Saturday, November 28, 2009

Burger & Beer Joint - South Beach

When I first heard that a new burger and beer joint in South Beach was being touted as a "concept" - nay, three "concepts": burger joint, sports bar, and lounge - I was a bit dubious. And that it was going to be called "Burger & Beer Joint"? Well, nice to keep it simple and direct anyway. Shows what I know: after hearing multiple reports of hour-long waits for tables, clearly they were on to something, and I put Burger & Beer Joint onto the back burner as a place to go to after the fuss had died down. But this weekend I found myself on South Beach in the middle of the afternoon with nothing better to do and an empty feeling in my belly, and the stars aligned themselves for a visit.

The transformation of this little pocket of turf on the periphery of South Beach is really quite remarkable. For years nothing more than a warren of auto repair and body shops, there are now a number of places worth visiting here, between Joe Allen, Sardinia, its sister restaurant Casale, and now B&B. Both Casale and B&B, right across the street from each other, actually have some nice outdoor seating, even if you do sometimes hear the not-so-mellifluous sound of a fender being set back into place from one of the neighborhood's more longstanding residents.

Inside, Burger & Beer Joint is simple, casual and rugged, with a brick wall on one side being the primary form of "decoration." But if "burger" and "beer" are in the name, it's pretty easy to figure out what to evaluate a place by, and it's not the decor. I went in, found myself a seat at the bar, and scoped out a menu and the beer selection.

While the dinner menu offers either "composed" burgers or a lengthy list of DIY options for assembly, the lunch menu sticks only with the pre-ordained burgers, as well as a selection of snacks and sides. Perhaps against my better judgment, I opted for the "Hotel California": 10 oz. burger, salsa, guacamole, grilled onion, cilantro sour cream, cheddar, fried egg. Lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle. It was clear just from reading the menu description that this burger suffered from an Amadeus complex ("too many notes"), but I just wasn't hankering for the bacon & bbq sauce combo offered by the "Thunder Road."

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Talavera Restaurant - Coral Gables (updated)

short rib with mole colaradito
(Note: this was first posted November 3, it's been updated after a couple additional visits to the restaurant). I paid a visit to the now-really-actually-open Talavera Restaurant, a new restaurant in Coral Gables opened by the folks who run Jaguar in Coconut Grove on its opening day, and have now been back a couple more times since. Jaguar has been one of the few restaurants in Coconut Grove with any staying power, thanks to an interesting selection of ceviches (cleverly offered in spoon-sized samples if you like to try several) and what I'd found to be a surprisingly decent grab-bag of Latin American entrees, with something of a focus on Mexican dishes. That focus is explained by the fact that owner Lalo Durazo, managing partner Martin Moreno, and partner-executive chef Oscar del Rivero all came from Mexico City. And their new restaurant in Coral Gables, Talavera, hews more closely to an exclusively Mexican theme.

It seemed like they had been working on a space on Ponce de Leon Boulevard forever, and then just in the past couple months the worksite expanded to include the corner that stretches out to Giralda Avenue. They've made good use of the space, too, with a welcoming bar in the front, some tall bar height seating, a plethora of booths and tables, and an open kitchen behind it all. The room is decorated with Talavera pottery, as well as a series of portraits over the bar ranging from Frida Kahlo to masked Mexican lucha libre wrestlers. It's a big open-feeling space, the only drawback being that noise just seems to bounce all over and it was difficult to hear someone on the other side of the table (apparently I wasn't the only one eagerly awaiting this opening, as the place was packed for lunch on their first day open).

The menu is fairly extensive. In light of Jaguar's success, it should come as no surprise that there are a few ceviches items on offer (though not nearly as extensive or exotic as some of Jaguar's choices). But there are also a number of appetizers and salads, several tortas (Mexican sandwiches), a few moles, and additional main course options. They also have several variations on a "signature" item, a "huarache," which is a toasty slab of corn masa shaped like a flip-flop, crowned with a variety of toppings. We were pleased to find a lengthy list of lunch options all priced at $12.

Given that it was opening day, I'm sure some of the kinks will be worked out, so please keep in mind that some of these comments are solely first impressions. I'll highlight additions from my subsequent visits where clarification is needed.

CSA Week 1 - Callaloo and Momofuku

So here's what I started the week with:

CSA Week 1
Four ears of corn, a bundle of callaloo, a bag of green beans,a head of lettuce, some cherry tomatoes, a Florida avocado, a bunch of dill, a few stalks of lemongrass, a bok choy, and a bundle of roselle (a/k/a Jamaican sorrel a/k/a Jamaican hibiscus).

First things first: the red petals of the roselle were steeped along with a stalk of the lemongrass and some fresh ginger to make a tea:

roselle tea
The dill became a tzatziki, after being chopped and mixed with some Greek yogurt, grated cucumber, garlic and lemon juice:


I know, so far we're not winning any James Beard awards.

From there, I drew much of my inspiration this week from the MomofukuMomofuku cookbook, after being immensely pleased with my first experiment with the bo ssäm recipe.


Some more lemongrass found its way into these pork sausage ssäms, as did the lettuce for the wraps:

pork sausage ssam
I liked this Vietnamese-flavored spin on the Korean ssäm (basically, a wrap) idea, and it was "easy peasy" as Jamie Oliver might say. But first a general comment: I am horrible with recipes. I cook by look, feel, smell, sound and taste, am not big on measuring, and often regard printed recipes the way Captain Barbossa regards the Pirates' Code - more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Notorious P.I.G. [Pork Is Good]

This past Sunday was the P.I.G. (Pork Is Good) fest by Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog at Harvey's By The Bay, east of Biscayne Boulevard off 64th Street, and a good number of VIPs (Very Important Pigs) turned out for the occasion.

Our group of about 25 took over the bay-windowed back room of Harvey's for the afternoon, when we weren't outside monitoring the progress of the whole boned-out piglet cooking away in Chef Jeremiah's new-fangled high-tech caja china. While the pig roasted, we were given samples of a number of his other pork-centric creations. The underlying theme was to revel in all the glories of the porcine, with dishes created from just about every part of the pig. Belly, butt, skin, and trotter were all well represented (I saw a headcheese, too, though I didn't see where it ended up). Some of the dishes may be previews for the menu of the gastroPOD, a shiny Airstream trailer Jeremiah is retrofitting with a high-tech kitchen to bring mobile cuisine to Miami.

Sadly my camera batteries died about midway through so I don't have pictures of everything, but I did get to taste it all and there's some other good recaps at Tinkering With Dinner and Jean-Marc's blog. All my pictures are now up on flickr.

Chef started us off with some nice chicharrones, dried and fried pork skin cracklings, crispy with just a little hint of chew to them, along with a little moonshine-black cherry soda, frothed on the spot in an iSi canister.

Chef Jeremiah
Next round was some southern-style char siu bao, a nice cross-cultural mashup which took the fluffy, dense dough of the traditional Chinese steamed dumpling, but instead of filling it with the typical Chinese "bbq" pork (with its sweet sticky glaze), these were filled with rough-chopped smoked dry-rubbed pork butt.

char siu bao
If they were a little dry for you, you could dose them with a little dropper of shoyu. Chef also kept out on the table some sriracha sauce (a/k/a "ketchup" he said, and I agree) if that was more to your tastes. These were good, and I thought the East Meets South thing worked well. I would have liked to have seen it carried even further, maybe with a BBQ sauce variation instead of the shoyu (something strongly vinegar-based may have hit the spot).

char siu bao closeup
No pix of the next few items, so we'll have to rely on my meager descriptive powers (and the pictures taken by other VIPs). For whatever reason, Chef's panini press was the final straw that tapped out all the available power in Harvey's back room, and so there was a brief struggle to find a working outlet to finish the next course. When that glitch was overcome, Chef Jeremiah handed out some pressed Cuban sandwiches filled with sliced pork belly, home-made pickles and spread with Dijon mustard. I liked the tender pork belly, all slippery and soft rather than crisped up (more in an Asian style).

Sunday, November 22, 2009

CSA Week 1 - the beginning

CSA Week 1
Yesterday began the season for the Community Supported Agriculture program run by Bee Heaven Farm. The "subscription agriculture" program offers the opportunity to buy directly from local farmers by paying in advance for a season's worth of their produce, delivered each week to several drop-off points around Miami-Dade County.

One of the challenges of CSA programs is figuring out what to do with your share. This isn't shopping at the supermarket, where you make your shopping list and pick it up. Rather, you get whatever happens to be growing and ready for harvest at local farms at that time. From what I've heard from people that have participated in prior seasons, this often involves a lot of callaloo. Fortunately there are some good resources out there. Bee Heaven has its own blog, there's Redland Rambles, which will be giving a preview of the box contents every Friday, and more: Tinkering With Dinner, Eating Local in the Tropics, and, hopefully, Miami Dish.

For my first season, I started modestly with a half-share instead of a full share, to see how it goes. The Week 1 box (contents pictured above) came with four ears of corn, a head of lettuce, a bunch of callaloo (it starts!), a pound of green beans, a pint of cherry tomatoes, a Florida avocado, a few stalks of lemongrass, a bunch of dill, and a bundle of roselle (also known as Jamaican sorrel or hibiscus flower). I also grabbed a bok choy from the "extras" box.

My game plan - for now - will be to do a post each week showing what's in the box, and then - hopefully - a follow up at the end of the week with what I've managed to do with it. This could be interesting, or it could be a train wreck. We'll see.

I'm off to a good start though. I took the roselle - which could easily do double-duty as a flower arrangement - and pulled off the red petals, then steeped them with a stalk of the lemongrass and some ginger to make a nice iced "tea." My first recipe met with Little Miss F's approval. Let's hope it's not all downhill from here.

Roselle Tea

Monday, November 16, 2009

Straight Outta the Hamptons

The next culinary trend? Forget fried chicken and food trucks. Rap is where it's at.

I'll give credit to the good Mr. Sifton for getting this party started in his first New York Times review, wherein he said of Daniel Boulud:
His food game, as they say in rap precints, is tight.


Now everyone's getting in on the act. None other than Rachael Ray and Martha Stewart are proclaiming their hip-hop allegiance, as picked up by Eat Me Daily this morning.

Though I genuinely feared viewing the video might prompt a reaction similar to the "entertainment" from David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, I was able to safely screen the first few minutes without going catatonic; enough, at least, to experience this exchange quoted at EMD:
Martha: Puffy's having his birthday party next week... and I got an invitation. Did you?
Rachael: No I didn't...
Martha: ....All those rappers are cute. Don't you think?
Rachael: I think they're all pretty darned cute. The ones that have come by my show... but it didn't get me invited to anyone's birthday party.
Martha: I think I have something on you. They like me for my wherewithal.

So when did "wherewithal" replace "badonkadonk" in the Urban Dictionary?"

Here, look how cute they are!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Sifton Through Some Things

While it was perhaps not nearly so momentous to me as it may have been to some New Yorkers, I followed the changing of the guard for the New York Times' food critic post with some interest. Despite all the sturm and drang of late over the decline of printed media, the NYT remains one of the most powerful reviews in the country, with the perception still holding relatively firm that the doling of stars can have a profound effect on the success - or failure - of a restaurant.

The scouting reports on the new guy, Sam Sifton, seemed promising, and from reading some of his earlier work it was clear he could turn a phrase or two. His first reviews upon taking over the job seemed to engender mostly enthusiastic responses. Hey, he has a working knowledge of 1970's punk rock and can sure make Daniel Boulud's food sound really good (wait, is that so hard?). He'll venture out to Queens for Cantonese food. He looks just like that dude from Shaun of the Dead (do you think Simon Pegg is wondering why he keeps gets multiple dishes "from the chef" and such obsequious service every time he goes out in New York City these days?). And no doubt, the reviews of DBGB, Marea, and Imperial Palace prompted that "I want to go to there" reaction from me.

And yet ... certain things have nagged at me.

1. Phrases that initially sound so elegant, but upon further reflection signify little or nothing:

- A restaurant that "bears masculine charms atop its cool concrete floors." Can a restaurant bear charms atop its floors? Maybe it's that in a fit of dyslexia, I keep thinking that the restaurant charms masculine bears atop its floors. Which would be pretty cool indeed, actually.

- A burger that arrives "as if a passenger on an old Cunard ship, with confitted pork belly, arugula, tomato-onion compote and a slab of Morbier". Is that what the dress code on those old cruise ships was like?

- A dish that "offers exactly the sensation as kissing an extremely attractive person for the first time - a bolt of surprise and pleasure combined." That sounds witty, but you know what? Some extremely attractive people kiss like cold fish.

- Geoduck that "explains in one bite why men would dive amid huge swells to retrieve the things from the angry Pacific." "Huge swells"? The "angry Pacific"? Do they harvest them on "dark and stormy nights"? But perhaps more significant: geoducks are harvested from mud flats. About the worst thing that can happen is you get your pants dirty:

- "A hunk of striped bass acting as pack animal for a load of sturgeon caviar"? Actually, that doesn't sound at all elegant. And that was for a dish that he liked!

- "Sable served sizzling over more black bean sauce, like a special at Nobu or a gift from a friend." What? A gift ... of fish?

2. "food-obsessives"

This is apparently the Timesian translation of "foodie," and variations on it appeared in each of Mr. Sifton's first three reviews:

- "More food-obsessed mouths, however, will desire sausages."

- The wine list at Marea "may run unfamiliar to nonobsessives."

- "Among the food-obsessed in New York, interest in Cantonese food has faded as it has risen in the spicy (and tasty!) flavors of China's interior."

Enough obsessing over the "food-obsessives."

3. "meh"

Firstly, "meh" is no more a "New York expression" than, say, "yummy" or "delish" or "FAIL". Secondly, like those others, it has no place in any serious restaurant review. And a "Your mileage may vary" too, in the same review? Why not just "YMMV"? OMG! Please: never again.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Hot Dogs in the Air

In more ways than one.

First, at Dogma Grill, for every hot dog sold during the week of November 16-22, they will be donating a turkey hot dog to Camillus House to help feed the poor and homeless at the shelter during Thanksgiving week. So next week, eat a hot dog for a good cause.

And then here's Wendy Maharlika, the ebullient hostess at NAOE restaurant in Sunny Isles, chucking hot dogs on the Jimmy Fallon show (I will just say that the food at NAOE is infinitely more appetizing than "Hot Dogs in a Hole"):

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Eat Your Veggies

tomatoesThis will be my first season subscribing to the Community Supported Agriculture ("CSA") program through Bee Heaven Farm and I hope to be reporting on it here in the coming weeks (season starts November 21). If you're not familiar, the idea of CSA programs is to make it easier to get fresh, locally grown produce, while simultaneously supporting your local farmers, by buying in advance a subscription for the season of a share of the farm's harvest. Last year, the shares were filled by contributions from several farms, including Bee Heaven, Paradise Farms, Worden Farm, Three Sisters Farm and Homestead Organic Farms.

I believe Bee Heaven's CSA program is fully booked for this season, but if you're interested there is another option available. Teena's Pride Farm, another Homestead grower, will be doing a CSA program this season, and using Sunset Corners wine and liquor store in South Miami as their pickup location. Teena's Pride is offering subscriptions to a 24-week season, with a full share for $960 (amounts to $40/week)or a 1/2 share for $600 ($25/week). You can also do a 12-week half-season for $504 for the full share or $324 for a 1/2 share. The first pickup day will be Tuesday November 24, and then will resume on Thursday December 3.

For more information or to sign up, contact Teena at:
PO Box 924920, Princeton, Fl 33092

Turkey For Me, Turkey For You

Don't feel like making your own? There are several restaurants in Miami Beach that are willing to do the Thanksgiving cooking for you:



Herb Roasted Turkey with Homemade Gravy
Cranberry-Balsamic Marmalade

(Choice of Five)

Yukon Gold Mashed Potatoes
House Made Sweet Italian Sausage & Vidalia Onion Stuffing
Brown Sugar-Bourbon Sweet Potatoes
Broccoli-Cheddar Casserole
Green Beans Almondine, Sherry Brown Butter
Roasted Brussels Sprouts with House Smoked Tasso Ham
Traditional Caesar Salad, Herb Croutons, Parmigiano Reggiano

(Choice of One)

Homemade Pumpkin Pie with Spiced Whipped Cream
Chocolate Pecan Pie with Espresso Cream
Key Lime Pie with Thai Basil Syrup & Fresh Berries

The Thanksgiving menu is available on Thursday, November 26 from 3:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. and priced at $75.00 for two with a charge of $38.00 per additional guest; the complete party must order Thanksgiving Dinner. This price includes turkey with trimmings, choice of five side dishes, and one dessert. The price for children 12 years old and younger is $20.00; children under 5 years old eat for free.

210 23rd Street
Miami Beach, FL

WISH at The Hotel


Candied Pecans, Roasted Butternut Squash, Candied Ginger, Maple Syrup Foam


Bread Stuffing with Turkey Leg Confit, Caraway Seeds, Cranberry Yuzu Sauce


Graham Cracker Crust, Spiced Madeira Wine Syrup, Whipped Cream

The Thanksgiving menu is available on Thursday, November 26 from 6:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. and priced at $45.00 per person. Regular a la carte menu will also be available.

801 Collins Ave.
Miami Beach, FL

Monday, November 9, 2009

Anise Taverna - Miami Upper East Side

[sorry, this restaurant has closed; but Ouzo's in the same spot and with the same owner is quite similar]
Anise Taverna
Photo via Anise Taverna

I scoffed when Marco Pierre White insisted at a conference last year, in a not even remotely veiled attack on much contemporary cuisine, that the only proper way to serve fish is "on the bone, with lemon juice, olive oil and salt." To me, both traditional and contemporary styles have their place and can be immensely satisfying when done well. But that means that the simpler forms of cooking can't be dismissed either. This is an area where Anise Taverna excels.

The owners of Anise, Gennaro and Liza Meoli, started in Miami with Ouzo's on Normandy Circle in North Beach. After a couple years they decided to make the leap to South Beach, but unfortunately their move coincided with a massive and interminable construction project right outside the new location. After finally running out of patience, they eventually reopened as Anise Taverna in a location along the Little River in Miami's Upper East Side, just off Biscayne Boulevard (and just across the street from Red Light). Their persistence has paid off.

Years ago, the primary function of this location was to serve as a parking lot for visitors to the Immigration Offices across the street. It housed a procession of Indian restaurants - first the very good (but very dingy) Renaisa, then, after the folks who ran it left to open Heelsha in North Miami Beach, the imposter Renaisa, then the inconsistent Taj Majal, then, very briefly, the intriguing but even more inconsistent Cambodian/Indian Monarch Bay. When the Meolis took it over, they finally gave the place the good scrubbing it so desperately needed, and it now actually has some genuine charm, with rustic wood tables, colorful walls decorated with a sizable collection of (empty) ouzo bottles, and a pleasant outdoor seating area on the Little River, which feeds out to Biscayne Bay.

The menu sticks mostly to traditional Greek dishes but makes occasional forays into broader Mediterranean territory, with an extensive selection of meze as well as a decent number of main course offerings. We almost always start with the "combo dip platter," which features four dips - usually hummus, tzatziki, baba ganoush, and taramasalata (though sometimes the taramasalata is substituted with a feta and red pepper dip), accompanied by warm toasted pita. I'm usually the one eating the taramasalata, while if you try to get some of the tzatziki away from Little Miss F, you're asking for a fight (we often have to order an extra just for her). The hummus is good, and the baba ganoush has a nice smoky note to it.

Cheese and fire are also generally big hits with the kids, so the cheese saganaki is usually in order when we go with them, too, the kefalotiri cheese having the unique capacity of being able to be warmed and slightly melted without going completely gushy. Some of my other favorite things at Anise are also found in the meze portion of the menu: the octopus, marinated in olive oil and herbs and then grilled, is simply some of the best, most tender octopus I've ever had; and the grilled sardines (a generous three to an order for $12) are the paragon of perfect simplicity. For those not intimidated by getting a whole fish and picking its tender, slightly oily meat from the tiny bones, this is happiness on a plate. (Perhaps Marco Pierre White was on to something after all).

I've also enjoyed the "Prawns Anise," fresh head-on shrimp given a triple dose of anise flavor: served on a bed of julienned sauteed fennel, in a creamy yogurt sauce spiked with Pernod and dill. The grilled quail, rubbed with a marinade of olive oil and oregano, is meaty but tender with a nice bit of char from the grilling. We also like the loukaniko sausage, with a hint of orange to it, served over a bed of stewed lima beans. The "Spiced Lamb Fingers," almost like Greek spring rolls with ground lamb wrapped in crispy filo dough, were a good idea but were almost overwhelmed by the spice when we tried them. There are also a number of vegetable offerings, including grilled eggplant slices wrapped around feta cheese and topped with a tomato sauce, which were a hit on a recent visit.

Among the entrées, I usually stick with the fish, and they almost always have beautiful fresh dorade and branzino (or, if you want the Greek, tsipoura and lavraki) that are flown in fresh from the Mediterranean. Once again, MP White would approve, with the fish grilled whole and served on the bone, either simply with olive oil, lemon and herbs, or if you're feeling fancy, with cherry tomatoes and kalamata olives too. Though at $28, some folks would complain about the value,[*] it's hard to imagine getting a whole fish of this quality for much less; and particularly with some meze to start, one fish could easily be split among two people. The moussaka, now a more traditional version with ground lamb and eggplant, topped with a puffy, creamy burnished top, is rich, hearty and satisfying.

We closed our most recent meal with a slice of coconut cake, made using "mom's recipe," according to Liza, which was quite good and not nearly as cloying as the old standby, baklava. Meals will often conclude with a complimentary glass of Mavrodaphne, a sweet red Greek dessert wine.

Speaking of wine, the list here is surprisingly cosmopolitan for such a casual spot, and offers not only some of the new and significantly improved Greek wines (like the Boutari Santorini, a white made from the Assyrtiko grape with crisp flavors and great minerality), but some other esoteric choices such as Nicolas Joly Savennieres from the Loire Valley and Argiolas Vermentino from Sardinia.

Anise has a few nice promos going on. Monday through Thursday, they offer a "Miami Spice" style pre fixe menu, which includes a glass of Prosecco, a combo dip platter, either the grilled octopus or cheese saganaki meze, a choice from among a few entrées, baklava, and a glass of Mavrodaphne to close, for $35/person (with a 2-person minimum). There's also "Meze Mondays" during which you can choose 8 meze for $30, 10 for $35 or 12 for $40. And the last Saturday of every month they do a lamb roast, and for $35 you can have all you can eat of the lamb, plus Greek salad, roasted potatoes, and a glass of wine.

I will never relegate myself to only eating my fish on the bone, with lemon, olive oil and salt. But when that's what I'm in the mood for - or for the excellent grilled octopus, or the variety of tasty meze - Anise is often where I go.

Anise Taverna
620 NE 78th Street
Miami, FL 33138

Anise Taverna on Urbanspoon

[*]I found it peculiar that only a week after questioning the value at Anise, the same reviewer gushed over Eos - which serves the same fish, but for $36. I've been back to Eos since my initial visit, and while it certainly has its high points - the sea urchin risotto and the smoked octopus most definitely being among them - I hanker to go back to Anise much more often than I think of returning to Eos. And indeed, a meal for our whole family of four ran for less than what it cost for two of us to dine at Eos.

Saturday, November 7, 2009


The Twitter list tool is a clever thing (even if there is no clever name for it: a "twist"?), and several folks have already gotten into the act of compiling various food talk twitter lists. There's Gastrobuzz from The Food Section, and the New York Times has not one, but four, food-related lists: Dining News, Eating in New York, Food Politics and Policy, and Foodies.

Personally, I like being the moderator of my own Twitter feeds, but if you want to play along, I've made a couple lists too:

Following Miami restaurants.

Following chefs from all over.

Let me know what I may be missing, especially on the Miami restaurants list.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Aburiya Raku - Las Vegas

I did something on my last trip to Las Vegas that I'd never done before. No, I did not split 10s against a dealer's ace at the blackjack table. I didn't pass out and wake up with Mike Tyson's lion in my room. Nor did it involve any of the fine ladies whose cards are handed out on the strip in the evenings. No, this was something really unusual for me: during a four-day trip, I went back to the same restaurant twice.

There were a number of places on my "hit list" for this Vegas trip, but after going to Aburiya Raku late on the night we arrived, some of the list had to be thrown out. A repeat visit violates one of my basic travel rules, but this is really my kind of place.

Though I'd hazard a guess that roughly 99% of the visitors to Las Vegas have never heard of the restaurant, it has hardly escaped notice. It was a semifinalist this year for the James Beard Foundation's Best New Restaurant Award, has been much talked up by various bloggers, and is a favorite of local chefs (who must also appreciate that it is open till 3am). The focus is on charcoal-grilled robata style items, but the menu ranges well beyond that and features a broad variety of izakaya-style small dishes. The ingredients are immaculate, and the preparations are precise and loaded with flavor.

About 15 minutes off the strip on West Spring Mountain Road, Raku is situated in a nondescript little strip mall, next door to a dingy-looking Korean BBQ place. But once you step inside, a different atmosphere takes over. It's a much smaller place than I anticipated, only about 8 tables total plus a a small bar (I've heard an expansion is in the works), subtle halogen lighting, dark walls, and pretty blond wood tables. The waitstaff are friendly, charming and eager to talk through the menu as well as a long list of daily specials. Those specials include a number of fresh seafood items, many flown in from Japan.

On our first visit, my dining companion and I started off small, ordering about 3-4 things mostly from the specials. After about four more rounds of ordering, we had happily worked our way through a good portion of the menu. We began simply, with Tofu Two Ways (this "two way" option was a common theme among many of the specials, which is a great idea). First came simple cold tofu hiyayakko, with accompaniments of slivered scallion, minced ginger, and katsuobushi (dried bonito) flakes. The house-made tofu was a revelation, with a luxurious creamy texture and a light, milky, slightly nutty flavor. Our server recommended using a dash of the green tea salt with it, which brightened and enhanced the flavors. The second take on it was agedashi style, the tofu fried and lightly crispy on the outside, in a warm pool of soy-stained dashi broth dotted with scallions and little honshimeji (beech mushrooms), and topped with a generous dollop of ikura (salmon roe) and julienned strips of nori.

From the specials we also had Asari Sakamushi, small clams simply steamed in a sake broth. They had a deliciously pure seafood flavor, and the broth, rich with clam liquor, was just as good. Also from the specials we had Unagi Two Ways: the eel was presented with the two filets side-by-side (cut into roughly two-inch pieces for ease of handling), one side dabbed with wasabi, the other with the more traditional sweet-soy "barbecue" glaze. It was tender and meaty, and I just barely preferred the simpler wasabi preparation, which allowed the eel's flavor to come through more cleanly.

Next, a cold dish, Poached Egg with Sea Urchin, with the gooey egg (reminiscent of an immersion circulated 63C egg) in a thick, slightly sweet soy-based broth, along with tongues of uni, more ikura, tiny cubes of sticky yamaimo (mountain yam) and diced scallion. This seemed as much a meditation on slippery textures as it was about the flavors, and it was something of an adventure to go after this with chopsticks. Shortly after that came one of my favorite items of the night, a Foie Gras Chawan Mushi,[1] the quivering dashi-inflected egg custard elevated by the rich earthy perfume of the duck liver.

From there we moved into our robata phase, which we divided into animal themes. We started with Kurobata Pork Cheek and Pork Ear. The cheeks were just delicious, meaty but tender and loaded with porky flavor. The ears (which our server recommended anointing with a chile-infused vinegar on the table) were chewy with a hint of crisp on the outside, and that visceral toothy bite from the strip of cartilage in the middle.

Next, a beef round, for which we tried the "Kobe" Beef Filet with Wasabi, and the "Kobe" Beef Tendon.[2] I usually don't get that excited by beef filet cuts, which I generally find lacking in character. But this was so tender and luxurious, almost silky, its flavor brightened by the dab of wasabi, that it overcame my usual scorn for the tenderloin. But possibly the single greatest bite of the evening was the beef tendon. I'd never seen tendon grilled before, and this arrived as basically quivering cubes of beef jell-o, just barely in solid form, and with a rich, buttery "essence of beef" flavor. If you like bone marrow, you'll really like this. If you don't like bone marrow, well ... never mind.

We closed out the robata phase of our meal with a poultry round, featuring chicken breast with skin (terrifically moist and flavorful), tsukune (ground chicken, suprisingly one of the few items that didn't really excite, even though our server said it was a house specialty), and duck with balsamic soy sauce (also very good). Not quite ready to be done yet, we closed out with onigiri (grilled rice ball) in a dashi broth, topped with "bonito guts." This none-too-appealing translation (I think the Japanese word for it is "shuto") refers to an item that is similar to shiokara, salted and fermented fish innards, which I've previously only seen done with squid. I actually found it much milder than shiokara which I've tried before, and it gave a pungently salty, funky tweak to the rice and dashi broth.

According to Wikipedia, "shuto" means "steal sake," supposedly in reference to the commonly held belief that it is good to drink sake with such things. Whether or not that's true, we did have some good sake with our meal. I don't know my sakes that well, but I am intrigued by the richer tasting, cloudy nigori style sakes, so we tried a couple. We started with a small bottle of a Tozai Nigori ("Snow Maiden", I think), which I found a bit too sweet for my taste. Even better was the Kamoizumi "Summer Snow," which was much more balanced and nuanced. The sake, and several of the food items, were enhanced by beautiful ceramic sake cups and dishes. Despite the somewhat casual atmosphere and the (generally) low prices, the presentations were in many ways quite elegant.

On the return visit a few nights later, we re-sampled several items to equal acclaim, and also tried a few different specials (an almost completely new list from our last visit). Though we had made a reservation, it was nearly a half hour after our reserved time when a table finally cleared. I understand that for early reservations they do now put a time limit on the tables, though I can see how that can be somewhat difficult to enforce in the moment (and if I was one of those earlier diners, I can empathize with not wanting to leave). When we finally sat, they assuaged us with a free pitcher of Sapporo, some nice crispy salted shrimp (which can be downed heads, shells and all), and some tiny little whole fried icefish. It worked.

Grilled salmon belly was luscious and decadent, rich with fatty fish oils underneath the nicely crispy skin. A special mackerel was one of the biggest I had ever laid eyes upon served whole, simply grilled and served with daikon oroshi. I actually might prefer smaller fish, as this was a bit dryer than I like, missing some of the oily texture of these "blue-skinned" fish that I enjoy. And we were completely taken in when we saw another table get a Kobe-style steak flambeed with brandy and cooked on a hot stone, ishiyaki style. Meat - fire - hot rocks? The caveman in us insisted.

A few things worth noting: (1) it is a very small place, and I suspect that reservations are a must; going later is probably better than going earlier, so as to avoid hungry people hovering and waiting for you to relinquish your table; (2) though most of the items on the regular menu are incredibly reasonably priced (many of the robata items, like the pork cheek, the chicken breast, and the beef tendon, are $3 and under, and both the foie gras chawan mushi and the poached egg with uni were under $10), some of the specials can be quite steep (the unagi and mackerel were both $30+, the steak ishiyaki was $60); if you're concerned, just ask; (3) this is a place worth breaking rules for.

Aburiya Raku
5030 W. Spring Mountain Road
Las Vegas, NV

Raku on Urbanspoon

[1]A note on the menu: items are listed in Japanese, and in translated English, so that the chawan mushi is listed in English as a "steamed egg custard." I actually found this to be somewhat confusing, as I'm fairly accustomed to the Japanese names for many things even though I'm entirely unable to read the Japanese characters for them.

[2]I did not ask if it was true Kobe beef from Japan or Kobe-style, but I'm guessing the latter.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

But Wait There's More ...

Another interesting opening, Olé Tapas in the Four Seasons on Brickell Avenue. With opening hours 7am - 7pm, this will be tough for anyone other than Brickellites to get to, but the menu, with a solid lineup of traditional tapas, all priced under $10, looks good to me.

And let's welcome a new face to the neighborhood: Eater Miami, a branch of the new, megalithic Eater National, edited by local scenester Lesley Abravanel. She's clearly been busy, with about a bazillion posts already up just in the past 24 hours!

Danny Meyer Shaking His Miami Money-Maker

Shake ShackJust got word that Shake Shack, mega-NY restaurateur Danny Meyer's casual burgers 'n' shakes emporium, is going to be opening up its first location outside of New York in none other than Miami Beach, Florida.

Location is going to be in the new 1111 Lincoln Road building going up at the corner of Alton Road, with indoor and outdoor seating. Opening goal? "spring/summer 2010". (Good luck. We know how those things tend to go here in South Florida).

If you want to start planning you order now, you can peruse the menu here. Count me in for a double cheeseburger and a Concrete Jungle.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

It's So Good Once It Hits Your Lips

I had the privilege of being invited to a dinner at Michy's yesterday evening featuring pairings of Chef Michelle Bernstein's food with beers from Samuel Adams. I don't usually do these "media dinner" type events - I really don't mind paying for what I eat and drink - but since this one offered a chance to try something I might not otherwise experience - Samuel Adams' "Utopias," a very limited production brew only made every other year, aged in a variety of woods, and reaching 27% alcohol - I found it difficult to resist. (So, full disclosure: No, I did not pay for this meal, and my notes were taken under the influence of free beer).

It might surprise those who think of beer as a blue-collar, working-class beverage (I don't, but it still surprised me) to learn that Jim Koch, the founder of the Boston Beer Company which produces Samuel Adams beers, has three degrees from Harvard University (a BA, JD and MBA). I've known some double-Harvards, but never a triple. I guess with the third degree comes the wisdom to make great beer. He also is the sixth generation of a family of brewmasters, so perhaps that helps too. It might also surprise some that despite a sizable advertising budget and distribution network, Boston Beer Company still seems like a pretty small, intimate operation. You know the guy with the gigantic beard and the thick Boston accent that appears in some of their ads? That's Bob Canon, and he's no actor: he's the brewmaster who came out to Michy's to host the event for us.

The program for the evening featured four dishes prepared by Chef Bernstein and crew, paired with four of Sam Adams' 21 beer offerings, followed by an after-dinner tasting of a couple of Sam Adams' "extreme beers," their Triple Bock and the 2009 Utopias. Chef Bernstein professes a deep and abiding fondness for beer, something which I think unites professional kitchens around the globe. Michy's has always offered an interesting selection of beers, a trend that happily seems to be increasingly common in local restaurants (off the top of my head, I can think of Michael's Genuine, Pacific Time, and Red Light as places that have good if not encyclopedic beer lists, to say nothing of more casual places like 8 Oz. Burger Bar). Perhaps partly out of budget-consciousness I find that we're more frequently having beer rather than wine with dinner when we go out, though it could just as well be because the selections have improved.

First course was a seared cod, paired with Samuel Adams' Coastal Wheat beer. The cod (from Boston, Chef Bernstein noted) had a beautiful crispy sear on top and tender flesh that came apart in big lush flakes, served over a bed of melted scallions, napped with an intense seafood nage (made, according to Chef Bernstein, from "every seafood we could find" reduced down in a broth with some tomato and some of the beer), crowned with a couple Maine shrimp and some shaved fennel. The Coastal Wheat beer, done in a Hefeweizen style, is further brightened with a dash of lemon powder, giving a subtle citrus note that paired nicely with the seafood.

Next up, pork belly, paired with Old Fezziwig Ale. Brewmaster Bob described the Old Fezziwig as the "Christmas cookie" of their beers, and the malty flavor with notes of cinnamon, ginger, and orange peel make that an apt description. He explained that this beer (named for a character in Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol") has the same flavor profile as the Winter Lager (which we sampled as an apertif before dinner), but uses 3x the spices for a more intense presence. Chef Bernstein used those spice notes as her starting point for the dish, giving the pork belly a 2-day cure with cinnamon, orange peel and other spices (star anise, clove) and "burying it" with salt and sugar. After being given the cure, it was braised, then finally seared before service for a wonderfully crispy exterior. The pork belly was plated with a reduced pork jus along with a concord grape reduction, which invariably brings on food memories of peanut butter & jelly sandwiches (in a good way). The delicious pork jus reminded me of the "Iberian emulsion" that was paired with the roasted suckling pig I had at Akelare - intensely porky but light in texture. I know folks think pork belly may be getting overplayed, but if chefs keep coming up with such great ways to prepare it, I don't think it's leaving menus any time soon. The Fezziwig was also possibly my favorite beer of the night, with a rich deep flavor but not overwhelmingly heavy.

The last savory course was more in the old-school comfort-food vein, an herb-crusted tenderloin of beef, along with mashed potatoes topped with some "stinky cheeses" (to use Chef Bernstein's description), some sauteed mushrooms and - my favorite item on the plate, oddly enough - little cherry tomatoes that had been cooked down whole to intensify their flavors. This was paired with Samuel Adams' flagship beer, their Boston Lager. The original recipe for the Boston Lager goes back several generations and it is still prepared in a traditional style. It was served for us in a glass specially commissioned by Samuel Adams from Reidel, which had a narrow base, a bulbous top, and a bit of a bump to the lip of the glass to release the flavors to your mouth. The pairing of beer and beef is an interesting one, with the bitterness of the beer playing the palate-cleansing role that the tannins of a red wine typically do (though I have to say that I think this is one instance where wine clearly has a big edge on beer in the food-pairing department).

Beer seems like an unlikely companion for dessert, but in this instance I thought it was the most successful pairing of the evening. Using the Samuel Adams "Double Bock" as her starting point, Chef Michy said it made her think of a Fig Newton, and so she made a fig "trifle" with layers of pastry cream, mascarpone cheese, spongecake soaked in sweet wine (and beer), fresh and macerated figs, crispy pistachio, and a light sprinkle of sea salt. It was a fantastic dessert, made even better by the beer pairing. The Double Bock is a rich, densely flavored beer, with notes of caramel and stewed fruit (yes, I might say fig) and a smooth, velvety texture. Its pleasantly bitter finish cut through the sweetness of the dessert and refreshed the palate for another bite (a pattern that I repeated several times).

After dinner, we sampled a couple of Samuel Adams' more esoteric offerings. These were without doubt the most unusual beers I've ever tasted, and they really stretch the definition of what we'd normally call "beer." The first was their Triple Bock. This was brewed in 1993, barrel-aged, and put in bottle in 1994 (no, those are not typos). They actually have some of the brew still aging in barrel too. It was, to borrow a phrase from The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a beverage that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike beer. Completely uncarbonated, dark brown, 17% alcohol, and thick like a port, it had intense dense flavors of dark chocolate, molasses, and more savory notes like soy sauce or even hoisin. Its aromatics were just jumping right out of the glass - you could smell it vividly from 2-3 feet away.

Possibly even more unusual was the Utopias. Samuel Adams first started producing Utopias in 2002, and has done so in odd years since then. The 2009 is just now being released. Where the Triple Bock was dense, dark, and thick, the Utopias was a crystaline clear amber. I couldn't keep track of all the things Brewmaster Bob said they had done with it. It was produced using a couple different strains of yeast, including one typically used in champagne production. They blend in small doses of other aged beers, including some of the 1994 Triple Bock. It goes through a variety of different barrel-aging regimens, including Scotch whisky barrels, bourbon casks from Buffalo Trace Distillery, sherry casks and port casks. What comes out is a still beverage with a nose almost like a good blended Scotch whisky, and a complex flavor with lots of woody spice notes from the barrel-aging, but with a super-smooth finish lacking the alcoholic bite of a distilled liquor. Even though this looks, and smells, like it was distilled (and comes in at a mammoth 27% alcohol), and even though it's packaged in a copper-finished ceramic bottle that looks like a still, Brewmaster Bob insists that this is a fermented malt beverage. He also says it can be opened and held without doing any real damage to it, and believed that some oxidation actually improved the flavors. It was like nothing I've ever had before.

Would I pay the $150 that Samuel Adams plans to retail this for to have it again? Honestly, I can think of a lot of other things I'd spend that kind of money on first. But nonetheless, it's gratifying to know that there are folks out there pushing the boundaries of their craft in such creative, curious ways.

6927 Biscayne Boulevard
Miami, FL 33138

Michy's on Urbanspoon