There has been a lot more eating than writing going on over here lately, for which I feel somewhat guilty. Also, more traveling than local dining. Here - if for no other reason than to assemble something of a to-do list - are some of the places I've been lately, and hope to write about eventually:
Jeffrey Brana Common Threads Benefit Dinner
Café Atlantico (Nuevo Latino Dim Sum Brunch)
Central Michel Richard
We the Pizza
Some general thoughts by way of preview:
(1) Brana is the real deal. I hardly got to his brief-lived Coral Gables restaurant before it closed several years ago, and it's great to have another opportunity to sample his cooking. He's doing a series of private dinners for groups of 8-10, and from my experience at the Common Threads benefit dinner he put on, it may be among the best meals you'll find in Miami, in a restaurant or out.
(2) Overall, Chicago met pretty high expectations, while DC fell a bit short - though I can hardly claim that a brief visit of a few days can give any really meaningful impression of a city's dining zeitgeist.
(3) That said, one of the things that really stood out in Chicago was the multiplicity of funky bars with serious cocktail agendas. We stopped in at Maude's Liquor Bar and Watershed, and were completely charmed by both places. Maude's is a crowded, bustling place on the West Loop, newly opened but stocked with mismatched reclaimed furnishings and decorations for a purposefully dilapidated look and feel. They have a short list of classic old-fashioned cocktails (including five different smashes and a respectable, if unexceptional, Sazerac), great music, and a menu of mostly simple French bistro style fare put together by Chef Jeff Pikus, an Alinea alum.
Watershed, in the basement of the River North Pops for Champagne bar, has more of a laid-back speakeasy feel to it (some might ungenerously say "rec-room," with the low-slung ceiling and dim lighting, but I'm inclined to put a more positive spin on it). It also has a unique locavoristic focus on regional beers and spirits (and even a few wines). Who knew you could stock an entire bar from the Great Lakes region and surrounds? The "White Dog Old-Fashioned," made with unaged (and thus clear) whiskey, rhubarb bitters, orange bitters, a bit of sugar and a splash of soda, and served neat, was nice and smooth, but I was really floored by the "Smoke Along the Track." Made with Lion's Pride Oat Whiskey, Koval Orange Blossom Liqueur, Angostura and grapefruit bitters, this was murky, mysterious, layered, complex, and smooth, all at once. Watershed also had a nice-looking food menu with mostly small plates, cheese and charcuterie.
So why can't Miami have bars like this? Laid-back places with serious cocktail programs, house-made bitters, and bartenders who really know how to make a drink? Sra. Martinez has excellent drinks, but there's only maybe six seats in that upstairs bar. Sustain shows some promise, but these are still restaurants with bars. Sometimes you just want a *bar*. Is it really not plausible that the Design District or Midtown could support such a place? Or are there places I'm missing?
Incidentally, would it be wrong for me to confess a soft spot for Dwight Yoakum?