Sunday, January 31, 2010

CSA Week 9 + Catching Up

CSA Week 9

What's in the box this week? Clockwise from lower left: French breakfast radishes, broccoli raab, lettuce, spring onions, broccoli, parsley, grapefruit, "Ponkan" tangerine, avocado.

You'll notice you only see one Ponkan there. There were two in the box, but one didn't even make it home because Little Miss F devoured it within about five minutes. Glad I got a picture quickly because No. 2 is now gone too. They were sweet with nice texture, though not terribly juicy. It's apparently an Asian varietal, also known as the Chinese honey orange or Chinese honey tangerine, and it's grown extensively in Florida. Some more information here or here if you desire further reading.

The radishes have also been good for snacking, this time sliced thin and scattered over buttered toast, and sprinkled with some coarse sea salt (a minor variation on the radishes/butter/salt theme). The lettuce loooks hale and hearty, as does the parsley. I see salsa verde in my future, though the open question is what it will go on top of. And I love those spring onions too, they're great just sautéed or roasted, with a vinaigrette or a romesco over them (or I could grill them and pretend they're calçots).

Nothing revolutionary to report on the disposition of prior weeks' produce. Many different greens have been cooked off with some jowl bacon. Cabbage has been cooked with butter and bacon, and paired with some nice white trout that was pan-roasted with some lemon and garlic bread crumbs. Tomatoes became a very lazy variation on pan con tomate (bread toasted, drizzled with olive oil and rubbed with garlic, tomatoes cut and rubbed onto the bread). Canistels and black sapotes have ripened, been harvested and are waiting in the freezer for something to happen to them.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Stella! - New Orleans

It is impossible for me to talk about Stella! without talking about its ebullient chef and owner, Scott Boswell. His life story sounds like something out of the Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. He came to professional cooking as a third career, yet in a short time since then has done stints with Iron Chefs Masahiko Kobe, Hiroyuki Sakai, Chin Kenichi and Masaharu Morimoto (and stages with other luminaries such as Grant Achatz, Charlie Trotter and Eric Ziebold as well). He was one of the first chefs to start the return to normal life in New Orleans after Katrina wreaked devastation, slinging burgers hot off the grill at his not-yet-opened Stanley restaurant for folks in need of sustenance, even as his flagship, Stella, in the middle of a renovation, was demolished. If you told me that he performed a heart transplant in between courses during our meal, I wouldn't have been surprised.

I also can't avoid talking about Chef Boswell because I likely wouldn't have had the chance to eat at Stella without his intervention. Our New Orleans travel plans fell into place late: I only knew around December 23 that we'd be going there a few days later, and there were very limited seatings available the day we hoped to visit Stella. But I also knew - because Chef Boswell is an avid (possibly compulsive) twitterer - that he was in the market for a Momofuku cookbook, for which Amazon had seemingly misplaced his order. I offered to bring him a copy in a transparent effort to curry favor. Though Amazon ultimately rectified his book order, he nonetheless bent over backwards to set us up with a reservation. And when I say bent over backwards, let me be clear: he personally arranged a reservation for us, on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, from Orlando, while on vacation, with his family, in the middle of roasting a 50-pound pig. And then tweeted, emailed or called about a half dozen times during the days thereafter to make sure we were coming. I was floored.

We eagerly arrived a few days later. The restaurant is an eclectically decorated place toward the northern end of the French Quarter, with two separate dining rooms that somehow feel both elegant and homey, perhaps bordering just on the edge of kitschy - like visiting the house of a fancy, rich grandma. As we entered, I spied Chef Boswell in the doorway to the kitchen and upon introducing ourselves we were greeted warmly and shown the kitchen. Chef Boswell is a bundle of non-stop energy and has the perpetually pleased look of a kid in a candy shop. When he's not in the kitchen, he's peeking around the corner to check on the diners like a mother hen tending to her flock, or sometimes roaming the dining room cradling a truffle seemingly the size of a baseball in his hand. I suspect that truffle has embedded its aroma in his palm like an olfactory tattoo by this point (maybe that's his plan).

Since my pictures are terrible, here is the rundown of the tasting menu:

Roasted Heirloom Potato Purée with Applewood Smoked Bacon Lardons, Fingerling Potatoes, Truffle-Scented Petite Brioche Croutons and Truffle Crème Fraiche Caviar
Lobster, Egg and Caviar ~ Farm Egg, Canadian Lobster and American Paddlefish Caviar
Jumbo Gulf Shrimp and Andouille Risotto with Baby Shiitake Mushrooms, Melted Brie, Local Scallions and Virgin Olive Oil
Pan-Roasted Hawaiian Walu with Hot Buttered Popcorn Crust, Louisiana Crawfish and Corn Maque Choux and Sour Cream and Onion Butter
Steak and Egg ~ Seared Filet of Prime Beef Tenderloin and Sunny Side Up Clyde's Farm Araucana Egg with Breakfast Potatoes, Truffled Hollandaise, Texas Toast with Foie Gras Butter
San Andre Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Toasted Almond Brittle and Wild Huckleberry Compote
Chocolate Chip and Autumn Truffle Ice Cream with Truffle Panna Cotta and Raw Truffle Honey

Truffles, caviar, lobster, more truffles ... this is a menu that reads like one of those Iron Chef episodes (the original, not the American spin-off, that is) where the chefs are trying to sway the judges by shamelessly plying them with luxurious food products. Stated another way, it seems like a menu drafted by someone who isn't paying for their own ingredients. It is indulgent and over the top, all in a good way.

Though the wine pairings were tempting, a decent selection of half-bottles provided the opportunity to get to know a couple wines in a little more intimate detail, and so we had a 2007 Louis Michel Chablis Premier Cru Montmain, and a 2005 Arcadian Fiddlestix Vineyard Pinot Noir.

shrimp amuse
Our meal started with a light, delicate bite - a Louisiana shrimp infused with kim chi, nestled in a mango purée, crowned with crispy taro strips. The sweet-spicy aroma of the mango provided a nice bridge between the sweet crustacean and the kim chi flavors, though I would have enjoyed even more chile heat.

kabayaki wonton

A second amuse bouche followed, this beautiful eel kabayaki wonton atop a puddle of a yellow curry sauce, in an equally beautiful glazed ceramic bowl. There was a nice crunch to the fried wonton, contrasting with the rich, salty-sweet filling within, all enhanced by the curry spice which was further enlivened with dots of chile oil.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

CSA Week 6 - Canistel Flan

The more I did my homework on the canistels that came with the Week 6 CSA drop-off,[*] the more convinced I became that a flan was the direction to go. The fruit is also known as the egg fruit because when ripe it has a vivid yellow-orange color, and the flesh is supposed to have a texture similar to hard-boiled egg yolk. It is of the same family as the mamey sapote and bears similarities both in shape and in flavor. When I tasted a bit, I picked up some of the "egg-y" flavor (reminiscent of a Chinese custard bun), plus sweet potato or pumpkin and almond notes similar to those in mamey.

Like the black sapotes we've gotten in other weeks, canistels must go very soft to be fully ripe, and the fruit bowl of late has been looking like something out of a Peter Greenaway movie (I should have taken a picture). Of course, they rarely cooperate by ripening simultaneously, so I harvested the flesh of these as they ripened and froze it until they were all ready. Fortunately, Little Miss F liked the flavor of the canistel much moreso than the black sapotes (she's a big fan of mamey) so I had a willing assistant in preparing this.

I looked mostly at pumpkin flan (a/k/a flan de calabaza) recipes for inspiration, and after considering several variations went with the following (look, an actual recipe!):
  • Flesh of 3 canistels (~1 cup)
  • 4 eggs + 1 egg yolk
  • 1 12-oz. can evaporated milk
  • 1 14-oz. can sweetened condensed milk
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. nutmeg (freshly grated)
  • 3/4 cup sugar
Preheat your oven to 350F. Defrost the canistel flesh if it's been frozen. Add the four eggs and one yolk to the canistel in a large bowl and mix. Add the evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg and mix until well-incorporated. I used an immersion blender to break up the lumpy bits of canistel. The condensed milk is already plenty sweet, plus we're making a caramel, so it won't need any more sugar. You should end up with something like this:

Note that the color is almost entirely from the canistels, not the eggs. Then, make Thomas Keller proud - pour it through a strainer:

Next, the caramel. Put the 3/4 cup sugar into a saucepan over medium heat. Some recipes I read said stir constantly. Others said leave it alone until it starts to melt, then stir only occasionally. I eventually learned the latter instructions were the right ones. Just leave it be until the sugar starts to melt, then stir occasionally with a fork to incorporate the rest of the unmelted sugar. I stirred too early and ended up with big lumps that took longer to dissolve. After about ten minutes, you should have liquid (molten! be careful) golden-brown caramel.

Monday, January 25, 2010

CSA Week 7 - Sardine & Avocado Sandwich

I've made clear before my unkind feelings about Florida avocados. Another arrived with the Week 7 CSA delivery, and when it ripened this weekend, I decided to pair it with something that many other people have equally strong feelings about: sardines. The inspiration was Alton Brown's sardine and avocado sandwich recipe featured on a recent episode of "Good Eats" (though on the Food Network website it goes by the more demure "Sherried Sardine Toasts"), which you can see more of here. Of course, I actually have Oswald Cobblepot 's fondness for silvery fish, so I had no particular aversion to the sardines, though I've always eaten them fresh rather than the ones from the tin.

The mise en place: brisling sardines packed in olive oil; a couple slices of good bread; one Florida avocado (a "Brooks Late Avocado," per the newsletter), some dill (substituting for the parsley called for in the recipe), and a lemon; off stage are sherry vinegar, pepper and coarse sea salt. I halved the recipe on the Food Network site since nobody else in the house wanted to share with me.

Here's a closeup of the little buggers. You begin to understand the expression.

You pour off the oil from the can into a mixing bowl, and add a little sherry vinegar, some chopped dill, lemon zest, and black pepper. Then toss the fish in the dressing you just made. The recipe says to let it sit and mingle for up to an hour. I had no time for that (c'mon, who thinks of making a sandwich an hour in advance?)

Halve an avocado and then mash the flesh right in its shell (a good idea from Mr. Brown); meanwhile, toast some bread, and pour some of the fish marinade over it (recipe says to do this in the converse order, which might well be a good idea). Then spread the mashed avocado across the toast, top with the fish, drizzle any remaining marinade over the top, sprinkle with coarse sea salt and a squeeze of lemon. Voila:

I'm dubious that you could lose fifty pounds by eating this, as Alton Brown says he did (in fairness, there was a good bit more to his agenda) - unless of course you hate sardines and won't eat them - but I thought it was a genuinely delicious use of both sardines and (the dreaded) Florida avocado. This particular avocado was less watery and insipid than other Florida avocados I've had. I'm still not sure whether it would stand up to being the star attraction in a dish, but as a complementary note to another strongly flavored item (i.e. the sardines) it worked well. I'm not sure whether this will make a convert of any sardine-loathers out there, but it's worth a try. And for those who need no such conversion, it's a good quick snack to add to the repertoire.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

CSA Week 8

What do we have here? Working clockwise from top left, a bunch of cilantro, celery, a bunch of white chard, a few more canistels, a couple tomatoes, some oyster mushrooms, and in the middle, a green pepper and some mizuna. While the pickings may be a little slim as the farms recover from the freeze, the quality actually looks quite good. The greens in particular are looking very happy. On a related note, now that I have started immediately putting my greens and the like in plastic bags, I've found the shelf life has improved dramatically, and most things are remaining hearty and hale for most of a week, sometimes more if they stick around that long, before getting droopy. Coming next: a positive Florida avocado experience, and an eminently successful canistel experiment with the Week 6 fruit.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Truck Party! (Part II) - gastroPod

I told you, Starbury, it's not that kind of truck party. Go back to China. Anyway, as I drove south on Biscayne Boulevard, it gleamed like a shining beacon from a block east: the gastroPod! The gastroPod is Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog's mobile foodmobile, a converted 1962 Airstream trailer retrofitted with a high-tech kitchen to crank out some gourmet street eats. I got a preview sampling of some of the gastroPod menu at a Cobaya event we did a couple months ago, but this was my first chance to actually pay a visit to the Silver Submarine.

Though the gastroPod was set up near Biscayne Boulevard and 18th Street for the day, the vintage Airstream trailer would fit right in along the more northerly stretch of Biscayne whose "Miami Modern" architecture earned it the designation as the Biscayne Boulevard Historic District. The guts of the gastroPod, though are completely 21st century.

Along one side is a station rigged for an immersion circulator for sous vide cooking (he's got one running with room for more); along the other is a CVap Cook and Hold oven, another wonder of contemporary technology that uses a combination of air and vapor heat to hold foods at specific temperatures without drying out or overcooking. Eventually a couple CVap warming drawers will be installed underneath the area set up for the grill.

So what's Chef Jeremiah doing with all this new-fangled technology? Here's the menu:

Having already had a burger at Latin Burger, I went in a different direction with gastroPod and started with the "Old Dirty Dawg."

No ordinary hot dog, this one is home-made of beef short rib which is ground, stuffed into a wide casing, and then smoked. It is just loaded with flavor, and has a nice snap and a good meaty bite to it. Chef Jeremiah gives it a shmear of mustard "if you're nice" and then tops it with "stupid slaw," which Chef told me has "something like ten different ingredients." I couldn't figure out ten, but I could detect at least a couple different kinds of cabbage, carrots, possibly some beets (though it could have been red cabbage), possibly some red pepper, all with a lightly vinegared tang and whiffs of spice (turmeric giving the cabbage a neon-yellow hue?). The slaw was the perfect contrast to the smokey dawg, and I liked the Martin's potato bun too which was soft without being mushy.

Truck Party! (Part I) Latin Burger & Taco

Sorry for the confusion, Mr. Marbury - not that kind of truck party. No, we're talking mobile food trucks, which of late have been establishing a foothold in Miami. This Friday a couple of the new additions - gastroPod, from Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog, and Latin Burger & Taco Truck, from Food Network personality Ingrid Hoffman, set up shop in close proximity to each other, and a food truck tour was in order.

My first visit was to Latin Burger, which was camped out off Miami Avenue and 34th Street near Midtown. I managed to drive by twice before spotting the truck in the back of a parking lot behind a furniture store between 34th & 35th Streets, and I felt a bit like Tommy Vercetti trying to hunt down a target in Grand Theft Auto Vice City.

With truck found, I took a look at the menu, which is short and to the point:

You can get a "Latin Macho" burger, or a selection of tacos - chicken tomatillo, chicken mole or pulled pork. You can also add "Plain Jane" fries if you wish. I went with the "Latin Macho" burger and skipped the fries, knowing I was saving some room for a further stop at gastroPod.

The burger uses a grind of chuck, sirloin and chorizo, and while it doesn't taste specifically like chorizo, it is a meaty, well-salted burger with a subtle backbone of spice that probably comes from the sausage in the mix. They use the double-patty approach like that employed by Five Guys, which starts to make up for the decision to cook all burgers medium-well (though not completely). The burger is topped with melted Oaxaca cheese, caramelized onions and jalapeños, all tucked within a soft sesame-seed studded bun. It is an excellent combination of toppings - creamy melted cheese, a lightly sweet-salty touch from the onions backed up with a little heat from the jalapeños - enough elements to give some flavor variety, not so many as to overwhelm.

Though the menu says the burger comes with either "avocadolicious sauce" or red pepper mayo, it in fact came with neither - though another customer had the good idea to ask for the sauces, which were available in squeeze bottles. I topped the last quarter of my burger with some of the "avocadolicious sauce" - a thick, lightly creamy avocado puree - and it completed the package very nicely.

This was a very good burger - maybe not as good as the one I had recently at Burger & Beer Joint (even if I screwed up by ordering one with too many goofy toppings there), but comparable to - naw, better than - a Five Guys burger; similar in style, but with the added bonus of more exotic and interesting flavors to the burger and the toppings (and at a comparable price).

It is worth hunting down this truck if it's in your neighborhood.

Next - a shiny object beckons - the gastroPod!

Latin Burger & Taco Truck
on twitter: @LatinBurger

Friday, January 22, 2010

In case you just won the lottery ...

The Grill at the Setai (not to be confused with the Restaurant at the Setai), which had briefly closed down over the summer and then recently reopened with a new menu (which, I will note, looks mighty tempting), is offering a seven course "Black Truffle Tasting Menu" for the jaw-dropping price of $360 (edited to add: per couple). What you'll get for that sum:

Seven Course Tasting Menu

Truffled Scrambled Eggs
Toasted Brioche
Truffle Foie Gras
Confit Duck, Haricot Vert, Mache
Truffle Vinaigrette
Maine Scallops, Black Truffle
Iberico Ham, Baked in Puff Pastry
Truffle Butter
Serrano Ham Consommé Tagliatelle
Slow Cooked Hen Egg
Shaved Alba Truffle
Black Truffle Risotto, Parmesan Foam
White Truffle Ice Cream
Surf & Turf
2 oz. Kobe Tenderloin, Seared Langoustine, Cauliflower
Black Truffle, White Truffle
Apple Tart Tatin, Green Apple Sorbet
Black Truffle Crème Fraîche

If you're not quite rolling in that kind of cash, but still have a hankering for the fungus, you can also add shaved truffle to any dish on the a la carte menu ($6.50 / gram for black truffle and $21 / gram for white truffle).

CSA - Catching Up

As a result of travel and other distractions I've sort of fallen off the wagon with my CSA updates. There's not been anything revolutionary going on in the kitchen anyway, so you're not missing out on much.

Possibly my favorite item from the Week 6 delivery were adorable French breakfast radishes, pointy little guys with a pinkish-red blush on one end and white on the other end. They needed nothing more than some good butter, good salt, and good bread. The betel leaves were used in a successful repeat preparation of the bò lá lốt, with bok choy leaves serving as an effective substitute wrapper when the betel leaves were used up. The canistels from Week 6 finally ripened (like the black sapotes, they need to be really soft - seemingly ready to be thrown out - before they're ripe enough to eat) and I've harvested the flesh on these which is in the freezer, potentially turning into a flan this weekend. A word of warning - I wouldn't use your best knife with these, the skin has a sticky substance that really doesn't want to wash off the blade. Nothing particularly exciting happened to the rest of Week 6.

I was out of town this past weekend and Mrs. F did the pick-up, so no picture of Week 7 (though Redland Organics has the newsletter online). This was the "freeze" week. While the greens and cabbage looked none the worse for wear, the citrus was spotty - and sour! Unfortunately the carambola was too. Mrs. F cooked off the kale with some andouille and white beans, and it was delicious. I've got some more ideas for the black sapote. And the avocado may get used for a sample of the Alton Brown "sardine and avocado sandwich diet."

It will be interesting to see how much the cold snap is going to affect the rest of the season's harvest.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Obsessed With the Food-Obsessed

In the past year I have written about more than eighty restaurants. Not once have I felt compelled to use the word "foodie," nor any of the hyphenated euphemisms for it that the New York Times' editorial policy appears to require (as I've previously noted).[*]

Meanwhile, in nearly half of the sixteen restaurant reviews he has published since taking over the helm last October, Sam Sifton has given us some variation on the "foodie" theme (never, though, actually uttering the word, which apparently has the same effect as saying "Beetlejuice!" three times). His first three reviews brought us "food-obsessed mouths," followed the next week by the converse, a wine list that "may run unfamiliar to nonobsessives," returning the following week to the "food-obsessed in New York."

There was a brief respite, but it seems to have returned with a vengeance. A few weeks ago the "food-obsessed" came back to discuss the decline of French cooking in New York. Then someone apparently broke out the thesaurus, as we heard last Wednesday about the "food crazies," (who know from Chef April Bloomfield - at least the New York "food crazies" do), while this week brought us the "food-enthralled" (who apparently call guanciale "face bacon").

I'm not sure which bothers me more: the incessant reference to what the food-obsessed/crazy/enthralled think or say, or the pussyfooting around over using that most dreaded word - "foodie."

As for the former, honestly, who cares? Aren't I reading to find out what this one particular food-obsessed critic has to say, not what the rest of the flock may be gibbering about? It's all the more frustrating to me because Sifton clearly has the ability to communicate with a unique and witty voice. This is someone who described The Breslin as "Hogwarts for hipsters," who in describing the crowd at La Grenouille says that "some have spent too much time in the sun, doing nothing much more than turning the pages of a book," while others "examine the restaurant and chart customers as handicappers do horses at Belmont." Please, more of that, less about the "food-obsessed."

As for the latter issue - "foodie foodie foodie" - look, I don't like it either. But these tortuous euphemisms are certainly no better. Which brings me full circle to a question I briefly pondered (and quickly abandoned) when I started writing here: if not "foodie," then what? Well, what do we call someone who enjoys and appreciates art? Or music? If "art lover" and "music lover" will do, why not "food lover"? Is the concern that we'll confuse a "food lover" with the "Chicken Lover"? Actually, in his latest review Sifton gives another alternative: "gastro-nerd." I'd take that over "food-obsessed" any day. At least I don't have to be reminded of this:

[*]Actually, "foodie" makes regular appearances in other parts of the NYT, so this must just be a Sifton thang.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Cochon - New Orleans

There are few restaurants I can think of that are so simultaneously in the moment and rooted in tradition as Cochon. With nose-to-tail dining and in-house charcuterie all the rage, Cochon's menu appears to be all over the latest trends: pig ears, rabbit livers, boudin, pork cheeks and ham hocks abound. Yet for Chef Donald Link, who also runs the more upscale Herbsaint, all of this is really nothing new: for him, this kind of whole hog dining descends in a not-too-crooked line from his family's Cajun, and ultimately Germanic, traditions.[*] We stopped into Cochon for a late lunch during our New Orleans visit and got some prime seating - the "Chef's Counter" in the back of the long, wood-paneled space, just to the side of the pass and the open kitchen - where we got to drool over every dish as it went out.

This made it all the more difficult to decide, yet we ultimately went with the oyster and meat pie, grilled shrimp with chow-chow, an arugula salad with pumpkin calas, and the boucherie plate. Before those came out, though, we would get to try another bit of the pig:

In addition to bread, Cochon serves fried pork rinds, with a little cane syrup for dipping. How can you not love the place? And yes that's a beer with lunch. I was on vacation, and it was at least 2pm. It isn't your concern.

The oyster pie seems to be a Cajun tradition, with lots of oysters cooked down with the Cajun "trinity" (onions, green bell pepper, celery) thickened with cream and flour to make the filling; the oyster and meat pie appears as a not-uncommon variant. In my vicarious experiences here in Miami from folks with Louisiana roots, I've seen it done either as an actual pie with a cracker-y crust (as Chef Kris Wessel does at Red Light) or, as with Cochon's, like a turnover (as Chefs Chad Galiano and Kurtis Jantz did with an oxtail pie for this Paradigm dinner). The filling of this oyster and meat pie was dense and loaded with flavor, and I liked how the oysters made the flavor transition from briney and seafood-y to rich and meaty, more like the umami-rich dark Chinese oyster sauce than like fresh oysters. The crust was flaky and buttery with just the right amount of crisp on the exterior.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Dante's Kitchen - New Orleans

The single most unexpected and intriguing bite I experienced in New Orleans may have been the first one I had at Dante's Kitchen. It was an amuse bouche: a cube of a beet and chocolate cake, resting in a puddle of a creamy buttermilk dressing, topped with translucent cubes of an onion jam and a little sliver of chive. It seemed an unlikely, almost perverse, combination. Not that nobody has ever done a beet and chocolate cake before; but unlike many of these, which are premised on the notion of "sneaking" vegetables into other foods (as if they are so loathsome that they must be disguised), in this one both the beet and chocolate flavors were vivid and almost synergistic. This started with the roundly earthy flavor of beetroot, but with an almost fruity note to it brought out by the chocolate; the chocolately notes were also somehow made more earthy and deep from the combination. And buttermilk dressing? Onion jam? It made no sense at all, yet it worked perfectly. I loved it.

Just the mere presence of an amuse bouche was something of a suprise. Dante's Kitchen is a casual, laid-back place in the Riverbend neighborhood of New Orleans. It's tucked into the corner of two streets in an old cottage-style house where the servers are all wearing jeans and unmatched, untucked shirts. The wooden flooboards creak and there's funky local artwork on the walls. Also on the walls are jars upon jars of pickled vegetables, giving a strong hint at one of the focal points of Chef Emmanuel Loubier's cooking here: extracting all the goodness possible from the surrounding area's produce.
There's no "sneaking" vegetables into anything here. On a chalkboard as you walk in is a list of "what's local" on the menu, and there have to be at least two dozen items on the list - mostly fruits and vegetables but eggs and charcuterie as well (sorry for some lousy pictures, by the way). The menu features about a dozen appetizers, and maybe about half that many entrées, supplemented with a good selection of "small plates," and rounded out with about a half dozen vegetable options. It's a great menu for grazing, which is the approach we took, ordering an appetizer, a couple small plates and a couple vegetables.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Buena Vista Bistro - Miami Upper East Side

I am clearly very late to the Buena Vista Bistro party. This pocket-sized little restaurant, just north of the Design District on N.E. 2nd Avenue, is closing in on celebrating its second anniversary. But somehow, despite having heard many raves for its thoughtfully priced, homey French bistro fare, other destinations in the Design District (Michael's Genuine, Sra. Martinez, Pacific Time) called to me with much louder voices whenever I was headed in this direction. We finally ignored those voices and gave BVB a try this week.

It's a charming little place in its own way, with dark, moody lighting, 50's style black-and-white vinyl chairs, the entire menu written on a blackboard behind the bar in back, and one long side wall entirely covered in mirrors, upon which is scrawled the wine list. It's got the bohemian vibe down pat: everyone eating here isn't French, but they look and act as if they wish they were. There are no big surprises on the menu. Apps are mostly bistro mainstays like escargot, rillettes, pâté, soupe de poisson, and the like, with some less exclusively Gallic notes here and there like tuna tartare, scallop carpaccio and caprese salad. Mains are much the same: steak (a ribeye) and frites, scallops provençal, and lamb chops share space with chicken curry, spaghetti bolognese, and farfalle alfredo.

We started with the fish soup and the rillettes. The former was a good take on the French classic, a murky, ruddy brown broth (this is not a criticism - prepared right, this is a frankly unattractive soup) well stocked with bits of fish and potently flavored with their extracted goodness. We pined, however, for the traditional accompaniment of croutons smeared with rouille and floated on the surface of the soup. Mrs. F tried her best to duplicate it with the nicely crusty bread that was brought to the table, but it wasn't quite the same. It seemed incongruous for such fine bread to be served with little single-serve pats of butter in plastic casings like you'd find in a Denny's.

The rillettes were also a fine rendition, the slowly cooked pork tender and rich, served simply with some Dijon mustard and cornichons. The only drawback was that the rillettes were served so cold that they lost out on some of their potential for unctuous goodness - no doubt closer to room temperature these would be even more lovely. But this is still a hearty, satisfying appetizer which despite the dainty ramekin it's served in could easily be split among two people, and a good deal at about $6.

Unfortunately I was somewhat less enamored with the rest of our meal. The tuna tartare Mrs. F followed her soup with was fine but unexciting in any way; the wakame salad which crowned it, redolent with sesame oil, was the overwhelmingly dominant flavor note. It also really could have used some sort of crackers or chips for scooping. I had the lamb chops as an entrée. They had been given a nice herbal marinade, but had been sliced so thin - before cooking - that getting them to only the requested medium rare was all but an impossibility. Rather than slicing these into 1/2" thick "chops" before cooking, they would have been much better served if the rack were left intact to avoid overcooking and then, if at all, carved before serving. I don't need a ton of food to be happy, but these four skinny chops seemed a slightly meager serving, though at a price of about $15 this is not a complaint about value. The mashed potatoes and ratatouille that came with the lamb chops were fine but would not inspire any homeward-bound correspondence.

In an unusual twist, the by-the-glass prices on the wines generally seem a little more reasonable than the prices by the bottle, though the Julienas we had for $40 was a good value and a good wine, and there are a decent number of choices mostly in the $35-50 range.

Despite being underwhelmed by some of the things we had, I can clearly see Buena Vista Bistro's appeal. I like its relaxed, laid-back atmosphere, and it's always nice to be able to find a meal cooked with care for a reasonable price.

Buena Vista Bistro
4582 NE 2nd Avenue
Miami, FL 33137

Buena Vista Bistro on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

CSA Week 5 - Black Sapote Ice Cream

Ice cream machine! Ice cream machine! Yes, as warned, I decided it was time to break out the ice cream maker to deal with the black sapotes in last week's CSA bag. The basic recipe: flesh of two ripe black sapotes; 1 cup heavy cream; 1 cup milk; about 1/3 cup sugar (I happened to have sitting around some extra sugar which had been used to coat some candied orange peels, which was imbued with the scent of the oranges' oil, and used that); zest of one clementine. (I was aiming roughly for the flavor profile of the long-gone Baskin-Robbins mandarin chocolate sherbet, the odes of which I've previously sung). Mixed well to incorporate the sapote into the cream, chilled, and then into the ice cream maker.

I'm actually pretty pleased with the results. The flavor of the sapote is perhaps somewhat indistinct, possibly because I'm not accustomed enough to it to recognize it. But there are some dark chocolatey notes, as well as some dark fruit notes like date or dried fig. The orange is not overwhelming but is noticeable and lightens up the flavor some. If I were to be generous, I might say the flavors are reminiscent of a port. I might try a little agar-agar next time to improve the texture. I tried it with a spoonful of arequipe, a Colombian dulce de leche type product with coconut that I found in the grocery store; not bad. I may also try with some candied kumquats to up the chocolatey/citrusy quotient.

The real test will come when I have the kids try it tonight.

Monday, January 11, 2010

CSA Week 6

What do we have here? Green peppers, an eggplant, canistels (on the left; a fruit related to the mamey, also known as eggfruit since the color and texture supposedly resembles a hard-cooked egg yolk), bok choy, some adorable French breakfast radishes, green beans, komatsuna, and more betel leaves. Some of the green beans have already found their way into a pasta, along with last week's tomatoes and some fresh mozzarella. The radishes will be perfectly pleasant just with some good butter and salt. That's a lot of green peppers for someone who prefers red ones. Though I'd like to try something different with the betel leaves, the fridge already has all the fixings for bò lá lốt, so we may see a repeat performance (with either the bok choy or komatsuna serving as extra wrappers). And I'm doing my homework on canistels. Meanwhile, last week's black sapotes are looking ready to explode, which means they're ripe, and notwithstanding the chilly temperatures, I'm thinking they're going to become ice cream this time.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Hakkasan Dim Sum Brunch - Miami Beach

I have written earlier about the Miami Beach branch of Hakkasan, a spinoff of the London original which we visited several years ago. I noted then that it was a "serious bummer" that the lunchtime dim sum menu available in London was not being offered here in Miami. Happily, that oversight has now been remedied, and the dim sum menu is now available Saturdays and Sundays. I tried it this weekend with my usual dim sum companions, Frod Jr. and Little Miss F.

The Miami dim sum menu is, perhaps unsurprisingly, more abbreviated than the one you will find in London. While the London menu offers nearly 40 different smaller items, exclusive of roasted meats, soups, vegetables, noodle and rice dishes and more entrée-style dishes, the Miami menu offers only about half that many - more of a "best hits" compilation, with a few twists here and there.

These turnip cakes were possibly the best I've ever had - wonderfully crispy on the outside, creamy and tender inside, and generously studded throughout with sweetly spiced lap cheong (Chinese sausage). Frod Jr. had a "why didn't you tell me these were so good?" moment when he tried them (he had previously scorned them, believing they were tofu).

Shrimp har gow are a dim sum mainstay and often a good barometer of the quality of a restaurant. These were fresh and tasty, though I found the wrapper to be a little more elastic and firm than some of the best examples that I've sampled.

Shiu mai, typically filled with minced pork, sometimes mixed with shrimp, are another dim sum staple. Here, Hakkasan mixes things up a bit, substituting minced fish for the traditional filler, and topping them with a slice of lap cheong. These were a surprising disappointment - they tasted fishy, and putting the slices of sausage on top meant that they never really incorporated their way into the flavors of the dumpling at all.

You had to move pretty fast at our table to grab one of these "grilled Shanghai dumplings" (more often known as "potstickers"). We tried these from the dinner menu on an earlier visit and I thought then they were a great bargain (relatively speaking) at $8 for 6 pieces. The pricing of $6 for 3 pieces on the dim sum menu was less appealing (more on prices generally later).

Saturday, January 9, 2010

CSA Week 5 - catching up

What with holidays and travel I have sort of been falling behind, both in blogging and actually consuming some of my CSA share. For better or worse, a lot of this stuff is very easy to deal with though the results are not particularly notable. Greens get cooked down with some onions and pork products. Lettuces and tomatoes go into salads or on top of flatbreads. Those harukei turnips from last week (actually week before last now) are very nice as is; sliced thin they have a nice wet crunch like a daikon and a bit of a peppery bite like a radish. Week 5, pictured above, brought a head of cabbage, a head of lettuce, some beets, plum tomatoes (Little Miss F got excited for these and immediately started eating one like an apple), dill, oyster mushrooms (I think Mrs. F put these in a frittata) and more black sapote. Fortunately some of these items like the beets and cabbage are pretty hearty and seem to be coping well in the fridge despite my neglect of them.

On an unrelated note, if you are accustomed to getting FFT through an RSS feed, I have switched from doing a full feed to just a short-form feed. Sorry for any inconvenience, but there is a website which is pirating my content without linking back to the site, without my permission, after being asked to stop doing so. So, in the hope that they "aggregate" this post as well: are a bunch of rude, thieving, copyright-violating douchebags. Please do not follow that link and reward their douchebaggery. That is all.

Friday, January 8, 2010

What's in a Name?

For several months now, Miami has played host to the ongoing brouhaha between Michael Chow, founder of the Mr. Chow restaurants (including a new one in South Beach), and Philippe Chow (supposedly a/k/a Chak Yam Chau), who started the Philippe restaurants (including a new one in South Beach), which Mr. Chow #1 says are improperly trying to capitalize on his good name. (Though after this review, perhaps they both should change their names). The lawsuit has been quite entertaining, including allegations that Mr. Chow #2 was a mere "chopping assistant" in a Mr. Chow restaurant before going out on his own, and that Mr. Chow #1 invented such dishes as chicken satay with secret sauce (look out, next he will be claiming to have invented the question mark).

Is it possible there's another naming kerfuffle on the horizon for Miami?  Recently opening up in Coconut Grove is "The Ivy at the Grove" (in the former Christabelle's Quarter space). There is a long-standing London restaurant called The Ivy which has been around in some form since 1917, though perhaps more famous these days for who eats there than what they eat. It would be natural to think they're affiliated (indeed, New Times initially reported that the local Ivy was a branch of the London restaurant before being corrected) - but they're not. Indeed, buried within The Ivy at the Grove's website is a quiet disclaimer, given with typical British reserve: "Please note that we are not affiliated with the Ivy in London nor the Ivy in Los Angeles" (though they are affiliated with the Raffles private club in Chelsea). About a month ago, Eater Miami did a bit more investigation (a couple phone calls!) and not only avoided the error New Times initially made, but found even more mystery.

Wow - in one story, two trends I wish would die a quick death: unaffiliated knock-offs of restaurants that were mediocre to start, and the restaurant/lounge "concept."

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Lüke - New Orleans

Even a successful restaurant has certain inherent limitations on its profitability. You can only squeeze so many butts into so many seats. You can only increase your prices by so much before you wander beyond whatever particular niche of the dining market you've captured. So for many - particularly in this era of celebrity chefdom - at some point there comes the urge to grow, which means adding additional venues.

There are at least a couple different approaches to such growth. Some restaurants take what I call the "clone and colonize" approach, bringing the same package to different regional or even international markets. Nobu has restaurants in nearly twenty different cities in a dozen different countries. Joel Robuchon (after basically retiring from cooking) has restaurants in Paris, London, Monaco, Hong Kong, Macao, Tokyo, New York and Las Vegas. A plethora of chefs have set up satellite offices in Vegas, and over the past couple years the influx of "invasive exotic species" has made its way to Miami as well. Even Thomas Keller has gone bi-coastal with Per Se in New York, plus Bouchons in Las Vegas and now Beverly Hills.

Other chefs stay closer to home, creating fiefdoms in their native territory. In Seattle, Tom Douglas has opened several restaurants all within a few blocks of his original flagship, Dahlia Lounge. Here in Miami, restaurateur Myles Chefetz has done much the same thing on the "SoFi" (South of Fifth Street) end of South Beach with Prime 112, Nemo, Shoji Sushi, Big Pink, and the latest addition, Prime Italian. Jonathan Eismann is looking to do the same in the Design District, where he recently opened PizzaVolante a block away from his flagship Pacific Time and will soon be opening Q and Fin right down the street. (Of course some chefs follow both approaches: Mario Batali has his chubby fingers in nine New York restaurants, three in Las Vegas, and a few in L.A. too).

Unlike the "clone and colonize" approach, which simply seeks to duplicate the same experience in a different venue, the "fiefdom" approach requires that there be something to distinguish one restaurant from another to reach different segments of the same geographic market. The easiest thing to do, particularly if you started with a high-end restaurant, is to do a lower-end, more budget-friendly place (note that David Chang did this in reverse, starting with Momofuku Noodle Bar and later opening the higher-end Ko); but then what? If you want to build an empire, the next step is to diversify the range of cuisines you offer.

That's what John Besh has done in New Orleans. Chef Besh's reputation was made at his Restaurant August, which I'd loosely characterize as contemporary French in style with a strong influence from the Creole and Cajun cuisines and native ingredients of Louisiana. Riding the waves of acclaim for August (to say nothing of other favorable attention including a strong appearance in Top Chef Masters), Chef Besh now runs no fewer than a half-dozen restaurants in New Orleans. They range from the inevitable steakhouse, to an Italian restaurant, Domenica, to the one we visited, Lüke.

Lüke is a brasserie with a curious Franco-Germanic (Alsatian?) tilt to it. The menu, picking up on some of the trends-du-jour (not necessarily a pejorative, I happen to be very much in favor of some of these), features lots of charcuterie and many varieties of pig parts. It also has typical brasserie items like moules & frites, roast chicken, steak & frites, and croque monsieur (or madame). The Germanic/Alsatian tilt manifests in dishes such as flamenküche (a/k/a tarte flambée),choucroûte, and an entirely unexpected matzo ball soup (!)

It's a somewhat rustic looking place with a bit of a turn-of-the-century feel, featuring a long bar with carved wooden pillars, tiled floors, a pressed tin ceiling, and fans operated by a pulley-and-belt system supposedly invented in the 1880s. We showed up early for our reservation and so started our meal at the bar, where we sampled their custom-brewed pilsner and some items from the raw bar.

The local P&J oysters were impeccably fresh and expertly shucked, and the Louisana shrimp were likewise fresh, sweet and tender. I generally prefer a smaller, tighter oyster like a kumomoto to a big sloppy one, but these were a happy medium - plump, firm and loaded with salty liquor. I might have hoped for something more adventurous to go along with them than cocktail sauce and horseradish sauce, but all they really needed was a squeeze of lemon anyway. Both the oysters and the shrimp seemed like a remarkable bargain at $7 and $11 per half-dozen, respectively.

Friday, January 1, 2010

A List For the New Year

First, a resolution: next year, I will do my "year in review" list before the actual expiration of the year. And next, a confession: I am terrible at "best" lists. I can tell you the high and low points of fifty different restaurants or dishes, but if you ask me to pick a favorite I am usually flummoxed. It's not just food. Favorite movie, song, author? I struggle with the superlatives. In fact, I'm so bad at it that when asked the simple question of what was my favorite meal of the year, I gave two different answers! If you ask me again, I might give still a different answer, particularly if I were to think back on our dinner at Arzak at the beginning of the year, or include our meal last week at Stella in New Orleans.

So, in no particular order, here are eleven (because these go to 11) thoughts on food over the past year:

1. Best Defense Against Foreign Invasion: 2009 started as the year of the invasive exotic species in Miami. Scarpetta from Scott Conant (actually opened December 2008), Eos from Michael Psilakis, BLT Steak from Laurent Tourondel, Gotham Steak from Alfred Portale (also a late '08 opening), all from New York, Hakkasan from London's Alan Yau, Au Pied de Cochon and Caviar Kaspia from Paris, Area 31 from Boston's John Critchley, Red the Steakhouse from Cleveland, Apple from L.A.'s Bryan Ogden, Mr. Chow from London by way of New York, and his evil twin Philippe, and surely others I'm not recalling, all opened in the past year (and some have already closed). But at year's end, it seems to be clear that the best cooking talent in Miami is still local-grown. Michael Schwartz with Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, and Michelle Bernstein with Michy's and Sra. Martinez, are still king and queen of the city despite the influx of foreign invaders. Kris Wessel and Red Light have hit on the right price point and vibe for the "new economy." Jonathan Eismann found Pacific Time's groove again in the Design District, branched out with PizzaVolante, and in the coming year will be adding a barbecue restaurant "Q" and a fish place "Fin" to his repertoire. No doubt some of the foreign interlopers are putting out some good food - Bourbon Steak (opened late 2007), Scarpetta, Hakkasan and Area 31 in particular - but the best stuff is still local.

2. Best Gastronomic Wonderland: San Sebastian. From high-brow to low, old-school to new, there may be nothing else like it in the world. Everything you have read or heard is true. Blocks and blocks of tapas bars with lavish spreads laid out on the counters, each more appealing than the next. Possibly the highest concentration per square mile of Michelin stars in any particular geographic area. Cutting edge cuisine, but still inextricably linked to longstanding Basque cooking traditions. I want to go back to there. Now.

3. Best Dining Phenomenon: Cobaya. Forgive me for tooting my own horn here a bit. Starting last year a group of Chowhounds started getting together for some great dinner experiences. Several months ago a couple of us began kicking around the idea of putting together something like the "underground dinners" that have taken root in other cities. The idea, very simply, was to gather up a group of adventurous, uninhibited diners who were willing to serve as guinea pigs for talented, creative local chefs to provide off-the-menu (and, sometimes, out-of-the-restaurant) experiences. Our first event brought sixteen diners together with Chef Andrea Curto-Randazzo and her talented Sous Chef Kyle Foster for a great meal at Talula (one of my favorite meals of 2009!). For our second experiment with Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog in a penthouse apartment in Midtown, we had so much interest we added a second seating. A group of guinea pigs also came out to Harvey's By the Bay in the American Legion Post for a pig-fest with Chef Jeremiah that was in part a testing ground for his new gastroPOD mobile food project. Our most recent dinner with Chef Jonathan Eismann at his not-yet-opened restaurant Fin in the Design District sold out 34 seats in less than two hours. The Cobaya Group now has over 250 members, and one of the most gratifying experiences for me over the past year has been seeing that there is in fact a like-minded community of eaters who will support and seek out unusual dining experiences like tripe risotto and trotter tacos.

4. Most Unexpected Discovery: NAOE. I stumbled across NAOE while browsing OpenTable and was intrigued by the brief description of an entirely chef's choice menu of "natural Japanese cuisine." After my first visit, I walked out not quite sure if what I had experienced was a dream. Repeat visits confirmed it was not all in my head. Seventeen seats, one chef, no menu. An omakase bento box with 4-5 items, followed by a procession of the chef's choice of nigiri until you cry uncle. Everything is either shipped overnight from Japan, bought that morning off the docks at nearby Haulover Marina, or unique items procured fresh from all around the country (like the best uni I've ever tasted, from off the Oregon coast). There is, quite simply, nothing else like it in Miami.