Sunday, April 29, 2012
When I wrote about my first experience of stumbling upon Naoe, I described it as seeming almost like a dream: a tiny 17-seat jewel-box of a restaurant serving a bento box of gorgeous Japanese dishes followed by a procession of pristine nigiri, all entirely "omakase" or chef's choice. But it was real, and I went back several more times just to make sure. (You can find recaps of some subsequent meals here, here and here.)
In December, Naoe had to vacate its Sunny Isles space when the landlord hatched other plans for it. They closed up shop and began work on a new space on Brickell Key, adjacent to downtown Miami. The new venue reopened last week, and I made my first visit this past Thursday - exactly three years after my first post on Naoe.
I'm not usually a superstitious person, but I do worry that a place can lose its "mojo" when it moves locations. Any such worries about Naoe were absolved by my visit to Naoe on Brickell Key.
Walking into the new space was again something like a dream: it looks almost like a mirror image of the original spot in Sunny Isles. It has the same smooth hinoki wood bar stretching in front of the open kitchen; it has the same austere grey-brown tones throughout the dining room; it has the same pinpoint halogens which literally put the spotlight on the food. There's actually less seating than there was in the original spot, and Chef Kevin Cory will only be serving eight diners per service.
There have been some other minor tweaks. Instead of the $26 bento box followed by nigiri priced by the piece, Naoe now offers an $85 omakase menu that includes both the bento box and eight pieces of nigiri. Additional rounds (either repeat visits to items served earlier or, possibly, some different items) can then be added a la carte. Though bargain-hunters might rue the loss of the $26 bento, I have trouble believing anyone ever went to Naoe without sampling some sushi as well. If they did, they were missing out.
(You can see all my pictures in this Naoe April 26, 2012 flickr set).
The food is every bit as good as it ever was:
Bento box with sashimi of cobia and scallop mantle, with Japanese seaweed, shiso and freshly grated wasabi; tsubugai (whelk, or sea snail); fried whiting; wilted mizuna; tofu with uni sauce and walnuts; sardine and portobello mushroom rice with daikon nukazuke. A bowl of miso soup with puréed corn was served alongside.
Salmon belly nigiri. Always the first nigiri served at Naoe. Perenially one of my favorite bites.
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
I first came across the dynamic duo of Aniece Meinhold and Cesar Zapata during what turned out to be a short-lived stint at Blue Piano. A charming little wine bar down the street from the Design District, it had occasional live music and an eclectic selection of wines and beers (courtesy of Aniece, who ran front of house) and small, tapas-style bites (courtesy of Cesar, who ran the kitchen). The food was simple but sometimes surprisingly creative, with a selection of charcuterie and cheeses rounded out by things like the "McLovin," an English muffin filled with chistorra sausage, melted cheese, chipotle cream, and a fried egg, with chicharrones on the side for good measure.
There was a rift with ownership, and in August, Cesar and Aniece left the Blue Piano. Shortly afterwards, they popped up again with Phuc Yea!, a modern Vietnamese pop-up restaurant downtown. I had several excellent meals at Phuc Yea!, and was sorry to see it go after its three-month run.
Aniece and Cesar quickly resurfaced, this time with their very own full-blown restaurant, The Federal. Joining them this time around is Alejandro Ortiz, an industry vet who previously worked as sommelier in some of Miami's top restaurants. In a departure from the Southeast Asian flavors of Phuc Yea!, the Federal returns closer to home. Styling itself a "Modern American Tavern," both the venue and menu have something of a gastropub feel to them: simple, rustic, but done with flair and style.
(You can see all my pictures in this The Federal flickr set or click on any picture to see it larger.)
What started as a nondescript strip mall space now has real personality and warmth, mixing old-timey cabinetry, a patchwork of wallpaper, odd bits of taxidermy and other bric-a-brac. Mismatched serving pieces range from pewter plateware to repurposed Shoney's Blue Plate Special dishes; Ball jars serve as candle-holders. You can eat at the bar, covered with salvaged wood planks and lined with old leather belts; at one of several tables inside, including a picnic bench set up for larger groups or banquettes tucked cozily under the windows; or outside on a makeshift patio, which does the best it can with the vista of a parking lot overlooking Biscayne Boulevard. The place now has the same instantly nostalgic feel as an Instagram photo.
The Federal's menu is broken up primarily into "Bits," "Starts," and "Big'Uns." It nods to nostalgia as well - biscuits and gravy, sausage and mash, fisherman's stew - but is by no means rigorously old-fashioned or traditional.
The first item on the list of "Bits," their biscuits, brushed with honey and topped with a crust of cheddar cheese, skew closer to the dense crumble of a scone than to the cloud-like fluffiness of puff pastry, though that's not a criticism, just a description.
One of my favorite starters was a crudo of scallops, sliced thin and macerated in a reduced blood orange glaze, scattered with slivered watermelon radishes, tiny greens, smoked trout roe and BBQ potato chips. It's an unusual-sounding combination which would seem to run the risk of overwhelming the scallops, but managed to achieve a successful balance of sweet-sour-smoky-briney flavors. It's also light enough to leave you plenty of room for the "Big'Uns" that follow.
Buffalo Style Pig Wings, meanwhile, are quite a bit more than a "Bit." A clever piece of butchery and marketing, these "wings" are actually a cut of the rear shank of the pig, trimmed to provide a plump knob of pork attached to the fibula bone. Braised til tender, fried til crisp on the outside, a couple of these then get some classic "Buffalo" flavors - infused with some hot sauce somewhere along the way, served over a blue cheese mousse, topped with julienned strips of pickled carrot and celery. Do it right and it's hard to go wrong with these flavors, and these are indeed done right. But this is also a substantial enough dish that you might find your appetite sated rather than piqued once you get to your main course.
Monday, April 2, 2012
Sometimes even we're surprised.
When we plan these Cobaya dinners, we purposefully keep the "marching orders" to the chefs minimal: basically, be creative, and do something you don't normally get to do. Often we'll kick around ideas, we might see preview menus, but not always. Sometimes we have only a rough sketch of what to expect, and sometimes we go in completely blind.
When we sat down to talk with Chef Alejandro Piñero and Manager Jonathan Lazar of Sustain Restaurant + Bar in Midtown Miami, they said they were thinking of doing a Southern Italian inspired menu. Though Sustain is known mostly for its focus on fresh, local, and - yes - sustainable ingredients, this didn't come as a complete surprise to me. Before Sustain, Chef Piñero spent five years as sous chef at Casa Tua and then took over as chef de cuisine at Fratelli Lyon, so Italian is clearly in his repertoire. We invited them to run with the idea, and that was the extent of what we knew.
I expected Sicilian and Sardinian flavors, I expected some modern and some old-school techniques, I expected some great wine pairings from sommelier Daniel Toral. Even I didn't expect a roasted goat's head.
Here is the full menu (you can see all my pictures in this Sustainable Cobaya flickr set, or click on any picture to view a larger version):
Arancia Rossa e Averna
Lardo e Ricci di Mare
Andrea Franchetti "Guardiola" Etna, Sicily 2010
"Oliva" e Frissée
Tenuta delle Terre Nere Etna, Sicily 2010
Ragu di Cinghiale
Arianna Occhipinti "SP68" Vittoria, Sicily 2010
Cerevella di Capra, Patate e Cavolo Nero
Andrea Franchetti "Passopisciaro" Etna, Sicily 2008
Arancia Rossa, Torta all'Olio d'Oliva
Miele Sardo e Sorbetto al Latte di Mandorle