Monday, November 29, 2010

Eat Basel - Where to Eat for Art Basel

It's that time of year, when culturati from all over the world, like the swallows of Capistrano, descend upon Miami for Art Basel. There will be plenty of sources for information on art installations, events and parties: New Times has a comprehensive list of Art Basel events as well as a guide to the satellite art fairs, and the New York Times just published a more curated list. And though we've danced around the food as art question here occasionally, right now let me address the issue in a more pedestrisn fashion: where should you eat?

South Beach / North Beach

The Art Basel exhibition itself is in the Miami Beach Convention Center on South Beach. The good news is that from the Convention Center, you'll be in easy walking distance of the Lincoln Road pedestrian mall. The bad news is that there's hardly anyplace good to eat on Lincoln Road any more. If you must, consider Meat Market for a contemporary take on the steakhouse genre, or for smaller budgets, the new Shake Shack (my Shake Shack review here) in the Herzog & de Meuron designed building at 1111 Lincoln Road. Otherwise, keep in mind that any place with saran-wrapped food and the hostess' bodacious cleavage on display out front generally is not worth eating at.

But all hope is not lost. South Beach has several promising new additions within about a mile of the Convention Center. The recently opened Pubbelly is an "Asian-inspired" (read "Momofuku-inspired") gastropub which brings the contemporary casual Asian meme to South Beach. Eden, in the late (and missed) Talula space, features a menu designed by New York chef Christopher Lee and a gorgeous outdoor patio space.[*]

For the high rollers of the art world, the Wolfsonian Collection is hosting a special event dinner on December 1 in conjunction with a site-specific installation, "Seduce Me," by actress/filmmaker Isabella Rossellini. While "Seduce Me" explores the mating rituals of various animals, big name chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten will be doing the cooking, Robert Mondavi Winery will be pouring the wines, and Bulgari will be providing a special Rossellini-designed handbag and a watch for a post-dinner auction. Tickets are $1,000 (!); more information can be had from Michael Hughes at 305.535.2602 or

If it's some local flavor you want, try one of Chef Douglas Rodriguez's venues, each of which takes a slightly different spin on contemporizing Latin American cuisines: Ola at the Sanctuary Hotel, the most pan-Latin of his restaurants (and also the closest to the Convention Center); De Rodriguez Cuba (my De Rodriguez review), in the Astor Hotel, for updated versions of Cuban classics; or the newly opened and seafood-focused De Rodriguez Ocean, on the south end of Ocean Drive. Or for something more casual and funky, there's Tap Tap, South Beach's only Haitian restaurant.

But if you want to really want to do South Beach like a local, consider a few more options: Altamare (my Altamare review), on the quiet western end of Lincoln Road (across Alton Road), is a local seafood specialist, and the menu has gotten more interesting and diverse since Michael's Genuine alum Simon Stojanovic took over the kitchen. Indomania (my Indomania review) is a hidden gem of a place, just a little bit north of South Beach proper on 26th Street, but worth the trek for their fun, flavorful Dutch-Indonesian food (the rijsttafels come with more than a dozen different dishes). And if you're up late and hungry, you'll be better off ignoring Anthony Bourdain's recommendation of T-Mex Cantina (f/k/a San Loco); it's not his fault, I'm sure he just had one too many at Club Deuce and his judgment was impaired. Instead, head over to the The Alibi, tucked away in Lost Weekend, a divey bar on Española Way, for their Philly Cheese Steak (on an authentic Amoroso roll) or a shrimp po'boy, with a side of hand-cut fries with Ranch Dust (open till 5am).

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Monday, November 22, 2010

This Little Piggy Went to P.I.G.

It's hard for me to believe it's been a year since the inaugeral "P.I.G." (Pork Is Good) event, a celebration of all things porcine by Chef Jeremiah, pilot of the gastroPod. Indeed, a year ago, there wasn't even a gastroPod yet: just a hard-working chef with the slightly crazy-sounding idea of retrofitting a vintage Airstream trailer with a 21st century kitchen, and bringing Miami some creative but budget-friendly mobile food.[*] We had some good stuff that day: chicharrones, banh mi trotter tacos, pork belly Cuban sandwiches, East meets South pulled pork char shiu bao, home-made hot dogs, a whole roasted pig done in the Caja China, and some moonshine/black cherry cocktails to wash it all down. Some of those items, in one form or another, eventually became gastroPod menu items.

With nearly a year of trucking under his belt, Chef Jeremiah put on the "second annual" P.I.G. event this weekend, at GAB Studio in Wynwood. Though I only had a short time to run in and out and would have liked to have stayed longer, I did get a quick sampling of this year's P.I.G.-fest.

prosciutto and melon

"Prosciutto and Melon" was actually not prosciutto, but rather some country ham from Allan Benton, paired with a cold and vividly flavored melon gelée. Benton's hams, produced in Madisonville, Tennessee and aged between nine months and a year or more, are a ridiculously delicious product and a real treat.

tongue in cheek

"Tongue in Cheek" was a, well, tongue in cheek take on tongue, and, y'know, cheek. Here, "tongue" = beef tongue, "cheek" = pork cheek, and the unifying inspiration for the flavors was a tongue sandwich from a New York deli. The meats - the tongue thinly sliced, the cheek in a heftier slab - were layered over a slice of pumpernickel bread, with a bright purple slaw and a squirt of deli mustard over the top, and pickled okra standing in for the classic pickle on the side. It was enough to get you thinking that what Jewish delis need is perhaps more pork products.

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Saturday, November 20, 2010

To Do List

You may have noticed that the pace here at FFT has slowed up lately. It's certainly not for lack of subject matter, but rather lack of time. In fact, despite the still-sluggish economy, these seem to be relative boom times for Miami restaurants, and not only for casual, modern Asian fare (though there is plenty of that to go around). Just the past couple months have seen a number of intriguing new places open, with more in the pipeline. Plus, there are still remnants of two trips (Maine and Spain) to discuss, including a really pleasant surprise in tiny Lincolnville, Maine (The Edge), some disappointment in another highly regarded Maine restaurant (Primo), and a tapas-fest in Barcelona.

Sometimes when things start to pile up it helps to make a list. So here is my FFT "to-do list." Which surely is going to be subject to any number of distractions along the way. Plus CSA season starts today, which means I may again subject everyone to my stumbling efforts to cook through my veggie share.

Any suggestions for other places that should be on this list?

New & Have to Try:

DB Bistro Moderne
Vino e Olio
De Rodriguez Ocean

Newish, Need to Revisit & Write Up:

Il Mercato

Not So New, Still Worth Mention

Canyon Ranch Grill
Chu's Taiwan Kitchen

Waiting to Open

Wynwood Kitchen & Bar

(Lots of these I still need to try, or try again)

Fish Box
Yellow Submarine
Latin House Grill
Grillmaster Cafe
Rolling Stove
Doggi Style
Bites on Wheels
Feverish Ice Cream
Dolci Peccati Gelato

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Gigi - Midtown Miami

Fish is the new steak, and Asian is the new burger. Consider: the past couple years brought us the openings of a multitude of high-end steakhouses - Meat Market, BLT Steak, Gotham Steak, Red the Steakhouse, STK, the reopened Forge. Yet the construction of shrines to carnivorism seems to have slowed (the recently opened 1500° notwithstanding), and instead Douglas Rodriguez opens De Rodriguez Ocean, Blue Door has become Blue Door Fish, even untrendy Luna Cafe on Biscayne Boulevard is becoming Sea Bar.

On the other end of the restaurant market, burgers were everywhere for a time (as if they were using the trimmings from all those new steakhouses)- 8 Oz. Burger Bar, Burger & Beer Joint, Heavy Burger, Flip Burger Bar,[1] Shake Shack ... But burgers are yesterday's news. Modern, casual Asian is now the order of the day, as Sakaya Kitchen, Chow Down Grill, American Noodle Bar, and Gigi will all attest.

Sakaya (Richard Hales), Chow Down (Joshua Marcus) and American Noodle (Michael Bloise) each started with a chef's own vision, and were very much personal projects. Gigi came about things from the opposite direction: Gigi was a concept in search of a chef to execute it. Amir Ben-Zion, who also runs Bond Street and Miss Yip on South Beach, Sra. Martinez in the Design District, and the Bardot nightclub right down the street from Gigi in Midtown Miami, placed a Craigslist ad looking for a chef about six months before the restaurant's opening. The ad was not lacking for hype:
"Its cutting edge, high performance, Asian inspired and freshly prepared cuisine is affordable, innovative comfort food for the modern educated discerning palate."
It was also transparent about its inspiration:
"Located on the same block as Bardot, gigi is the first Miami outpost of the renaissance in affordable high-end food led by Momofuko [sic] in NYC’s Chinatown and lower East Side."[2]
Gigi lucked out: whether in response to the ad or otherwise, Ben-Zion managed to snag Chef Jeff McInnis to run the kitchen at Gigi. Chef McInnis, who is probably known as much for his appearance on Top Chef Season 5 as for his work as chef of the Ritz-Carlton South Beach's DiLido Beach Club, has put together a menu that delivers good, fun, flavorful food that carries out the mission statement well.

While Miami's other new casual contemporary Asian outposts have a distinctly D.I.Y. aesthetic, Gigi more clearly bears a designer's touch. On the corner of Miami Avenue and 35th Street, its exterior is wrapped in floor-to-ceiling glass, its interior in lots of blond wood and metal. A long, open galley kitchen stretches about twenty yards down most of the space, with counter seating and backless stools providing a distinctly Chang-ian look and feel.

photo via gigi Facebook page
The menu likewise shows a strong Chang-ian influence. There are buns to be had, filled with a choice of roasted pork, chicken or shiitake mushrooms; there is ramen, likewise served with roasted pork. But much of the rest of the fairly abbreviated menu appears to look closer to home for inspiration, with many items featuring more-or-less Asian spins on locally sourced ingredients. It's divided into sections that have no clearly defined correspondence to starters or mains: "basics" include not only those buns, but also a short rib "meat loaf," a pound of "southern boy" BBQ ribs, or a BLT made with pork belly and pickles; "raw" includes both salads and raw fish dishes; "snack" includes a variety of smaller bites, both vegetable and animal; "noodle bowl" offers the aforementioned ramen, as well as a few other noodle variations; and "rice bowl" seems to feature the most substantial, entrée-like items. Though the sub-heading to the Gigi sign says "noodles * bbq * beer," there are in fact only a few noodles dishes and even fewer BBQ items (like, um, one).

Those buns are a good place to start a meal. The roasted pork version was probably my favorite, though Little Miss F was partial to the pulled chicken variety. On a more recent visit, the latter had morphed into a tandoori chicken, which was a tad dry despite being garnished with a drizzle of yogurt nicely enhanced by some cucumber and mint. Even the pork, though, did not have quite the same explosive depth of flavor as the Sakaya Kitchen pork buns, which remain my local benchmark. The fluffy and lightly toasted bao, however, which I believe are made in-house, may be a notch better.

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Saturday, November 6, 2010

American Noodle Bar - Miami, FL - First Look

[Sorry, this restaurant has closed "for remodeling"]

I drive down Biscayne Boulevard to work every morning. As a result, I have been a spectator, on a daily basis, to the drawn-out opening of American Noodle Bar. In fact, I recall when the first sign went up on a small space in one of the dodgy, 1950's era "MiMo" style hotels along Biscayne, it was for something that was going to be called "Pineapple Express" and promised an opening date of "January 2010." The name changed. And so did the projected opening date, which dragged out for months.[*]

American Noodle Bar finally opened Wednesday night. I usually avoid opening nights; I also usually like to give a place a few visits and at least a few weeks, sometimes months, to find its footing before writing. But the lengthy period of anticipation left me eager to try it, and to provide a long-awaited "first look." (I also feel incredibly guilty that it seems like it's been months since I've written about a Miami restaurant).

The chef behind American Noodle Bar is Michael Bloise, a StarChefs "Rising Star" who is best known for his work at Wish on South Beach. His new project is something very different. The space is a tiny wing of the Biscayne Inn motel, into which he has squeezed one large communal table, a line of counter seating along one wall, and an open galley kitchen along the back wall. It's a got a funky, DIY aesthetic, with bonzai trees on the table and a bamboo tree print on the wall providing the primary decoration. There is also outdoor seating in front facing Biscayne Boulevard. (For those looking to get their bearings along Biscayne, it is right next door to Kingdom, and I suspect you can smell their burgers grilling from the outdoor seats). Service is semi-fast-food style: order at the counter, and they'll bring it out to your seat when it's ready (right now, at least, in plastic bowls and cardboard boxes, though I'm not sure if that's intended as a permanent state of affairs or just an opening week thing).

The menu at American Noodle Bar is superficially simple, but actually presents many more choices than might be immediately apparent. The focus - no surprise, given the name - is on noodles, though presently of only one variety. A bowl of noodles can be had for $7 with a choice of one sauce and one "add-on." But here's where things get complicated: there are nearly ten sauce options, and just as many "add-ons" (a couple vegetable options but mostly various proteins). Additional "add-ons" can go in the bowl for another $1 each.

There were so many possible to directions to go: if I spent less time focusing on food and more on math, I could maybe tell you how many. Nearly paralyzed by the seemingly limitless combinations, for my inaugeral meal, I had a bowl with sriracha butter for a sauce, and roasted duck and Chinese sausage for the "add-ons." The noodles (I did not ask questions as to their provenance, though I'm curious; I doubt they're made in-house) were of a lo-mein style variety: a bit thicker than a typical ramen noodle, but with that slightly springy texture, versus the more supple smootheness of an Italian pasta. They were hearty and pleasing, but on their own, nothing to get too excited about: it's really the sauces and toppings that will make or break things.

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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Koy Shunka - Barcelona

Koy Shunka

Spaniards are fiercely proud of and loyal to the culinary traditions of their native country, and for good reason: I think it's some of the greatest food on earth too. Yet with that loyalty comes a certain - parochialism may be too strong a word, so let's just say that Spain doesn't often seem to take much interest in other countries' cuisines. You won't find many notable Italian restaurants in Spain, for instance.[*]

But lately, Spain does seem to be paying some attention to the Far East. The celebrated DiverXo in Madrid leans heavily on Asian flavors and stylings (the resumé of its chef, David Muñoz, includes a stint at Hakkasan). Kabuki (also in Madrid) applies a distinctly Japanese sensibility to Iberian ingredients. Alberto Raurich, formerly elBulli's chef de cuisine, now runs Dos Palillos in Barcelona, whose very name (meaning both toothpicks and chopsticks) is a play on the connection its food seeks to draw between Asia and Spain.

Perhaps because the Spanish curiosity about foreign cuisines is a relatively new thing, the restaurants that explore those cuisines seem to be perceived as somewhat revolutionary in their native country. Whereas, as I noted after our visit to Dos Palillos last year, much of this stuff just may not seem particularly remarkable to a reasonably well-rounded American eater. For us, Asian food is so ubiquitous that even mediocre shopping center chains carry pre-made sushi.

All of which is primarily to explain why I was a bit skeptical when I heard about "the best Japanese restaurant in Barcelona." But I had indeed heard many good things about Koy Shunka, including that it is a favorite of Ferran Adrià's. And after several days of the indigenous foods, and with a big meal at elBulli on the horizon, we were looking both for something different and something a bit lighter. So we gave Koy Shunka a chance. I'm glad we did.

Koy Shunka

The restaurant is hidden away on a short street in a quiet dark corner of the Gothic Quarter behind a black door that you could easily walk by several times without noticing. You enter upon a dark hallway lined in shale and wood, which ultimately opens up onto a sizable open kitchen positioned in the center of the dining room. There are several seats at a counter that wraps around one side of the open kitchen, as well as tables arranged mostly along the back wall of the dining room.

Koy Shunka

I believe the counter seats are reserved for diners going with the omakase tasting menu, which was our desired format regardless. (You can click on any picture to see it larger, or view the entire flickr set: Koy Shunka)

Tomato salad

The meal started with a cool dish composed of cherry tomatoes, a dashi gelée, shaved bonito, and local Galician seaweeds, presented in a free-form glazed earthenware bowl. It offered pure, simple, clean flavors, and was, interestingly, more than a bit reminiscent of one of the dishes Katsuya Fukushima had served at our Cobaya dinner only a week earlier.

Berenjena con miso

Rounds of Japanese eggplant were grilled with an intensely salty-sweet miso glaze, with the skins removed and crisped up a bit, then wrapped back around the eggplant. A guindilla pepper provided a hit of spice to contrast with the richness of the miso and the smoky, sweet eggplant flesh. I've had a number of different iterations of grilled Japanese eggplants, and this was certainly among my favorites.

Vieira sashimi

Our first fish course was a sashimi of super-fresh sea scallop, sliced crosswise into coins, drizzled with good olive oil, sprinkled with coarse sea salt and chive, and plated with little rounds of baby corn. The star here, rightfully so, was the scallop itself, with the other components providing a bit of variety and interest without overwhelming or interfering.

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