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Best Dishes of 2013 - Part 2

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In the wee hours of last night I started on Part 1 of the Best Dishes I ate in the past year. Here, in chronological order, picking up right around mid-year, is Part 2, starting with a couple great things at the sadly now-closed BoxPark, then a trek through the Pacific Northwest, including the magnificent Willows Inn (my favorite meal of the year), along with a brief visit to New Orleans and several more great dishes here in Miami.

(You can see pictures of all of them in this 2013 Best Dishes flickr set).


Everglades Gumbo - BoxPark (Brickell) (my thoughts on BoxPark)

Chef Matt Hinckley’s version [of gumbo], like a lot of things at BoxPark from the house-made charcuterie to the “Brickell Pickles,” uses almost all locally sourced ingredients, some from rather unusual places. He makes his own andouille sausage using invasive feral pigs trapped by local farmers. Ruby red shrimp are seasonally harvested from deep waters off Florida’s east coast. Those “nuisance gators” that are often removed…

Best Dishes of 2013 - Part 1

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As the year comes to a close, it's time for New Years' resolutions, and "Best Of..." listicles. I think one of my resolutions last year was to publish my "Best Dishes of the Year" list before the calendar turned, so if I can get this post up, I will have kept at least one resolution. The "lose 20 pounds" resolution will have to wait till next year.

2013 was a good year: trips to New York, Montreal, Vancouver, Seattle and New Orleans provided some great dining opportunities, but so did hometown South Florida. Here, in chronological order, are some of the best things I ate this past year:

(You can see all the dishes in this 2013 Best Dishes flickr set).


Vegetarian Ramen - Momi Ramen (Brickell) (my thoughts on Momi)

Though Chen has been reluctant to expand his offerings, if the vegetarian ramen I tried is any indication, he shouldn't be so worried. It was fantastic. It's not swimming in broth so the noodles can really shine, along with softened…

Wildebeest - Vancouver, British Columbia

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While our visit to The Willows Inn was the most exceptional meal of our trip to the Pacific Northwest this past summer, it was certainly not the only good one. I was particularly excited by a couple places we tried on the front end of our trip, in Vancouver. First up: Wildebeest.


Wildebeest is a new-ish place in Vancouver's Gastown neighborhood with a rustic, vaguely steampunk aesthetic, an offal-centric menu, and a naturalistic, unfussy style. The brick walls, bare bulbs and rough wood are in perfect sync with Chef Wesley Young's cooking style, which is dominated by meat and smoke.



Snacks and cocktails help set the stage. Crunchy hazelnuts are infused with seawater; buttery, bright green Castelvetrano olives are smoked. They're both great nibbles to go along with an intriguing Tequila Sazerac, served up in a little flowered granny glass. This was a delicious reinvention of the classic cocktail, using reposado tequila and mezcal in place of the rye, and a green Chartreuse …

Cobaya Nina at Scarpetta

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I'll confess, it's actually been a long time since I've eaten at Scarpetta, the Scott Conant restaurant in the Fontainebleau where Chef Nina Compton holds down as chef de cuisine. But we knew good things were happening there - I've never heard of anyone reporting anything but a great meal at Scarpetta, and Compton's performance on this season of "Top Chef" has her as the clear front-runner to take that honor. We figured we had to get in on a Cobaya dinner with her before she blew up. After the seed was planted when she helped out former kitchen companion Michael Pirolo for his Cobaya dinner at Macchialina a few months ago, it came together earlier this week.


As is our usual modus operandi, we gave no limitations other than "Cook what you want," which is what Chef Nina did for a group of forty seated at several long tables on a veranda looking out over the Fontainebleau pool. She let us know at the start, there would be no "theme," just…

Willows Inn - Lummi Island, Washington

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The first thing I notice upon arriving are the smells: the salt ocean air, fresh cut grass, a whiff of wood smoke. The ferry ride from the mainland takes only about ten minutes, but Lummi Island - the home of the Willows Inn - seems almost a world to itself. Lummi, about a dozen miles from end to end, is the easternmost of the San Juan Islands, an archipelago in the Strait of Juan de Fuca stretching between mainland Washington State and Vancouver Island. It's also one of the more beautiful places I've ever been.


We spent a couple days on Lummi Island before eating at Willows Inn, and I'm glad we did.[1] We saw the reefnets where salmon are fished in the same way that Native Americans did it centuries ago.[2] We caught (and released) a massive thirty pound lingcod. We kayaked along the island's coast, tasting bull kelp and sea lettuce we pulled right out of the water alongside our boats. After a little while, it starts to seem as if the entire landscape is edible: blac…

CobayaBelly with Chef Jose Mendin at PB Steak

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It's always interesting to see how chefs approach doing a Cobaya dinner with us. Having a "theme" is entirely optional, but many chefs choose to do so. When we lined up a dinner with Chef José Mendin, of Pubbelly and its sibling PB Steak, he went with a "Bloody Monday" motif.


The decorations seemed inspired equally by a butcher's abattoir and a goth chick's boudoir,with PB Steak's unfinished wood and concrete dressed up with lots of candles, black apothecary bottles and the occasional crow.


Chef Mendin's offal-intensive menu, making extensive use of the "fifth quarter" of the cattle whose prime cuts usually grace the restaurant's menu, was drawn up like a butcher's diagram, though the pieces actually came from several different places - beef heart from Niman Ranch in California, veal brains from Strauss Farms in Wisconsin, tongue from Jackman Ranch in upstate Florida, prime rib from Cox Family Farms in Alabama.

(You can see al…

Tapas - Spanish Design for Food @ The Moore Building

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According to Penelope Casas' excellent book "Tapas: The Little Dishes of Spain," the original tapa was a slice of cured ham or chorizo, served compliments of the house, and - according to some - placed over the top of the customer's wineglass to keep flies out of the sherry. In other words, it was a simple, effective, and delicious confluence of food and design.


The exhibition "Tapas - Spanish Design for Food," currently on display at the Moore Building in the Design District, explores and celebrates that confluence, using Spanish tapas as the springboard. Organized by Acción Cultural Española, and curated by Spanish architect Juli Capella, it's a fascinating glimpse into the circular relationship of cuisine, art, design and culture.

The displays are divided into sections - "The Kitchen," "The Table," and "The Food" - with a well-selected compilation of objects created for each. They range from the utterly pragmatic - a se…

"Pink Collar" Cobaya for a Cause with Chef Daniel Serfer

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We mostly do this Cobaya thing to eat well and have fun, but occasionally we try to do good, too. Almost exactly a year ago, we helped Chef Andrew Carmellini fill seats for a Hurricane Sandy Relief Dinner at The Dutch, which was a fantastic meal (with contributions from several Cobaya alumni) and raised more than $17,000 for Sandy relief efforts.


This year, when Chef Daniel Serfer of Blue Collar approached us about doing a charity Cobaya dinner to raise money for Susan G. Komen for the Cure, we were eager to take part. It's a cause that is particularly meaningful to Danny, who lost his mother to breast cancer eleven years ago this month, and he described the menu he put together as takes on some of her favorite dishes.

I'll tell you this: Marsha ate very well. Though Blue Collar is, as the name suggests, a working-class kind of place, Chef Serfer has a fine dining background, having toiled at the now-closed Chef Allen's before opening his own place. And he's already th…

A New Orleans Dining Travelogue (Part 2: New School) - Peche, Root, Coquette, R'evolution, Bar Tonique

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In Part 1 of my New Orleans Travelogue, I stuck with the "Old Guard" - traditional places, like Galatoire's, Felix's Oyster Bar, and Mr. B's Bistro, serving mostly traditional dishes. For a long time, it seemed like this was all you could find in New Orleans. New or old, it was as if every place was required by the Napoleonic Code to offer gumbo, shrimp remoulade, étouffée, and blackened redfish. You could tell the more contemporary places because they would affix a sprig of thyme or rosemary like a flag post in the middle of the plate.

That kind of culinary solipsism is sometimes one of the trade-offs of a city with such a passionate food culture. We saw much the same thing on our visits to Spain: the food is mostly outstanding - if you like Spanish food. But nobody talks about the Italian restaurants in Spain. Still, during our more recent visits to New Orleans - post-Katrina - things seems to be changing. The city not only has more restaurants than it did bef…

A New Orleans Dining Travelogue (Part 1: Old School) - Felix's, Killer Poboys, Galatoire's, Mr. B's Bistro, Napoleon House

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It's presumptuous to think you can genuinely understand a city's dining culture after only a few days. In a place with as rich a culinary heritage as New Orleans, it's downright foolish. Over the past few years I've eaten probably about a dozen meals in New Orleans - just about enough to feel like I'm barely scratching the surface of what the city has to offer. To give you a better idea of what I mean, here's my "New Orleans To Do List":


View New Orleans in a larger map
The places I've actually been to are only a small fraction of the pinpoints on that map. (Incidentally, if you find this map useful, I've got a few more of other cities and can look for excuses to post them). So I will try to restrain myself from the big deep thoughts, and instead recount a travelogue of about eight meals, and a few bars, over a recent long weekend in New Orleans:

Felix's Restaurant & Oyster Bar


I suspect everyone who visits New Orleans more than a coupl…

Cobaya Tea Party with Chef Antonio Bachour

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The first time I sampled pastry chef Antonio Bachour's work was at a Cobaya dinner with Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog a couple years ago. We'd held the event in a warehouse in Little Haiti which, among other challenges, didn't have the greatest air conditioning. It was probably nearly 90° in the dining room and at least ten degrees warmer in the "kitchen." Not exactly ideal conditions, and yet Bachour, with a big fan blowing in a back room, plated some absolutely exquisite desserts, even managing to turn out perfect quenelles of green apple sorbet among about a dozen other elements on the plate.

At the time, Bachour was working at the W South Beach, and the word was that he would be pastry chef at The Dutch when it opened in a few months. Instead, he took his talents to the St. Regis Bal Harbour and the very talented Josh Gripper came to the Dutch - a win-win for Miami diners.

Bachour is an incredible talent. We knew that we'd want to find a way for him to do his o…