Tuesday, May 31, 2011

City Snapshots: Washington DC Dining

Over the past couple months we've done a bit of traveling and, as we always try to do, some good eating along the way. Memory, notes, and photos are not necessarily as good as might be hoped, and so instead of full recaps of meals, here are some quick thoughts on some of the places we visited. I don't begin to pretend that a brief few days can begin to capture the dining zeitgeist of a city; rather, these are more in the nature of personal travelogues. First, a trip to Washington DC over the kids' spring break.

Possibly my favorite of the places we dined at was Palena. Located a bit northwest from central DC, but easily accessible by the DC Metro, Palena has a more formal Dining Room with a prix fixe menu, and a more casual Café with a la carte offerings. With kids in tow, we went the latter route. The food is Italianate (Chef Frank Ruta's family hails from Abruzzo), but not in a way that insists on banging you over the head with it. An appetizer of baby calamari was quickly cooked with Sicilian flavors of tomato, caperberries and chilies. Both roasted and raw slivered beets were paired with hazelnuts in a salad. A steak was cooked over a wood-fired grill that lent a touch of smokiness to the meat, served with an elemental salad of bibb lettuce and blue cheese and nicely crisp fries. But the real standout for me was an absolutely pitch-perfect bollito misto, with tender, deeply flavored veal tongue and corned beef in a soul-restoring broth, rounded out by a coddled duck egg and a few root vegetables. It's deceptively hard to do "simple" foods well; Palena made them shine.

3529 Connecticut Avenue NW
Washington DC

Palena on Urbanspoon

I was hoping to take the whole family to José Andrés' minibar, but we were unable to score a reservation. Instead we made a trip to his more straight-ahead tapas restaurant, Jaleo, as well as a visit to Café Atlantico for its "Nuevo Latino Dim Sum Brunch."[1] Jaleo is something like a living encyclopedia of tapas, with nearly 70 tapas selections, along with several paellas for those with even more robust appetites. They range from ubiquitous classics like pan con tomate and tortilla de patatas, to regional specialties like the Canary Islands' papas arrugas and Catalan esqueixada, to more unique items like calamares with pine nut praline and a Pedro Ximenez reduction, or seared salmon with a cauliflower purée and raspberries.

We found that some of the best items were those that hewed more closely to tradition, where Chef Andrés creates what may be close to the platonic ideals of classic Spanish dishes. An order of pan con tomate brings toasted but not completely crunchy bread, spread with softly tangy puréed tomato, a  generous drizzle of olive oil and sprinkling of salt completing the composition. His croquetas come to the table hot, with a crisp fragile shell encasing molten bechamel and shredded chicken. Buñuelos de bacalao achieve the same balance, with a honey aioli to play against the salty fishiness of the dried cod. Another contrast of sweet and salty is played out by the berenjenas a la miel, the feathery light fried eggplant glazed with a drizzle of honey.

Ensalada rusa, the curiously named Spanish potato salad (what's Russian about potatoes, peas and carrots bound in mayo?), is given double richness from a generous hand with the mayonnaise and luscious canned Spanish tuna, plus an extra layer of flavor provided by strips of piquillo peppers. I am a huge fan of ensalada rusa and this was one of the best I've had. Fried dates wrapped in bacon are accurately described in the menu as "como hace todo el mundo" (that you will want to eat every day). And those papas arrugas - wrinkly, generously salted marble-sized baby potatoes served with a pungent mojo verde reminiscent of an Argentine chimichurri - are equally addictive.

Surprisingly, the dishes we found to be less successful were the more creative ones. Those calamares with sweet pine nut praline and a Pedro Ximenez reduction couldn't successfully bridge the gap between seafood and sweet. The same was true of the salmon with a (vanilla-touched?) cauliflower purée and raspberries. On the other hand, a dish called Arroz de Pato "Jean Louis-Palladin," after the legendary DC chef, featuring rice with duck confit, topped with a seared duck breast, and drizzled with a foie gras cream, was an overdone layering of rich upon rich.

But Chef Andrés deserves culinary sainthood if for no other reason than that he was instrumental in enabling the import of Spanish jamón ibérico into the United States. Jaleo was the first place it was served in the U.S., and there is possibly no more perfect dish than a plate of jamón ibérico de bellota. Priced at $22 at Jaleo, it's a worthwhile indulgence.[2]

480 7th Street NW
Washington DC

Jaleo on Urbanspoon

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Monday, May 23, 2011

Makoto - Bal Harbour

If I were opening a new restaurant in Bal Harbour, I'm not sure it would be a Japanese place. I say that primarily because Bal Harbour is situated almost exactly in the middle of what are already some of my favorite Japanese restaurants in Miami: Naoe and Yakko-San to the north, and Sushi Deli to the south. Of course, Stephen Starr, the restaurateur behind Makoto, has opened plenty more restaurants than I have (Starr: 24; Frodnesor: 0), so maybe he knows what he's doing.

But I say that also because I'm not quite sure what kind of Japanese restaurant would appeal to this particular market. Tony Bal Harbour generally, and the ultra-tony Bal Harbour Shops in particular, have been a tough nut to crack for restaurateurs. Though Carpaccio has held steady for several years despite middling to decent food at best, most others that have taken a run at it have failed (witness the procession of restaurants that have occupied the space opposite Carpaccio, currently held by La Goulue). The people who frequent the mall are, no doubt, a high net worth bunch unafraid to drop a sizable sum on a meal, but it's entirely possible that they have more money than taste, when it comes to food anyway. Meanwhile, even if it's good, will more food-minded folks not otherwise inclined to do their shopping here still find their way to the restaurant?

Well I did, and overall, was pretty glad to have done so. The truth is, Makoto is really not much at all like any of those other places I mentioned. If anything, it is probably most similar to Zuma, which opened downtown about a year ago: high quality sushi, robata selections, and a grab-bag of other cooked Japanese items, all served up in a slick contemporary setting.

Makoto is named for its chef, Makoto Okuwa, who's got some pretty serious chops. Born and trained in Japan, he was head sushi chef at Morimoto's Philadelphia restaurant, then moved to New York to open the Morimoto restaurant there (where in 2006 he was named one of StarChef's Rising Stars). A couple years later he switched coasts, heading to Los Angeles as executive chef of Sashi. When Starr (who runs Morimoto's restaurants) set eyes on Bal Harbour, he lured Chef Makoto back into the fold. I also saw chef Dale Talde (who works at Starr's Buddakan in New York, and is known to many as a Top Chef contestant) in the kitchen on one of my visits.

Makoto the restaurant is situated on the ground floor of the Bal Harbour Shops, toward the south end. The dark-lacquered entrance on the mall side is so subtle as to be easily missed, though you can also enter from the east side directly from the parking lot, where there is also covered outside seating. A narrow entranceway, with some tables squeezed in, opens up onto a broad dining room which has smaller tables along the walls as well as a few larger picnic-style tables in the middle.[1] A sizable sushi bar (with at least four chefs working it) sits in front of the kitchen. That's where we've sat each time we visited.

Each spot at the sushi bar has a block of pink Himalayan salt situated in front of it, and once a diner is seated one of the sushi chefs will place your gari and wasabi on it. I do hope they clean those things between diners, as I wouldn't put it past some child to stick their finger on the block and lick it to see if it really is made of salt. Just saying.

salt block

(For more photos from Makoto, check this Makoto - Bal Harbour flickr set).

We started one of our meals at Makoto with nigiri, which comes two pieces to an order. With the exception of the hirame (fluke or flounder), which was only OK, everything else we sampled ranged from good to exceptional. Particularly notable were the chu-toro ($12) and the even richer, fattier oh-toro ($16). Makoto is, to my knowledge, the only place in South Florida that is sourcing Kindai bluefin tuna. Though bluefin tuna stocks are becoming rapidly depleted and as a result bluefin makes most sustainable seafood experts' "avoid" list, Kindai - which are farm-raised from the egg - are an arguably more responsible alternative. (For more about Kindai, read up: "The rarest tuna of all"). Chef Makoto is clearly a fan of the stuff. And after trying it, so am I, though it's an expensive "solution," if it even is that, to the bluefin problem.

Every bit as good was the hotate (scallop) ($14) - sourced live, and as fresh and pristine as any I have sampled anywhere (and that includes Naoe, which often features live scallop). Silky, tender, and sweet, these were really special stuff. Sadly, they weren't available on my return visit. The uni (sea urchin) ($12) was also very good, as was the aoyagi (orange clam) ($8). The "Hokkai" hand roll offered another way to sample their uni, wrapped up in nori with sweet shrimp and a quail egg ($12), a rather luscious seafood combination. Again, this item wasn't available on our second visit, which prompts some concern about "dumbing down." (We'll return to this later).

I went the sashimi route on our second visit, a couple weeks later. The offerings this time included a number of items sourced from Hawaii, including pink-fleshed nairagi (striped marlin) ($10) and silky ono (wahoo) ($8), both recommended by our server, as well as a second sampling of the aoyagi and Kindai chu-toro.[2]


The presentation was quite dramatic, the slices of fish perched on a wide bowl of crushed ice, above which towered an artful arrangement of branches and leaves. The sashimi itself was excellent - carefully sliced and impeccably fresh. Similarly dramatic was a yellowtail tartare ($18), served in the style made famous by Nobu Matsuhisa: the finely chopped fish molded into a hockey puck shape in a small bowl with a puddle of wasabi-infused soy sauce, crowned with a dollop of caviar, all mounded into a bigger bowl of crushed ice.

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Friday, May 20, 2011

Michybaya - Cobaya Dinner with Chef Michelle Bernstein

Sometimes, with her radiant smile, former-ballerina perfect posture, and national (Top Chef judge) and local (Check Please host) television presence, it's easy to forget. But let there be no doubt about it: Michelle Bernstein is a badass chef. Yes, it's the quality of her cooking that cemented her national reputation and led to those TV gigs, and her namesake restaurant Michy's on Biscayne Boulevard and the Spanish tapas-inspired Sra. Martinez in the Design District are regarded as among the top restaurants in Miami. But neither of those restaurants are "new" any more, and in a somewhat magpie-like food community, restaurants that are five, or even only two, years old are sometimes overlooked in favor of the latest shiny objects.

That's stupid. Thirty-four of us got to see just how stupid earlier this week, as we finally connected with Chef Bernstein for one of our "Cobaya" dinners. Since we began doing these events nearly two years ago, we've been trying to get Michelle to cook for us. Indeed, we first started talking about it back in the summer of 2009; but then she was busily gearing up to open at the Omphoy in Palm Beach, and any number of things intervened thereafter. The stars finally aligned recently, particularly with her new bakery/café down the street from Sra. M, Crumb on Parchment, turning out to be a perfect venue for the dinner.[1]

As we always do, we gave Chef Bernstein complete free rein to come up with the menu and the format, and she put together one of the most elegant, polished, and satisfying dining experiences we've had so far. You can see all my pictures from the dinner in this "Michybaya" flickr set, and find links to some other pictures and recaps over at the Cobaya website.

the table

The space at Crumb (basically the airy, open atrium of a collection of home furnishings shops in the Melin Building in the Design District) was rearranged for our dinner into one long table, with 34 of Crumb's artfully mismatched chairs lined up on either side. The table was set with naturalistic centerpieces that actually incorporated some of the mise en place for our dinner (OK, not really, but those were real mushrooms), and enough silverware to baffle even Emily Post.

Chef Bernstein said that she doesn't like to overstuff diners with too many courses, so she held it to five (actually six if you count a pre-dessert, which I would):

Oyster Chawan Mushi with Scallop and Uni Ceviche
Julien Fouet Saumur[2]

Whole Roasted Foie Gras with Garden Vegetables
and Carrot-Orange Sauce
Kiralyudvar Tokaji Sec

Chupe de Mariscos with Squid Ink Croquetas
Mercy Pinot Noir Arroyo Seco

New York Steak with Truffle Butter and
Gnocchi with Celery Leaf, Lily Bulbs and Budding Chives
Mas Sorrer Montsant

Calamansi Soup with Pineapple and Mint Ice Cream

Banana Tarte Tatin
Rock Wall Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc

oyster chawan mushi

This was a very nice way to start things, an oyster "chawan mushi." Chawan mushi is a savory Japanese egg custard, often a bit more watery than a Western custard with the addition of dashi and/or soy sauce. Here, Chef Bernstein steamed the custard right in the oyster shells, with the briny (Kumamoto?) oysters nestled within, and a little cap of softened enoki mushrooms and green onions. This carried all of that wonderful "taste of the ocean" of a good oyster, but with the flavor stretched and prolonged by the creamy custard. Mrs. F doesn't particularly like oysters, but she loved this dish. For a bit of contrast, between the oysters was a small bowl of a scallop ceviche (not a "true" ceviche, Chef Bernstein qualified, which I think means the scallop was very lightly poached rather than just "cooked" in the acid of citrus juices), given an extra dose of richness with a tongue of orange uni laid over the top.

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Gabose Korean BBQ Restaurant - Lauderhill

Korean BBQ

On a certain level, I think we all agree with Beavis and Butthead: fire is cool.

But fire - in the form of table-top charcoal BBQ - is just one of the many things that are cool about Gabose, a Korean restaurant in Lauderhill.

I won't pretend to have "discovered" Gabose. Though it has no website and does little advertising, the place is not exactly a secret - it's been around for about ten years, and was featured a couple years ago on Check Please! I also won't be the one to vouch for its authenticity - I'll leave that to those who have, or claim, more expertise in such matters. But I will say this: Gabose is just about everything I hope for in a Korean BBQ restaurant.

Since it's difficult to find online, I've posted photographs of the menu here, as shaky and blurry as these iPhone pics may be; click on any picture to enlarge (there is also a full Japanese menu, but really, why bother?):

Gabose Menu #1Gabose Menu #2

Gabose Menu #3Gabose Menu #4

The menu starts with a list of nearly a dozen appetizers, several of which are variations on "jun" (also spelled "jeon"), a kind of savory pancake that can contain any number of different ingredients. The kimchee jun was flecked throughout with tangy fermented kimchee, the pancake thin and crisp-edged with a texture oddly but happily reminiscent of matzo brei, and served with a soy and vinegar sauce for dipping. It was a generous portion the size of a large dinner plate, cut into triangles for serving.


Saturday, May 7, 2011

Cobakayapaz - Cobaya Dinner with Chefs Richard Hales, Vanessa Paz

It was almost exactly a year ago that we did our "Cobaya in the Night Kitchen" midnight dinner at Sakaya Kitchen. At that point, Sakaya had only been open a few months. The late-night diners who came out for that event got a good sampling of what was going on there, with Chef Richard Hales mixing in some standard menu items (his Filipino egg rolls and pork buns) and some more adventurous twists (Korean fried sweetbreads, "Chim Quay" quail).

Chef Hales has been itching to do another Cobaya dinner for a few months now, and we finally put it together. This past Monday, he rolled the Sakaya Kitchen truck (truck #2 for him, with the Dim Ssam a Gogo truck being the first in the fleet) over to Villa 221 to serve a small group of 20 guinea pigs. As an extra bonus, he brought in pastry chef Vanessa Paz of Michy's to do desserts.

You can see all the pictures from the dinner in this "Cobakayapaz" flickr set.

Villa 221, located just north of downtown Miami just a few blocks past the Performing Arts Center, was a gorgeous venue for the dinner, with a nice breeze keeping things cool enough for outdoor dining, and the group small enough to fit around one open-square table beneath the trees.

Villa 221

Chef Hales' cooking at Sakaya takes a good number of its culinary cues from Korea - bulgogi, ssams, ssamjang and kimchi all play prominent roles - but often looks elsewhere, both East (baos, Filipino egg rolls) and West (the incredible Bulgogi Burger, spicy tater tots) for inspiration. This Cobaya dinner was even more diverse, with dishes that drew on Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Italian and even American Southern motifs. Here is the menu he and Chef Paz put together:

Nuoc Mau Spiced Pork Rinds
Pickled Papaya, Peanut Brittle, Organic Tomatoes, Local Mint
Mushroom Brioche "Toast," Ssamjang Mayo, House Cucumber Pickle, Local Cilantro
Burrata, Blackberry "Panzanella," Sesame Oil, Fuji Vinegar, Brioche, Maple, Basil
Fried Baby Artichokes, Quail Yolk, Fish Roe
Colossal Shrimp, Blistered Organic Shishito Pepper, Miso Cauliflower Purée
Kurobuta Pork Belly, Peach Gastrique, Grilled Ramps, Corn Croquetas, Black Eyed Peas
Miso Chocolate Brûlée, Hot Chocolate Foam, Spicy Pecan Crumble
Pineapple Pie, Coconut Ice Cream
Dulce de Leche Panna Cotta, Pistachio Sponge Cake, Dry Meringue
Shot of Strawberry Sake
"PB&J" Peanut Butter Ice Cream Sandwich
Green Tea Mascarpone Cake, Sapote
Chocolate Doughnut, Passion Fruit Sauce

His first course was a small plate of airy, crispy pork rinds drizzled with nuac mau. Cleverly combining a Southern snack stable with a classic Vietnamese caramel sauce often used as a marinade or glaze for meat dishes, this dish sounded a couple notes that would be prevalent throughout much of the meal: (1) the mash-up of culinary genres, and (2) the interplay of savory and sweet. Many of Chef Hales' dishes play in that neighborhood between sweet and savory (Sakaya's honey-orange ribs have been Frod Jr.'s chosen dessert on more than one evening), and we would see much of that in this menu.

Papaya Salad

The next dish was a take on the Thai classic som tam, or papaya salad, which traditionally uses unripe green papaya shredded into a fine julienne, dressed with lime juice, fish sauce, sugar and chiles, often tossed with some tomatoes and peanuts. Chef Hales' version used ripe pink-fleshed papaya,[1] plump, halved grape tomatoes, a sweet, crunchy peanut brittle, and sprigs of local mint and cilantro. Clean, light and refreshing, I would have welcomed even more spice and tartness to balance out the sweet of the papaya and the brittle.

Mushroom Brioche Toast

This mushroom brioche "toast" fell somewhere between a French canapé and a Chinese shrimp toast, all the while borrowing the flavors and accompaniments of Sakaya's delicious pork buns: ssamjang mayo, thinly sliced pickled cucumbers, and a shower of fresh cilantro sprigs and green onions. This was good, though a bit heavy, plus these flavors were already very familiar to those of us for whom the Sakaya pork buns are a weekly staple.


The next course veered into more unfamiliar territory: burrata, served with a "panzanella" of blackberries and toasted brioche, dressed with sesame oil and Fuji vinegar and a julienne of fresh basil. This is the kind of dish I love: an unexpected combination that seems to make no sense and perfect sense at the same time. The cheese was just gorgeous, perhaps the freshest-tasting burrata I've had, luscious and exploding with creaminess. The "panzanella," subbing plump blackberries for tomatoes, provided a nice foil for the burrata, crisp cubes of bread giving some substance and the tangy blackberries some sweet, acidic contrast, further reinforced by the Fuji vinegar, all while the sesame oil provided an additional layer of lush richness. Italian and Asian flavor profiles don't meet very often; perhaps that's a missed opportunity. This was one of my favorite dishes of the evening.[2]

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