Monday, June 27, 2011

Jeffrey Brana Vegetarian Dinner

I am nothing if not omnivorous. And so you may be wondering why it is that I elected to sign up for a vegetarian dinner hosted by chef Jeffrey Brana and his wife Anna, who are running a Saturday night Private Dining Club with a different theme for every dinner.

The answer lies in that very omnivorism. While I eat everything - really, truly, just about everything - that certainly includes vegetables, and I enjoy a vegetable dish prepared with care and attention equally as much as any bit of pork or foie. Indeed, particularly in a tasting-menu format, there is often something exhausting about the parade of multiple animal proteins that so often serve as the centerpiece of multiple courses. I'm clearly not the only one who feels that way, as several notable restaurants now do vegetable tasting menus (Thomas Keller's French Laundry and Per Se, Charlie Trotter's, Curtis Duffy's Avenues, to name just a few).[1]

Plus, I was curious to see what Chef Brana could do when limited to flora without fauna. Brana's name might be familiar to South Florida diners with good memories. Back in 2004, he was named a Starchefs Rising Star while serving as the chef de cuisine at Norman Van Aken's now-closed "Norman's" in Coral Gables. In 2006, he went out on his own and opened Restaurant Brana (in the Gables space that is now Mint Leaf), but by January 2007 it was closed due to family medical issues.[2] Brana spent some time out of the spotlight, but recently resurfaced with this series of private dinners.

Jeffrey Brana vegetarian dinner

Prior events have had decidedly more carnivorous themes, including Wagyu Beef and "Kiss My Pork Butt" dinners, and this was, I believe, the first time Chef Brana has done a vegetarian themed dinner. I didn't know when I signed up that the dinner would in fact be not only vegetarian, but entirely vegan, with no animal products whatsoever.

You can see all of my (disappointingly grainy) pictures from the dinner in this Jeffrey Brana Vegetarian Dinner flickr set. Here is the menu and my comments:

Oak Lettuce Salad with Carrot Vinaigrette and Pickled Green Tomatoes

Watermelon with Watermelon Radishes, Fennel, Micro Basil and Miso

Zucchini Soup with Spicy Relish

Pink Eyed Peas with Cherry Tomatoes and Wilted Lettuce

Polenta with Okra and Tomatoes

"Ugly Carrots" with Farro, Charred Onions and Coconut

Brûléed Mango

Blackberry Crostata with Toasted Almonds

Our menu was limited not only by the vegetarian theme, but by timing. Chef Brana is dedicated to local sourcing, but with our upside-down seasons, there is not much growing in South Florida right now other than mangoes, lychees and sweat rings. As a result, much of our menu was the product of a field trip he took up to farms in Central Florida.

oak lettuce

We started simply, with a salad of delicate dark green oak lettuce, plated with a puddle of a thick, orange-hued carrot vinaigrette. Nestled beneath the leaves was a cluster of slivered, lightly pickled green tomatoes, providing an extra dose of tartness.


Though the primary component of this dish were the planks of fresh juicy watermelon, I suspect the watermelon radishes Chef Brana found up in Central Florida were the inspiration. So named for their greenish-white exterior which hides a vibrant pink-red center, these radishes sometimes have a potently peppery kick. These were not quite so feisty, but provided a nice snap and freshness against the fruit, which was tugged in both sweet and savory directions by dabs of a (honeyed?) miso dressing. Batons of fennel and its fuzzy fronds, as well as some aromatic micro basil, provided complementary herbal notes.

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Thursday, June 23, 2011

BGR The Burger Joint - Coral Gables

Some people ask me why there aren't more negative reviews here at Food For Thought. Or, to put it another way, they give me grief because I like most of the places I write about. I think most of my commentary is balanced: I'm not a cheerleader, and even most positive write-ups will offer some criticism too. But it's true that I don't often outright pan restaurants here, even though those kind of rants can be the most fun to write (and read).

Why is that? There are a few reasons. First, I see it as my primary mission to help people find good things to eat. The easiest way to do that is to write about good restaurants. Yes, I could also write about bad restaurants and warn people away from them, but that kind of process of elimination seems rather inefficient.

Equally, if not more important: I like to eat good things. I really hate having a lousy meal. And as a rather dedicated eater, one of the things I've learned to do pretty well is to figure out how to avoid them. Here, there definitely is a process of elimination at work. If I look at a menu online, I can pretty quickly tell if there's nothing that's going to interest me (for instance, yet another generic Italian menu or another uninspired steakhouse will not be a draw). Another tell: if a restaurant just opened their first location and are already trying to market franchise opportunities on their website, that's a good sign that they're more about business than food.

So I've gotten pretty good at "advance scouting," and while some restaurants may not live up to expectations, I'm generally pretty successful at avoiding outright bad meals (unless, as inevitably happens sometimes, I don't get to choose the place).

And finally, I am not a professional critic. Nobody's paying me to do this. I won't typically write up a restaurant unless I've visited multiple times, and if I've had a bad experience, there's usually not much reason for me to go back and repeat it.

All of which is a very long preface for this: I did not like "BGR The Burger Joint."

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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Café Boulud's New Chef Jim Leiken

When word broke last week that Chef Zach Bell of Café Boulud in Palm Beach would be leaving, speculation immediately turned to the question of who would replace him. That question has now been answered: Jim Leiken.

Leiken will be heading south from New York, where for the past two years he's been executive chef of Daniel Boulud's DBGB Kitchen and Bar. Leiken's resumé is the kind that should warm the hearts of lowly line cooks everywhere. After an unpaid externship at the now-closed March restaurant and a brief stint at the also-now-closed Tabla, Leiken joined the Boulud empire at the bottom of the totem pole of the flagship Daniel. After three years he had worked his way up to a promotion to executive sous chef at the New York DB Bistro Moderne, then DBGB.

Leiken steps into some decent-sized shoes: Bell was a three-time nominee for a James Beard "Best Chef" award while at Café Boulud. Wonder if we'll hear from him again, as he goes into the "private sector" at the Addison Reserve Country Club in Boca Raton.

You can read up a bit on Chef Leiken at Grub Street, which three years ago presciently dubbed him the "next star from Boulud's chef stable," and in this profile by D'Artagnan.

Cobaya 31 - Area 31 with Chef E. Michael Reidt

Cobaya 31

It's always exciting when we have the chance to get a nationally recognized chef like Michelle Bernstein to cook for Cobaya, like we did last month. But for me it's equally exciting when we can find someone who may not be on everyone's radar screen already. From the number of our diners who weren't familiar with Chef E. Michael Reidt, or hadn't been to Area 31 at all, our dinner this past Monday would fall into the latter category. I hope they feel like they've made a happy discovery.

Area 31, a restaurant with a sustainable seafood theme, opened about two years ago; but being hidden away on the 16th floor of the Epic Hotel in downtown Miami it can easily elude notice, particularly by locals. John Critchley was the chef until about six months ago, when he departed for Washington DC (he's now at Urbana) and was replaced here by Chef Reidt (who was traded from Baltimore's B & O American Brasserie).[1] Chef Reidt actually has some Miami connections from earlier in his career: ten years ago he was the chef at Wish on South Beach.[2]

Chowfather, a fellow Cobaya instigator, was particularly excited about having Chef Reidt do a dinner for us and was instrumental in making this one happen. And Chef Reidt really delivered. Here's our menu for the evening (you can see all my pictures in this Cobaya 31 flickr set):

Cobaya 31 menu

Amuse Bouche
Heirloom Tomatoes, Peaches, Truffle Cheese, Flowering Basil
Roederer NV Brut Premier

Cobia Ceviche
Pressed Avocado, Puffed Rice, Granny Smith Apple, Red Pepper Sorbet
Pio Cesare Cortese di Gavi 2010

Foie Gras "Fluff"
Smoked Peach, Crispy Basil Sponge, Pineapple, Tamarind Gastrique
"Cobaya Cocktail"

Maine Lobster, Green Asparagus, Grapefruit, Vanilla Turnips
Luca Chardonnay 2007

Diver Scallop
Crab, Farro, Chorizo, English Peas, Coconut Broth
Turkey Flats Rose 2008

Sous Vide Duck
Confit Pork Belly, Carrot, Curry, Pistachio
Bell Syrah 2007

Dark Chocolate
Truffles, Dehydrated Mousse, Yogurt, Cherry Sorbet
Lindeman's Framboise Lambic

amuse bouche

Starting with the amuse bouche, Chef Reidt encouraged us to really dive into the experience, and in this instance to literally stick our noses right down into the bowl. It was a sensible instruction, as the flowering basil from Paradise Farms offered up a potent spicy fragrance. The basil was the highlight of a simple, pure composition of heirloom tomatoes, slivered peaches, a couple thin shards of truffle cheese, and pea tendrils, floating in a limpid tomato water. Crisp, racy Roederer NV Brut Premier Champagne played along well (and the wine pairings were mostly spot on with each of the courses).

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