceviche, spiked with cubes of papaya, was delicate and balanced, with the large dice of shrimp still tender, but not very exciting. The presentation, in a tubelike elongated glass bowl, was beautiful but did not completely distract from the fact that this was a rather parsimonious serving for $12.

The cheese plate which followed was decent but unexceptional. Three cheeses - a Cabrales blue, a Brunet (a nice creamy, oozy goat cheese), and one firmer cheese which I'm not now recalling - were plated with some membrillo, some macerated raisins, and pasteli (Greek sesame candy). This last was an unusual pairing, as its super-crunchy texture and tooth-sticking qualities didn't particularly seem a good match for the cheeses.

The smoked octopus came with a dice of pineapple and batonettes of sopressata, served over skordalia (a Greek garlic and walnut sauce). The octopus was tender and flavorful and the dish was an inspired combination. I am generally a sucker for the pairing of seafood and pork products, and this was a good one, with the pineapple and skordalia both providing nice complementary notes. I would have liked more of this - and indeed, the one skinny tentacle seemed a little dainty for the $13 price tag. For $4 more, the octopus dish at Michael's Genuine offers a serving nearly 2-3 times the size (given the difference in location, it would perhaps be unfair to point out that the great $9 grilled octopus app at Anise Taverna is also probably also about 3x the portion).

The lobster and sea urchin risotto which came next was the best thing we had all night. The waiter brought a rimmed plate, on which was a raw egg yolk, a couple "tongues" of uni, and a dollop of caviar. He made a little production of breaking up the egg yolk and uni with a spoon and then, from a small pot, dished over them a rich lobster risotto, mixing it all together at the table. The little production is not just for show, as it helped preserve the uni's delicate perfume and kept it from being completely overwhelmed and overcooked. This was a luxurious dish, with the egg yolk adding further richness to an already buttery risotto. The lobster - and there was quite a bit of it - was completely tender and perfectly cooked, also not an easy feat. At $16, this dish was a fantastic value, particularly compared to some of the other items we had (though Mrs. F still claims she can make a better risotto).

The spiedini "Mia Dona" brought pork involtini (stuffed with melting cheese), quail, sweetbreads, merguez sausage, and lamb tseftalia. The sausages were the real standouts here, both the spicy merguez and the more delicate but still robust tseftalia.

Despite my kvatching about value and portions on some of the items, we ended up eating a good amount of food for about $90 and did not leave hungry (though the desserts did not interest Mrs. F anyway). A couple other nice touches - some complimentary petit fours at the end of our meal (a little muffin-like cake, a coconut marshmallow, and a passionfruit jelly); and the valet parking is fully comped by the restaurant (one of the real drags of hotel dining is having to pay for parking). Service was friendly, our waiter was helpful in guiding us on how much to order, and they did a good job of grouping the courses to pace the meal appropriately. But there were some lapses. For instance, although we were sharing almost everything and the dishes were mostly presented as "small plates", we were never given any extra plates for sharing - even when the spiedini sampler was presented on a skinny wooden plank laid across the middle of the table.

One other real oddity is that there is basically no wine list to speak of. The menu lists about 5 each of whites and reds and a few bubblies, with prices by the glass and by the bottle. I asked for a wine list, and was told this was it. I'm all in favor of the "carefully selected" school of wine lists, but that's a little ridiculous. And, if I recall correctly, not a single Greek wine on the incredibly short list, despite tremendous improvements in the quality of Greek wines of late.

I appreciated the creative menu, I always enjoy the small dishes format, and some items - the nairagi, the smoked octopus, the lobster and uni risotto - were very good, but there were definitely some misses too. It was a place I wouldn't mind going back to, but don't know that I'd actively seek to return. Unfortunately, the overall experience did little to dissuade me of my concern that we are getting the "brand" but not the talent of the famous restaurants that are opening up satellite offices here in Miami. Michael Psilakis' Anthos is one of only two Michelin starred Greek restaurants in the world. Eos is not going to be the third.

Viceroy Hotel
485 Brickell Avenue
Miami, FL 33131

Eos on Urbanspoon

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Pizzavolante - Miami Design District - First Look

[Sorry, this place has closed]

Ahh, pizza. That happy triumvirate of bread, sauce and cheese. I'll confess I don't pretend to be a pizza expert. Unlike many of Miami's denizens who are transplants from pizza meccas like New York, I grew up down here on South Florida pizza. Which ... well, until recently didn't really have very much to recommend it. It seems that may be changing.

After swinging by Pizzavolante earlier today to have a peek, I brought the whole Family Frod back for dinner this evening, which was their opening night. The small restaurant on Miami Avenue on the edge of the Design District was pretty well packed with friends and family. The layout is simple - to one side when you walk in is the mozzarella bar and behind it, in the corner, the pizza oven; there are a few rows of tables with funky orange plastic chairs, as well some extra barstool-height seating along the front windows.

We started off with a sampling of the mozzarellas and their accompaniments, followed by a margherita pizza. As I previewed in my earlier post, there are a variety of mozzarellas to choose from - an organic Vermont buffalo mozzarella, Italian D.O.P. mozzarella di bufala and burrata, as well as cow's milk mozzarella in a variety of shapes from local producer Vito Volpe. These can be teamed up with a number of different pairings, and we added organic spinach and arugula leaves, fried zucchini, zucchini again in a fine julienne, braised fennel, marinated olives and capers, and trofie pasta in a light pesto sauce, all given a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and good olive oil (two more Spanish olive oils, one smooth, one more peppery, are on the table if you'd like to add some more). The burrata was lovely - silky, creamy and luxurious - but my favorite may have been the little ovolini from Vito's, which were nicely dense without being too bouncy. I also particularly liked the julienned zucchini, flavored with a pungent whiff of fresh mint and good olive oil. The cool mozzarella, with the various vegetables, makes for a nice light start to a meal while you wait for your pizza to emerge from the wood-burning oven.

You don't have to wait long, as our margherita came out in about 10 minutes. I'd love to tell you that you can pick up the smoky essence of the wood-burning oven, but I'd be lying - I don't think the pie spends enough time in there to notice. It was a thin-crust model, the ridge of exterior crust crispy and the rest of it sufficiently firm to hold up the sauce and cheese, but not so much so that you couldn't fold it without it cracking apart (yes, I'm a pizza folder). The standout component of the bread-sauce-cheese trinity here was the cheese, Vito's again on the "baseline" margherita model, which I thought had a lovely milky, lightly salty flavor and great texture - melting but not stringy or rubbery. If you want to upgrade from the standard $9 margherita, you can go for the $13 margherita di bufala D.O.P., which brings Italian mozzarella di bufala, oven dried roma tomatoes, and Sicilian sea salt to the party as well. I'd love to do a side-by-side comparison. In the meantime, I was happy that Frod Jr. and Little Miss F found some school friends to play with, as it left a couple extra pieces of the pie for me.

So - best pizza in Miami? Too early to tell. I'll need to complete the Pizza Showdown before making any pronouncements. But there's already much here to enjoy: multiple varieties of fresh mozarrella with lots of savory accompaniments; really good pizza with high quality ingredients at a very fair price: and good cheap wines to wash it all down.

3918 N. Miami Avenue
Miami, FL 33137

Pizzavolante on Urbanspoon

Doors Fly Open at Pizzavolante

Pizzavolante, the new pizza parlor and mozzarella bar from Pacific Time chef Jonathan Eismann, opened today. By noon they already had pies going out the door, even as the awning was still going up outside. I popped in to take a look and grab a menu but didn't have time to sample - maybe later tonight. In the meantime, here below is the menu, and some very quick impressions.

Pizzavolante menu

It's a short and sweet listing of pizzas, and for the most part pretty traditional. Standard pies are done with fresh mozzarella from local producer Vito Volpe, whose stuff is also featured in the mozzarella bar, or you can splurge and go for the fancier stuff on a $13 pie. There are also a couple calzones if you prefer your pizza stuffed. The wood-fired oven is pretty impressive, as is the pile of firewood waiting to fuel it. Locavores will appreciate the "Volante 100," with all toppings or fillings grown or produced within 100 miles of the store.

The mozzarella bar features several different varieties (an organic bufala mozzarella from Vermont, two different Italian D.O.P. mozzarellas di bufala, and Vito's local cow's milk mozzarella, some of which is custom made for the restaurant). The mozz can be paired with a bunch of different accompaniments, from fried zucchini to prosciutto di parma to trofie pasta with pesto. The menu also features a few sandwiches, a few pasta options, and a daily special (all old-school Italian stuff like lasagna, eggplant parmigiana, veal marsala) available to eat in, for take out or delivery.

Several very reasonably priced wines are available (18 under $18), as well as good beers including Bud for a buck. Let the pizza wars begin.

If you want to see how the magic happens, here's a video of Vito making his mozzarella:

3918 N. Miami Avenue
Miami, FL 33137

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Wine Dinner at 5300 Chophouse

OK - a few words of caution before I put this one up: (1) I do not watch Hell's Kitchen, don't get to Doral that often, and so had never heard of 5300 Chophouse or its chef Josh Wahler; (2) $125 seems a bit steep for a restaurant and winery I've never heard of (as for the wine, my guess is that Sunbox Eleven is a Crushpad custom crush thing, not that there is anything wrong with that); and (3) the shill quotient seems high, what with a New Times blog entry generating 21 comments and about 10x that many exclamation points. But having said all that, both the menu and wines look somewhat interesting, so here it is - the 5300 Chophouse / Sunbox Eleven wine dinner, to happen on May 28, $125 per person inclusive of tax and tip.

5300 Chophouse
5300 NW 87th Avenue
Miami, FL 33178

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Pizza Showdown

OK. After I was given some grief for questioning whether a place could be dubbed the "best pizza in South Florida" within 24 hours of putting out some pies for an opening party, I've realized it's only fair to put the question to the test of public opinion. Indeed with the influx of new pizza places, some further investigation would seem to be in order. In the span of a week, we've got Racks in North Miami Beach opened, Sosta on Lincoln Road opened, and Jonathan Eismann's Pizza Volante opening in the Design District. Not so long ago Joey's Wynwood (recently recognized in Food & Wine), Blu Pizza e Cucina in Mary Brickell Village and Pizza Fusion in North Miami Beach opened their doors. A new pizza place from the owners of Sardinia called Casale is in the pipeline, and stalwarts like Spris, Piola and Pizza Rustica on South Beach and Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza in Aventura are still plugging along.

As if more inspiration was needed, Jonathan Alan Richman (sorry, Modern Lovers on the brain) just came out in GQ with his list of the top 25 pizzas in the country - and no, there are no Miami places listed. This summary from Serious Eats is almost as good a read as the original.

So which Miami pizza really is the best? Help me decide:

(1) Some wise person suggested a pizza crawl to try out the contenders. A brilliant idea. I'd propose it start on Lincoln Road where newcomer Sosta and old-timers Spris, Piola and Pizza Rustica can go face to face (and Casale if it's open). Then perhaps a Downtown/Wynwood/Design District trek with Blu Pizza, Joey's and Pizza Volante. And finally a trek up north to Pizza Fusion, Anthony's and Racks. Who's in? Send me an email (link is in the profile above) or better yet, join the Miami Chowdown Google Group to work out logistics.

(2) I've started a poll over on the right column listing the candidates. Once you've tried, cast your vote.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Timo Restaurant - Sunny Isles

Tourists usually think South Beach is the only place to go in the Miami area. Locals going out to dinner may have figured out that some of the best dining is now in the Design District and along the "Biscayne Corridor" where nationally known chefs like Michael Schwartz and Michelle Bernstein now ply their trade. But there are still other places where good eats can be found, and Timo, up toward the northern reaches of Miami-Dade County in Sunny Isles, is one of them.

"Timo" means "thyme" in Italian, but I believe it's also a combination of the first names of the restaurant's owners, Chef Tim Andriola and General Manager Rodrigo Martinez. Chef Andriola's resume has some of the most distinguished names in local and national kitchens - Mark Militello (exec chef at Mark's South Beach), Alan Susser (chef de cuisine at Chef Allen), stints at Chez Panisse, Charlie Trotter;[*] and Rodrigo Martinez likewise came in with some solid experience, having served for some time as the GM and beverage manager at Norman Van Aken's restaurant in Coral Gables. About 5-6 years ago they opened Timo and have been putting out great food ever since.

The restaurant is of the simple modern school of design, with lots of wood, glass and brown leather and a quietly elegant but completely unstuffy feel. There is a bar with about a dozen seats as well as about a half-dozen high-rise 2-tops, which is where we usually happily end up when showing up without reservations. (Gentlemen, and lady sports fans, a hint here: there is one flat-screen behind the bar which usually is tuned to an appropriate sporting event; pick your seat wisely and be discreet when looking over your date's shoulder). The place has a strong following among the Sunny Isles / Aventura / North Miami Beach crowd and is usually busy without being packed.

The menu has a mild but not overly pronounced Italian / Mediterranean bent and is updated fairly often (something I am convinced is key to maintaining a local following). There are usually about a half dozen salads and soups, another half dozen or so "small plates" (something they were doing before MGF&D was even a glimmer in Michael Schwartz's eye), several "gourmet" pizzas that come from a wood-burning oven, a handful of pasta dishes, and about a dozen entree choices with roughly half of those of the piscine variety. There's also a good selection of vegetable sides to choose from. Prices for starters generally range from $9-15, and almost all the entrees stay in the mid-$20s. They also offer a 4-course "tasting menu" which is a very substantial amount of food for $58. Sometimes we will do one tasting menu and add a couple additional small plates and split everything, or just order several small plates to split.

A sampling of "small plates" from a recent visit:
  • Calamari, presented as four whole baby calamaris stuffed with minced Italian hot sausage, daubed with a spicy tomato sauce and served over a bed of rich polenta. The calamari were perfectly cooked, the sausage and spice added a nice dose of heat, and the polenta made for nice ballast.
  • Scallops - wrapped with duck prosciutto and seared, plated with grilled artichokes and mushrooms, and sauced with a richly flavored and textured mushroom fonduta.
  • Open faced raviolo of escargot, a big round of silky pasta topped with a ragout of snails and fresh tomato, all drizzled with a pungent garlic butter.

Some other favorite items (some of these long gone from the menu):
  • oyster salad, with fried oysters crispy outside but still gooey within, served over a bed of frisee, white beans, and crisped pancetta;

  • crispy eggplant, layered with slices of nice mozzarella and prosciutto along with fresh yellow tomato;

  • short rib canneloni, super-rich and made even more so with a slather of truffle fonduta;

  • a salad of lightly wilted spinach and thinly slivered red onion in a mustardy dressing topped with slices of rosy seared duck breast, with a duck-liver shmeared crouton alongside;

  • calamari sauteed with chunks of salami and hot peppers;

  • sweetbreads, with bacon, honey and balsamic;

  • a great tripe stew served in a bubbling clay pot (haven't seen this one for years, I may have been the only person ordering it!);

  • pizzas, with a thin crispy crust and done in several variations (I've liked the one with porcini and sausage, and also the "black and white" with ricotta and shaved black truffles; these are a hit with the kids too);

  • fettucine with pulled chicken and mushrooms in a cream sauce was a rich treat;

  • grouper with white beans and escarole;

  • a nicely done simple skirt steak with a pile of thick steak fries is Frod Jr.'s usual meal.

Some of the vegetable sides are also very good, including the "Roman-style" peas with pancetta and tomato, and the roasted beets tossed lightly in a vinaigrette with a sprinkle of goat cheese. Like many places, I typically prefer the small dishes to the entrees. Given the neighborhood and clientele, I think there's some pressure to have pretty sizable portions (this can still be sort of the "The food was lousy - and the portions were too small!" crowd) and I find that often palate fatigue sets in, though this is mitigated somewhat by several fish options.

The service is worlds apart from typical South Beach incivility or incompetence. Most of the waitstaff have been there for years and are real pros. The wine list is also a real treat, with about 150+ bottles from around the globe, a strong focus on smaller producers and lesser known regions rather than the same ubiquitous names, and typically fairly reasonable prices - things like the St. Jean de Barroux from Cote de Ventoux, or Bodegas El Nido from Jumilla, or a nice reasonably priced Cotes du Rhone like the Deux Albion from St. Cosme. Indeed it's one of the few places where I'd almost never contemplate bringing a bottle, in part because their inventory looks a lot like mine.

17624 Collins Avenue
Sunny Isles Beach, FL 33160

Timo Restaurant on Urbanspoon

[*]Here's something I didn't know. Apparently "Top Chef" Howie Kleinberg worked as a sous chef to Tim Andriola and called Andriola his "greatest inspiration in the kitchen." Make of that what you will.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Gravy?

Rack's Italian Bistro hosted an opening shindig yesterday evening, apparently to much acclaim. I missed the festivities but was sufficiently inspired to take a look at the menu. And something about it triggered a little itch in my head, some stray memory that I could not place. Specifically, it was this menu description: "Meatball - Whipped Impasata + Sunday San Marzano Gravy." My first thought was this:

Isn't it a little goofy to be going all retro/homestyle with the "gravy" reference, while simultaneously going all upscale/snooty with the "San Marzano" reference?
But then the further nagging thought was:

And where have I seen this before? What other place would refer to "San Marzano gravy" on the menu?
After a little searching around I placed it: Devito South Beach, whose menu features an "Original Old School Meatball - Whipped Ricotta, Nonna's Marzano Gravy". Hmph. But that's not all. Consider the following:

Devito: Calamari Devito - crispy calamari, peppers, spicy Marzano tomato sauce
Racks: Calamari "My Way" - Lemon + Spicy Marinara + Cherry Peppers + Basil

Devito: The Original Italian Chop - Salumi, provolone, diced vegetables, tomatoes, red onions, cucumbers
Racks: Italian "Chop" - Salumi + Aged Provolone + Onion + Chick Peas + Tomato + Egg

Devito: Whole Branzino - Spiced tomato jam, aged balsamic vinegar, Olio Verde broth
Racks: Branzino - Tomato Jam + Cracked Olives + Capers + Lemon + Oil Verde

Both also offer their salumi and formaggi (almost identical selections) with accompaniments of truffle honey and amarena cherries.

The Devito menu is much more expansive than the offerings at Racks, yet does not feature the coal-oven pizzas that are provoking oohs and ahhs at Racks, so this is nowhere near the same magnitude as the outright menu-lifting which Nexxt Cafe did from Cheesecake Factory several years ago. And yet there are enough similarities to make me wonder: Is there some connection in the kitchen between Devito and Racks, or did Racks just like what it saw at Devito and try to mimic it? And regardless, can we please just nip this whole "San Marzano gravy" thing in the bud?

Edited to add: I should have also mentioned one other notable difference between Devito's menu and Racks' menu - prices. For instance, Racks' meatball appetizer is $11, while Devito's is a hefty $17 (!!!). That's one *pricy* meatball.

The Heart Has its Rieslings*

Destination Riesling I'll confess I'm not usually a big white wine drinker. But - if I may borrow from the Most Interesting Man in the World - when I do drink white wine, I often prefer Riesling. Somewhat intimidating because of the variety of styles and the difficult-to-decipher German labeling system, Rieslings nonetheless have the capacity for complex hedonistic flavors, while also often having an excellent balance of fruit and acid to make for effective food pairings.

If you're not a big Riesling drinker - or if you are, and are just looking for another excuse - next week is the time to try one, as Wines of Germany and Destination Riesling team up for Riesling Week May 18-24. Restaurants and retailers will be featuring German, Austrian and Alsatian Rieslings with by-the-glass tastings, food and wine pairings, and wine flights. Participating Miami restaurants include Azul, Bourbon Steak, Brosia, Café Sambal, Emeril's, M-Bar, Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, Michy's, Oceanaire, OLA, Ortanique, and Palme d’Or; and retailers include Sunset Corners, W Wine Boutique, and Wine 69.

*With all due credit to Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard for that pun.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

La Cofradia Ceviche Bar - Coral Gables

[sorry, this restaurant has closed]

A few weeks ago I gave a preview of the new menu at La Cofradia Ceviche Bar, the reincarnation of a former upscale Peruvian restaurant which closed down a couple months ago. I paid a lunch visit last week on the first day of their reopening to see what was new.

The layout of the space has been reconfigured some, with a few tall tables and barstools in the entranceway along with a new (?) bar. White tablecloths are gone in favor of bare wood tables, though the place still retains many of the upscale trappings from its original incarnation and has a slick (but not uncomfortable) modern look to it. It does feel a little more welcoming and it seems they're trying to make the new bar area in front more of a focal point.

The menu is, as noted earlier, in many ways just a simplified version of its predecessor. There are a few options for ceviches and tiraditos, about a half dozen other appetizer options, about 10 entree choices (some of which, like the sauteed shrimp with tacu tacu, I recall from the original menu), mostly priced in the $15-20 range at lunch and $17-25 for dinner (dinner also adds several saltados or stir fries for $17-22), and daily lunch specials for around $14-15.

Ceviches are offered in four styles: (1) a mix of fish, shrimp and octopus marinated in the traditional citrusy "leche de tigre"; (2) white fish marinated and supplemented with aji amarillo chile; (3) mixed seafood enhanced with red rocoto chile; and (4) tuna done in an Asian style with soy, ginger and sesame oil. You can also get tiradito (thinly sliced fish instead of diced) done in any of the same styles. We got a sampler of all four (for $15; individual ceviches range between $11-$14) and the serving size of each was a bit dainty (three of us splitting it had to be pretty timid in serving ourselves so as not to hog all of one) though collectively it was a decent portion. My favorite, somewhat surprisingly to me, was the Asian style, which came with a little seaweed salad as an accompaniment. A slab of sweet potato and some choclo, more traditional accompaniments, came with the others.

I also tried a shrimp causa appetizer, a traditional Peruvian dish of a round disk of cold mashed potatoes flavored subtly with aji amarillo, topped with cooked shrimp, cubes of avocado and a drizzle of Russian dressing. I know - sounds odd. And maybe it is, a little bit, but it's cool and refreshing while also substantial and filling. La Cofradia's version was decent but not revelatory.

Some of the entrees on the lunch menu are available in half portions, and a half portion of the arroz negro (for $10) worked out just right after an appetizer. The rice, colored and flavored with squid ink, was fairly generously studded with calamari rings and scallops, but it lacked the real depth of seafood flavor that this dish has when done really well (as it is at Francesco, also in the Gables), and the calamari was just a touch rubbery. I've heard it said calamari should be cooked for 2 minutes or 2 hours, and this seemed to be caught somewhere in between.

Given that we were there for literally the first service since they had reopened, it's really not fair to judge the service at all. Our food was just a bit slow coming out but the restaurant staff was acutely aware of it, and plied us with complimentary pisco sours while we waited. It was thoughtful but unnecessary, as the wait time really was not bad considering, and overall service was quite solicitous.

I am mostly a luncher in the Gables and remain concerned that though the food was good, La Cofradia's prices are still too high to be competitive in the current market. They've taken some steps to simplify the menu and make the venue more welcoming, both of which they've succeeded at. But despite offering one daily lunch special for around $15, most entrees still hover closer to the $20 price point. Add a ceviche or an app and you've quickly got a $30+ lunch.

It would seem the most natural point of comparison would be Francesco, the Peruvian stalwart of the Gables, and indeed it seems La Cofradia's prices would compare favorably to Francesco's online menu. But the comparison that instead occurs to me is La Cofradia's neighbor Por Fin across the street. Por Fin has done an excellent job of catering to the Gables lunch crowd, with a lunch special menu that offers a wide range of apps and entrees for a combined price of $19.50-$23.50. Por Fin, whose food I think has improved since they first opened, merits its own post (it is coming), and I think places like La Cofradia ought to be paying attention to what they're doing right.

La Cofradia Ceviche Bar
160 Andalusia Avenue
Coral Gables, FL 33134

La Cofradia on Urbanspoon