Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Eating House - Coral Gables

eating house

A month ago I had no idea who Giorgio Rapicavoli was. It had been a couple years, and a couple chefs, since I'd been to the Angler's Resort where he was last working. I can't stand watching "Chopped," the Food Network cooking competition show where chefs with varying degrees of skill are asked to prepare dishes from mystery baskets of ridiculously incongruous and often unappetizing ingredients; so the fact that he had won an episode did nothing to put him on my radar.

But then I caught word that he was opening a pop-up restaurant to be called Eating House in a hole-in-the-wall café on the outskirts of Coral Gables. And then I took a look at his preview menu. It read like no other menu I've seen in Miami, all sorts of unexpected combinations and flavors.

I went to Eating House a week after they opened at the beginning of the month. I've already been back twice in as many weeks. I know who Giorgio Rapicavoli is now. And at risk of hyperbole, I will say this: at Eating House, he's putting out some of the most exciting food I've had in Miami in some time.

eating house

Tuesday through Sunday nights, Eating House takes over Café Ponce, a non-descript breakfast and lunch place near the corner of Ponce de Leon Boulevard and 8th Street. What atmosphere there is - and there's not much - is contributed by some graffiti artworks hanging on the walls and a soundtrack dominated by '90s hip-hop. But it's a pop-up, the point is the food not the decor. Service is also a minimalist but efficient affair - if it's not general manager Alex Casanova, as often as not it'll be Chef Rapicavoli himself bringing your food to the table.

eating house menu

(You can see all my pictures in this Eating House flickr set or click on any picture to enlarge).

The menu is tight as a Snoop Dogg blunt - typically ten items, mostly "small plate" sized, plus a few dessert options. It's changed around the edges each time I've been in, with dishes coming and going or morphing from one visit to the next. The influences are as much Slow Food as Ideas in Food - lots of local ingredients, lots of creative preparations.

homestead tomatoes

A perfect example: local Homestead tomatoes. But instead of a typical salad, Rapicavaoli takes them to Thailand, with lime, ginger, fish sauce, peanuts, fresh herbs, nasturtium flowers, and frozen coconut milk. It's a perfect rendition of the flavors of Thailand in an unexpected format, the frozen coconut milk in particular lending an intriguing icy creaminess to the composition.[1]

baby eggplant

Even better - indeed, one of best dishes I've had in recent memory - were the baby eggplants, topped with a banana miso, vanilla salt, yuzu kosho, sesame seeds and baby greens. Here, the starting point was a classic - nasu dengaku, or Japanese miso-glazed eggplant - but with multiple added layers of complexity. The banana and miso echo back to each other in both texture and flavor, a salty-sweet creamy richness, while the yuzu kosho adds the bright contrast of both citrus and spice, and yet another note brought in by the vanilla salt. This is really virtuoso stuff.

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Monday, February 20, 2012

"The List" - Where to Eat in Miami

I'm often asked "What are the best places to eat in Miami?" It's a fair question, given that it's kind of the primary subject matter of this blog. And yet I rarely have an immediate answer. Instead, I'll typically pose a number of follow-up questions in response: What kind of food do you like? What neighborhood? What price range? Are you a  local, or a visitor looking for "local flavor"?

I've always struggled to name "favorites" because my own answers depend on many of the same questions, my mood, my appetites any given day. But I do, of course, find myself going back to the same places, and recommending the same places, fairly frequently. So why not make a list?

This list is driven by other considerations as well. The blog format generally is a good thing - easy to use as a writer, easy to access as a reader - but it puts an undue emphasis on recency. Except for a few posts which seem to have some SEO traction (the "Best Cuban Sandwiches in Miami" post is perennially popular), most of what gets read is the most current posts. That's not necessarily the easiest way to find the most interesting, or the best, restaurants I've written about over the past three years (Food For Thought just had its three-year anniversary earlier this week). There's a "Restaurant Row" column of every place that's been covered on FFT, but it's entirely unfiltered and there are now nearly a hundred South Florida restaurants and food trucks on that list.

When I've gone to visit other cities, I've often wished that the local food writers would do something similar to whittle down their own lists. So this is my version: "The List - Where to Eat in Miami".

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Sunday, February 19, 2012

CSA Week 12 and its Uses

CSA Week 12

Last week brought more of these gorgeous, slender, colorful baby eggplants in our CSA shares from Little River Market Garden. Every time we get these I've been meaning to try to duplicate the wood-oven roasted eggplant dish that's often on the menu at Michael's Genuine, and finally got around to it.

grilled eggplant

Lacking a wood-burning oven, instead I salted the eggplants, rubbed them with olive oil, and then grilled them on a cast-iron grill pan. Meanwhile, I warmed some more olive oil in another pan and toasted some pine nuts in the oil, then warmed and plumped some black raisins. I found fresh garbanzo beans at Whole Foods and those (plucked from their pods and blanched for a few minutes in boiling water) also went into the pan. I dolloped the plate with thick Greek yogurt, laid over the pine nuts, raisins and garbanzos along with the grilled eggplant, and then sprinkled everything with smoked salt and ras al hanout.

It may be one of the best things I've ever made from our vegetable shares. Go do this.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

neMesis Urban Bistro - Downtown Miami

neMesis Urban Bistro

I was sure I was going to hate neMesis Urban Bistro. The menu was precious, cutesy, and scattered - "heavenly guava cardamom dipping sauce," "Tuscan sushi," "cowardly (no nuts) pesto"? The chef, while professing a sense of humor, seemed awfully thin-skinned when the attempts at humor were directed the other way, banishing the Miami New Times' dining critic for poking fun of the restaurant's name.[1] I was, in a word, dubious.

I was also wrong. Everything about neMesis is quirky - the capitalization of the name, the decoration, the dishes, the chef - but most of it is also quite delicious.

neMesis Urban Bistro

(You can see all my pictures in this neMesis Urban Bistro flickr set).

The chef is Micah Edelstein,[2] and neMesis very clearly bears her imprint in just about every respect, right down to the front door, with an inscription that is more warning than welcome:
"Those lacking imagination and a sense of humor are not welcome at neMesis. Please return from whence you came, and do not darken our door again!"
The dining room is tiny (maybe 30 seats), and fittingly for a place that shares space with LegalArt (a non-profit organization that provides artists access to legal services), it abounds with artwork - a constellation of colorful parasols dangles upside down over the entranceway, a sculpture of men's ties juts out at rakish angles over the windows,[3] large-scale photographic portraits hang throughout.

Chef Edelstein, when she's not in the open kitchen, is often at the tables, bringing out the dishes and telling the stories behind them. Those stories cover lots of territory, ranging from a South African family background to travels around the world to geographically untethered experiments like house-brewed coffee-infused beer (like many things here, surprisingly good). If you're lucky, you'll also be graced with the presence of her young daughter Matilda, and possibly even an art exhibition or magic show.

The menu is divided into "Sexy Nibbles," "Cool Couples," "Main Attractions," and "Happy Endings," and it pains me to write that almost as much as it pains the servers to recite it. But lets get past the preciosity and focus on what's on the plate.


Foccacia, topped with hibiscus-infused mascarpone cheese, caramelized shallots, and a sprinkle of black lava salt, is emblematic of Chef Edelstein's style. It sounds unlikely, it's all over the place at once, and it actually works. The foccacia itself is delightfully light and fluffy, the creamy mascarpone is given a subtle, zesty lift from the citrusy, floral hibiscus, with the jammy shallots providing a sweet/savory anchor. You've not experienced these flavors in this combination before, but it comes off as natural rather than forced, as if they were meant to be together.

duck potstickers

Ditto for the duck potstickers with the aforementioned "heavenly guava cardamom dipping sauce." Like many things at neMesis, this reads sweet, but the finished dish is fairly well balanced. Other than in Indian cuisine, cardamom doesn't get invited to many parties, and when it shows up it can sometimes dominate the conversation. But here it's managed well, its bright, resinous, slightly medicinal flavor, in combination with the aromatic guava, cutting the richness of the braised duck filling.

vegetable samosas

The crispy, oven-baked vegetable samosas likewise get brightened up by a finely diced melon chutney. And those little yellow flowers are not mere decoration - the flowering tarragon provides another herbaceous, anise-y element to the plate.

neMesis salad

The salad at neMesis changes from day to day depending on what ingredients are floating around the kitchen. On one occasion the tangle of greens and sprouts was studded with delicious lardons of house-made lamb bacon. More recently, it came with a sprinkle of garam masala spiced pecans, slivers of avocado and grapefruit, shards of aged parmesan cheese, a sour orange vinaigrette, and a couple vibrant red-orange pimentos biquinho, Brazilian peppers preserved in vinegar that pack lots of flavor and a little heat.

These unexpected bursts of flavor are characteristic of Chef Edelstein's cooking. She paints with a different spice palette than most of us are accustomed to. While some of it is pure creative whimsy, much appears to  derive from the flavors of South African cuisine, which itself is a hodge-podge of indigenous, Cape Dutch, Afrikaner, Indian, British and Portuguese influences.

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Monday, February 6, 2012

School of Cobaya - Chef Michael Bloise

Love, Mom

We had been looking to set up a Cobaya dinner with Chef Michael Bloise since his days at the now-closed American Noodle Bar. He was clearly someone with talent and skills - he took over the kitchen at Wish[1] after Chef E. Michael Reidt left for California, and in 2008 was recognized as a StarChefs Rising Star - but only had limited outlets for his creativity with A.N.B.'s noodle-centric menu, even though it showed in his daily specials like pork belly with melons or tuna ribs. Bloise left A.N.B. and it closed not much later; he resurfaced at Sushi Samba Dromo shortly thereafter, where we were finally able to put something together.

There's no rule when we do our Cobaya dinners that the chef must come up with a "theme." The only rules are that the chef can make whatever s/he wants to cook, and the guinea pigs must show up ready to try it. Sometimes there is a theme - Chef Daniel Ramos did seven continents in seven courses, Chef Jeremiah's last dinner was loosely inspired by a recent visit to Noma - but the primary goal is that the food is creative and inspired. Chef Bloise, professing that he "couldn't do" the kind of high-end food we'd had at our last Cobaya dinner (I call bullshit - he did plenty of high-level stuff at Wish - but if he didn't want to do that style of cooking, that's fine), opted to tie his dinner together with a theme, and he went the nostalgia route: "School Lunch."[2] It turned out to be one of the most conceptually integrated - and one of the most fun - Cobaya dinners we've had.

School Lunch

(You can see all my pictures in this School of Cobaya flickr set; apologies for the lousy picture quality).

The menu was printed on a sheet of notebook paper and it fully played out the theme: a juice box, "Lunchables," and tacos, followed by "The Tray," complete with mystery meat, corn dogs, tater tots, and a pudding cup.[3] I've noted recently how one of the potential downfalls of what Ferran Adrià called "techno-emotional" cuisine is that if you don't recognize the reference points, you won't connect to the food in the way that's intended. This was a menu that would make perfect sense to most people who grew up eating American cafeteria lunches - and might be utterly baffling otherwise.

Brown Bagging It

Our first course fully resembled a typical school lunch: a brown bag and a juice box. In my school, though, the juice boxes weren't filled with an unfiltered apple juice cocktail spiked with acai vodka and vanilla, which Bloise cleverly managed to get into the box and reseal it so we could still poke our straws through the top and squeeze. In the brown bag - along with a note from "Mom" - was a "Lunchables" box, sealed in plastic, complete with ham, cheese and crackers.[4]


Of course, this wasn't an actual Lunchables (those got consumed by the staff earlier in the week so Chef Bloise could reuse the containers - probably not the highlight of staff meal at Sushi Samba). Instead, it included a house-made rabbit ham and truffled mozzarella cheese, both designed for stacking on house-made manchego-thyme crackers. These made for a perfectly good snack, but the real thrill was in the presentation, which was uncannily effective in bringing laughs and smiles to the tables.

Taco Belly Trio

Everybody loves Taco Day at the school cafeteria. Taco Day with Chef Bloise is even better with his Taco Belly Trio, each tucked into a puffy, crisp fried shell. Lush tuna belly was done somewhat poke-style, in a large dice mixed with soy and garlic and some butter for some added richness. Pork belly was done "A.N.B." style, cured, slow-braised, then crisped, and paired with melon, the acidic funk of nuoc cham, and Thai basil. Lamb belly, possibly the best of all, was prepared in a similar manner to the pork belly, then matched with blood orange and mint.

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Sunday, February 5, 2012

CSA Week 11 and its Uses

Week 11 "gargouillou"

Just great vegetables. That's what we've been getting from the Little River Market Garden. So I really don't want to do all that much to them. Why not "gargouillou" again?

This week brought yukina savoy, cutting celery, more heirloom tomatoes, and nasturtium flowers; some things from prior weeks were still holding up in the produce drawer of the fridge - multi-color carrots, baby turnips, savoy cabbage, dill. The sturdier stuff (carrots, turnips, savoy stems and leaves, cabbage leaves) got blanched and shocked, others went in raw. A shmear of salsa verde. A pile of finely chopped marcona almonds. A foam of the blanching liquid (emulsified with soy lecithin and frothed with an immersion blender). A sprinkle of Hawaiian red sea salt.

That's all.

Week 11 "gargouillou"

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Barceloneta - South Beach

I was sure I was going to love Barceloneta. I have a long-abiding passion for Spanish food, so when the team behind Pubbelly set out to create a restaurant inspired by the markets and bistros of Barcelona, it seemed aimed for my sweet spot. Indeed, even at Pubbelly, which styles itself as an "Asian-inspired gastropub," it was the Spanish influences I was most drawn to, and I found myself wishing they would just open a straight-ahead Spanish tapas bar.


Wish granted. Playing off the success of Pubbelly, its owners have taken over most of the rest of the short block around the corner from Purdy Avenue, heading in a more Asian direction with Pubbelly Sushi on one end, and in a distinctly Spanish direction with Barceloneta on the other, where Chef Juliana Gonzalez runs the kitchen.

So is it everything I hoped for? Almost, but not quite.

In my head, I imagined a Barcelona tapas bar like Chef Carles Abellan's Tapaç 24, a place with lots of small dishes served at a big bar. Barceloneta's layout is instead dominated by one long communal table that stretches most of the length of the room; and while there are other seating options - several 2- and 4-tops inside and outside, a few barstools around wine barrels - only about six of them are actually at the bar, which regularly gets crowded with people jostling for drinks while waiting to be seated.


(You can see all my pictures in this Barceloneta flickr set; apologies for the wonky lighting in several of them).

The menu, likewise, is not really a tapas bar format. Instead, it's divided into two sections: "Mercat" and "Bistro." Though it makes up the bottom part of Barceloneta's menu, let's start with the "Bistro" category, as it comes closer to the tapas bar of my imagination, featuring both some very traditionally Catalan dishes and others with more contemporary twists, though with portion sizes (and prices) that skew somewhat larger than customary tapas offerings.[1]

pulpo a feira

As to the more contemporary dishes, one of my favorites was the Pulpo a Feira. Traditionally a Galician dish of boiled octopus sprinkled with paprika and served with boiled potatoes, Barceloneta's version takes a number of liberties. First and foremost, its initial appearance reveals no octopus at all, as it's hidden beneath a veil of thick potato foam. Also lurking within are bits of chorizo, piquillo peppers, and confited tomatoes, the surface then dusted with pimentón de la Vera and drizzled with chorizo oil. The peppers and tomatoes provide a nice bright contrast to the potato foam, which otherwise might overwhelm the dish with its richness.

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