Monday, December 29, 2014

Best Dishes of 2014 - Part 2

Picking up where we left off in our Best Dishes of 2014 – Part 1, here are the next twenty. The end of Part 1 coincided with the last days of our two week, twentieth anniversary trip to Japan. Part 2 here starts in Los Angeles, where I took Frod Jr. during his spring break for a quick college tour. I've never spent much time in LA and never particularly wanted to – I've always envisioned it as embodying some of Miami's worst features, on steroids. But I'll say this: there's some good eating there.

This set also includes a few great new additions to the Miami  restaurant landscape – BlackBrick, Zak the Baker and Niu Kitchen – and some outstanding one-off dishes from the increasingly deep pool of local talent, including Jeremiah Bullfrog, Timon Balloo, Brad Kilgore, Conor Hanlon and Giorgio Rapicavoli.

Jeremiah and I happened to be in NYC at the same time in June, and lucked into a last-minute seating at Atera – which was one of the best meals I had all year.

(You can see all the dishes in my Best Dishes of 2014 flickr set).

Chicken Gizzards with Beets and Endive, Agnolotti Alla VaccinaraBestia (Los Angeles) (see all my pictures from Bestia)

There are some combinations that sound so absurd that they have to either be fantastic or complete train wrecks. Needless to say, when I see them on a menu I'm drawn to them. The pan-roasted chicken gizzards with roasted beets, Belgian endive and capra sarda cheese at Bestia is a perfect example. There's nothing about this that makes sense, and yet it works beautifully, a compelling combination of assertive, often bitter flavors and substantial textures that I thorougly enjoyed.

The agnolotti at Bestia was not quite as far out there, but still was another bold – and delicious – dish: glossy pillows of pasta filled with silky braised oxtail, dyed the color of dark chocolate with cacao mixed into the pasta, and napped with a lush butter sauce speckled with pine nuts and currants.

Country Ham, Hushpuppies and Honey ButterSon of a Gun (Los Angeles) (see all my pictures from Son of a Gun)

Son of a Gun is the seafood-focused second restaurant of Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, who opened their first restaurant, Animal, to much acclaim in 2008 (South Florida connection: they went to culinary school in Fort Lauderdale and worked for Michelle Bernstein at the Strand before heading out to LA). We ate a lot of good things at lunch there – hamachi crudo with tart apples and crunchy sprouts topped with a kalbi vinaigrette, their brilliant little lobster roll – but  the surprise hit was a platter of salty-sweet Broadbent country ham served with a pile of hot, crispy hushpuppies and a swath of creamy honey butter. Wrap a slice of ham around a hushpuppy; swipe through the honey butter; and smile.

(continued ...)

Twice Shucked PeasRustic Canyon (Santa Monica) (see all my pictures from Rustic Canyon)

Back when he was at vegetarian restaurant / yogu studio Ubuntu in Napa, there was a huge groundswell of interest in the work chef Jeremy Fox was doing. He was a 2008 Food &; Wine Best New Chef and a 2009 Starchefs Rising Star. Then he left Ubuntu (which has since closed), and Fox seemed to fall off the map for a bit. His name would come up in any number of projects, but most never quite seemed to go anywhere. These days, he's at Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica, and seems to not get nearly as much attention as he did five years ago.

The food we had at Rustic Canyon wasn't flashy. Indeed, it was the opposite: humble, ego-free cooking. But man, was it good. Our spring visit was the right time to catch a signature Fox dish: his twice-shucked peas, paired with macadamia nuts, white chocolate, chocolate mint, and a consomme of the pea pods. This was a clean, utterly beautiful dish. A brief side note: the smashed fingerling potatoes doused in chicken giblet gravy were so good we got two orders.

Squid Ink GarganelliOrsa & Winston (Los Angeles) (see all my pictures from Orsa & Winston)

Here's yet another great meal I haven't gotten around to writing about. I loved the off-the-cuff, improvisational feel at Josef Centeno's Orsa & Winston. You can do an eight-course $85 tasting menu, or a more abbreviated five-course $60 option that gives little hint of what's coming: "Crudo - Soup - Grain - Meat - Sweet".[1] If you want, you can choose to add extra courses at $12 a pop. There's also a smattering of a la carte dishes, also mostly intended as supplements to the chef's choice menu. People talk about the "tyranny of the tasting menu," but the approach here gives much more of a "Choose Your Own Adventure" feel to the experience.

The dishes sent out on any given night change, even during the course of a service from one table to the next. We had a lot of good things, but my favorite was this pasta dish of jet black squid ink garganelli, bound with a stinging nettle pesto, and topped with crispy golden bread crumbs, bright citrus zest and powdery shavings of pecorino cheese.

Carla's Garden TomatoesSubatomic Sandwiches (Miami Beach) (see all my pictures from Subatomic)

Back home in Miami, Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog had opened a sub shop (since closed) in the gift shop of the Wolfsonian on South Beach. During off hours, he would occasionally throw together some pop-up meals. These were a lot of fun, and I was particularly happy with this elegant but simple dish: backyard tomatoes, served with perky squash blossoms, a smooth gazpacho sauce and crispy bread crumbs. It tasted just like the garden, in the best possible way.

Marinated Razor Clams – "Ordinary Pizzeria" Pop-Up with chefs Michael Schwartz and Mike Lata (Miami Design District) (see all my pictures from the Ordinary Pizzeria dinner)

For years, Chef Michael Schwartz has been bringing some of the best chefs from around the country down to Miami to do pop-up dinners at Harry's Pizzeria. It's a great opportunity for us locals and usually good fun for the chefs too. In April, he brought in Mike Lata of Charleston's F.I.G. and The Ordinary. I've not been to all of the Harry's pop-ups, but this was one of the best I've attended. I especially liked this gorgeous dish of marinated razor clams paired with the bright, verdant flavors of apple, jalapeño, watermelon radish and cilantro.

Lobster Dumpling with Fenugreek ButterBlackBrick (Midtown Miami) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from BlackBrick)

Richard Hales' BlackBrick is one of my favorite new restaurants in Miami. It's evolved some since first opening – there's not quite as much Sichuan fire, there are more contemporary takes on Chinese-American classics, and the dim sum menu has expanded considerably – but it still follows the same formula of offering boldly flavored food with high quality ingredients, local when possible, prepared with thoughtfulness and care. There are a number of dishes I could have included here – the cold chicken thighs with chiles, black vinegar and peanuts, the dan dan mien with house-made noodles – but my choice here is these diaphanous steamed lobster dumplings, served with a fenugreek-infused drawn butter for dipping.

Buljol and Bake, Curry Goat – "Cobaya Balloo" Dinner at Bocce Bar with Chef Timon Balloo (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Cobaya Balloo)

Growing up in a Trinidadian family, this was a typical weekend breakfast [for Timon] – salt cod tossed with shredded cabbage, tomatoes and fresh herbs, tucked into "bake," a simple, dense, chewy bread (you may have also heard of "Bake and Shark," another typical Trini recipe). This doesn't look or sound like much, but it was one of the dishes of the night for me, and a great start to our meal.

The final savory course marked a return to the same family roots where the menu started: a Trini-inspired dish of curried goat (a roulade of meat wrapped in crispy chicken skin, a tranche of what I think was a terrine of its liver, and a ragout of all the other bits and pieces, including the testicles), served with lime pickles, a sort of spicy mango chutney, sweet mandarinquat jam, and freshly made roti bread. And I'll be damned if this wasn't my other favorite dish of the night. Some at our table were joking that Timon could open a spot that served nothing other than these two dishes and make a killing.

Scallop, Wagyu Oxtail, Asparagus, Ramps; Chocolate Custard, Mint Moss, Chocolate Truffles – J&G Grill (Bal Harbour) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from J&G Grill)

(These dishes are from a birthday dinner that Brad Kilgore and Antonio Bachour cooked for me in May; Brad's since left JG and will soon be opening Alter in Wynwood.)

It would not be the first time someone did a "surf n turf" of scallop and oxtail – but this was certainly one of the best iterations I've ever had. The scallops, fat and fresh, were burnished golden-brown on one side without being overcooked. The oxtail brought a meaty richness without being plodding and heavy. Asparagus, a motif of spring weaving its way through courses like a Bach fugue, made yet another appearance, both tender white tips as well as delicate, wispy, pencil-thin stalks. Another spring motif, ramps, added the cutting clarity of their garlicky perfume.

The first dessert [Executive Pastry Chef Antonio Bachour] served happens to be the cover model for his new book – a creamy chocolate custard, topped with a delicate, light-as-air mint "moss," over which are strewn chocolate truffles and an assortment of edible flowers and herbs. Even a non-dessert fan can be a sucker for the combination of chocolate and mint (York Peppermint Patties and Junior Mints are both in my wheelhouse), and this was a particularly elegant expression of that pairing.

Schmaltz Herring, Creme Fraiche and Pickled Onion ToastZak the Baker (Wynwood, Miami) (see all my pictures from Zak the Baker)

There's a beautiful simplicity to the abbreviated café menu at Zak the Baker's new storefront and bakery in Wynwood. It's mostly just some nice things on toast – fresh local vegetables and cream cheese, honey butter from Paradise Farm, beets with crumbly feta and a dusting of za'atar. The highlights are the pristine ingredients and that outstanding bread. One of the first things I ate there when they opened was this house-made schmaltz herring, served with some tangy creme fraiche, pink pickled onions and wispy dill fronds. The shot of Russian vodka Zak insisted should accompany it – at about 10:30 in the morning – made it perfect.

Asparagus with Buttermilk Panna Cotta, Porcini with Popcorn Grits – "Cobaya Conor" Dinner at The Dutch with Chef Conor Hanlon (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Cobaya Conor)

I was floored by the next course. A creamy, tangy buttermilk panna cotta served as the base for a composition that was like a spring cornucopia: stalks and spears of white and green asparagus, fresh shucked peas, golden-orange smoked trout roe, pickled mustard seeds, a tangle of delicate greens and flowers, all nestled into a bed of crispy dark brown quinoa. Every bite yielded a different combination of flavors, textures and colors. Just an outstanding dish.

Another of my favorites of the evening paired corn and mushrooms in a few guises. Fresh, thinly sliced porcini, plump, meaty morels, sauteed ramp greens, and charred corn all were mounted atop of a bed of "popcorn grits," then topped with shavings of an assertive Pecorino Ginepro cheese (a raw sheeps' milk cheese washed in balsamic vinegar and juniper). I've seen Daniel Patterson, the chef of Coi in San Francisco, do this before, taking buttered popcorn, pressing it through a sieve and cooking it with more butter to get a texture like grits. I loved everything about this dish.

Grilled Carrots with Smoked TahiniEating House (Coral Gables) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Eating House)

Since its transition from pop-up to full-fledged full-time restaurant, Eating House has found it hard to shed the crowd-pleasing stoner food items that keep seats filled – the fried chicken and "foie-ffles," the ultra-rich pasta carbonara – but I prefer when Chef Giorgio Rapicavoli takes a more subtle approach. Like these grilled carrots, with some charred edges, plated with a nutty smoked tahini sauce, a verdant carrot green chimichurri and grassy chickweed.

Uni, Roasted Carrot; Seafood, Fermented Rice; Almonds, White Chocolate, Olive OilAtera (New York) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Atera)

Sea urchin, for me, is one of nature's perfect foods. It needs no adornment, and is rarely enhanced and often undermined by attempts to pair it with something else. This was one of those dishes that is an exception to my rule. Here, the uni was accompanied by a couple pieces of carrot that had been roasted to the point of nearly collapsing in on themselves, yielding a creamy texture that matched the sea urchin. These were napped tableside with a lush, velvety sauce which I'm guessing is composed of carrot, lobster and herbsaint. This was something like an echo chamber: the colors all coordinated, the supple textures mimicking each other, the flavors – oceanic, sweet, floral – reinforcing everything I like about uni.

The next course was another potential candidate for the dish of the night. It's not much to look at – a mound of rice – but it was spectacular. The fermented rice had a nearly porridge-like consistency, and was fully suffused with the intense oceanic flavor of abalone, spot prawns and king crab. It was intense and rich but not heavy, just a beautiful dish.

My favorite dessert was the middle round, which offered some Mugaritz-style sleight of hand. Described as "almond, white chocolate, olive oil," what appeared to be almonds were in fact made of white chocolate infused with almond flavor. But what was even more masterful was that they had been chilled to just the right point so that the snap of the chocolate perfectly duplicated the feel of a nut.

Cold Tomato Soup, Mustard Ice Cream, Basil OilNiu Kitchen (Downtown Miami) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Niu Kitchen)

A cold tomato soup with mustard ice cream and basil oil ($6) is another of those things that's either going to be fantastic or a train wreck. It was the former, with a delicately textured but full-flavored broth (more of a tomato water than a gazpacho) given an electric charge from that mustard ice cream. It was a great summer dish.

Stay tuned for Part 3, coming soon.

[1] There's also a "super-omakase" which must be booked three days in advance. Maybe next time.

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