Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Best Dishes of 2014 - Part 3

We're in the home stretch. Here is Part 3 of my favorite dishes of the past year. This last set includes several more welcome additions to the Miami dining universe: N by Naoe, Oolite, L'Echon Brasserie, Mignonette, Proof, Seagrape, plus dishes from chefs Diego Oka, Danny Grant and Brad Kilgore. There's also a few items from visits to the Northeast (Toronto, Boston, Maine and Quebec) and a couple great meals in Chicago a couple months ago. In case you missed it: Part 1 and Part 2. You can also see all the pictures in this Best Dishes of 2014 flickr set.

Bento Box – N by Naoe (Brickell Key, Miami) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from N by Naoe)

A few minutes after you're seated, a three-tiered bento box is brought to your table. It's unpacked to reveal six compartments, each stocked with several different items – similar in style and quality to the elaborate bento that starts a meal at Naoe.

So what's inside? This day: a battera roll of madai (sea bream) and pickled kombu with fried canistel (a/k/a eggfruit); tender braised pork jowl with mustard and miso, with boniato, white asparagus and local green beans; house-made jackfruit seed tofu topped with Hokkaido uni, with junsai (a/k/a water shield, a sort of slippery aquatic plant); a bit of Maine lobster with avocado and pea shoots; grilled black-bellied rosefish (a local deepwater fish in the scorpionfish family) with key lime; the same fish in a different preparation, simmered, with roasted eggplant and okra; sashimi of snowy grouper with komochi kombu (herring roe that have been laid on seaweed) and delightfully sticky aori ika (big fin squid) pressed with nori. Also, in typical Japanese fashion, a rice bowl (studded with bamboo shoots), pickles (eggplant and kombu), and soup (corn miso with slivers of daikon radish and leek).

Snapper Crudo – Oolite (Miami Beach) (see all my pictures from Oolite)

I was crushed when Kris Wessel closed his beloved Red Light a few years ago. He wrote a beautiful menu for Florida Cookery in the James Hotel, but didn't stay long in the kitchen. Then this summer he resurfaced at Oolite, a new spot off Lincoln Road with a pronounced focus on healthy eating. There are still some old Red Light classics – Wessel's fantastic New Orleans style BBQ shrimp, and his smoked, guanabana glazed ribs – and some great new things too.

One of my favorites in the latter category is Oolite's snapper crudo:  lean, sweet pinkish-white slivers of local fish, bathed in ginger-infused citrus juices, and garnished with floral, sweet lychees or rambutans and chewy green pumpkin seeds.

Raie a la Grenoblaise, Cervelles de Veau MeuniereL'Echon Brasserie (Miami Beach) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from L'Echon)

You can go old-school [at L'Echon]: there are seafood platters, pâté de campagne, steak tartare, moules and frites. Or you can find things more unconventional: hamachi crudo with black garlic soy, crushed tomatoes and olives, pan-roasted veal brains with brown butter and blue crab tartar sauce, a tartine topped with foie gras and nutella. There's also plenty in between, like this skate wing a la grenobloise, prepared with brown butter, capers, slivered grapes, and dried cranberries over a celeriac puree.

(continued ...)

Yellowtail and Peruvian Potato Stew – Chef Diego Oka, "Cobayapalooza" dinner (Wynwood, Miami) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Cobayapalooza)

Diego Oka's yellowtail dish was, for me, one of the most intriguing of the night. While ceviche tends to get all the attention these days, there's an incredible diversity to Peruvian cooking, which his dish highlighted. The fish was served over a curry-spiced, chocolate-dusted potato stew, which had a fascinating, nubby texture and great depth of flavor. A translucent quinoa crisp, peanut butter powder and a sauce of huacatay (Peruvian black mint, with a zing sort of between typical mint and basil) completed the dish.

Lamb Loin Crepinette – Chef Danny Grant, "Cobayapalooza" dinner (Wynwood, Miami) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Cobayapalooza)

Danny Grant of 1826 provided the last savory course, and it was a good one. He wrapped a lamb loin, cooked to a rosy pink hue, and a meaty farce, in a shiny pig skin crepinette. One of the slices was topped with a perfect curl of frozen foie gras. A sauté of corn and tiny chanterelle mushrooms, and a textbook glossy reduction perked up with the Moroccan, ras al hanout style "Tangier" spice blend, completed the dish.

Stuffed Chicken WingRestaurant Chantecler (Toronto) (see all my pictures from Chantecler)

Here's yet another really good meal I've not gotten around to writing about. Chantecler is a charming, shoebox sized Toronto restaurant whose regular menu offers up some tasty-sounding casual eats: spicy popcorn shrimp, calamari in tamarind sauce, various lettuce wraps. They also do a reservation-only tasting menu at the kitchen counter which was really one of the most fun dinners I've had all year. There's something of an east/west thing going on – beef tartare with fish sauce and wasabi on shrimp chips, char siu bao with a shortbread crust – but the basic idea is stuff that tastes really good. Maybe the best thing we had were these chicken wings, stuffed with a mix of ground pork and mushrooms, and dusted with zingy szechuan peppercorns.

Seared Japanese EggplantAlden & Harlow (Boston) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Alden & Harlow)

When was the last time you ate something so good you immediately ordered it again? Not "immediately" as in "the next time you went to the restaurant;" "immediately" as in "while you're still finishing the first order"? That's what we did with Alden & Harlow's seared eggplant with green sauce, sheep's milk cheese, crispy fregola and basil leaves. The eggplant is smoky and almost meaty in texture, the sauce is herbaceous and bright, there's a creamy, briny tang from the cheese, and crunchy contrast from the fried pasta balls. It was one of the best things I've eaten all year.

Cherrystone ClamsChauncey Creek Lobster Pier (Kittery Point, Maine) (see all my pictures from Chauncey Creek)

I know Maine is supposed to be all about the lobster – and the lobster roll at Chauncey Creek Lobster Pier, along the Piscataqua River about midway between Boston, MA and Portland, ME – was excellent. But I liked these cherrystones even more: fresh, juicy, briny and just bursting with oceanic flavor.

Tofu, Elk CarpaccioLégende par la Tanière (Quebec City) (see all my pictures from Légende)

I anticipated there would be good food in Quebec City. But I was expecting classic French and Quebecois grandmere fare, not necessarily much that was informed by the past decade's dining trends. So Légende par la Tanière (a more casual, a la carte sibling to Frédéric LaPlante's 10-20 course tasting menus at Restaurant la Tanière), with its locavore ingredient list and modernist leanings, was something of a surprise. So was a dish that combined tofu, elk carpaccio, seabuckthorn, mushrooms, and mustard seeds. It sounded like another potential train wreck; but it was one of the most intriguing and pleasing dishes of our visit to Montreal and Quebec.

OystersMignonette (Miami) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Mignonette)

Mignonette, the love child of Blue Collar chef Daniel Serfer and lawyer / Miami Rankings food blogger Ryan Roman, is another of my favorite new Miami restaurants. It's an oyster bar and seafood joint that starts in the right place: they get the best quality seafood they can buy, and they don't fuck it up.[1] I'm a big fan of their peel-n-eat wild Florida shrimp, their daily crudos, their cold Boston lettuce salad that brings on flashbacks to the chilled pewter plates of The Pub. But most of all I'm a fan of their oysters, a rotating selection of roughly a dozen from east and west coasts, which are simply the best I've had in Miami. In the monkey see, monkey do fashion that Miami is prone to, it seems like everyone's opening an oyster bar these days. But right now, Mignonette is setting the bar.

Steamed Wild Black Bass – Cobaya 1826 with Chef Danny Grant (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Cobaya 1826)

(Chef Grant left 1826 Restaurant a couple months after doing this truffle-themed Cobaya dinner, and is joining up with John Kunkel's growing 50 Eggs empire).

Staying relatively light, this fish course may have been my dish of the night. Grant took wild black bass, shingled its dramatically black-and-white patterned skin with coins of black truffle, then steamed it with the truffles and other aromatics and plated it with some delicate wilted romaine lettuce. The bass was served with two sauces: a lobster, scallop and shellfish reduction mounted with truffles, lemon and white wine; and, tableside, a frothy lobster and truffle emulsion perfumed with orange. Grant talked about how sauce-making is something of a "lost art," but also demonstrated that it's not completely lost. This kind of technique is hard to come by in Miami these days.

Corn; Lily Bulb; Matsutake – Alinea (Chicago) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Alinea)

The rhythm of service at Alinea plays often with anticipation and suspense. An empty can of "Alinea Achatz Style Corn" is brought to the table first. It's followed by a hollowed out log cradling an ear of corn, the husk charred and still smoking. The top of the husk is removed and placed in the can, revealing a perfectly reassembled strip of grilled corn kernels, which in turn rest on top of a rich corn pudding infused with truffle, manchego cheese and sherry. It's absolutely delicious.

In a beautiful green-hued bowl with irregularly fluted edges like flower petals, slivers of lily bulb, rambutan, and hot-pink begonia petals float on a clear, slightly jellified broth distilled from finger limes. The course was perhaps something of a palate cleanser, but it was one of my favorites of the meal, its flavors so clean, clear and bright, the naturalistic presentation reminiscent of Japanese kaiseki.

In a small metal bowl are thinly shaved slivers of matsutake mushroom over a tapioca pudding spiked with pine and huckleberries. A server holds a piece of binchotan charcoal and flames it briefly with a torch directed at the bowl. It's another big show for a questionable return (binchotan is known primarily for burning at very high heat while being relatively smokeless, not so much for adding flavor as a fragrant wood charcoal like mesquite or hickory might). Regardless, the dish itself is excellent, another of my favorites – the matsutakes are delicious, the brief heat releasing their spicy forest-floor aroma, the creamy tapioca stretching and prolonging their flavor.

Galinette; St. PierreL2O (Chicago) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from L2O)

(Only weeks after my visit to L2O, it was announced that the restaurant would be closing. I'm glad I got there before it was gone – it was one of the best meals I've had this year.)

The fish courses at L2O were some of the best I've had anywhere. The first was galinette, which as best I can tell from the almighty Google, is also known as "gurnard," "grondin" or "sea robin," a bottom-dwelling, firm-fleshed fish that traditionally was often used for stews. At L2O, it's gussied up with a black-on-black blanket of generously spackled caviar studded precisely across its surface with licorice, a rich crab butter, and a scatter of crithmum (a/k/a samphire?), a snappy coastal succulent. The fish was excellent, the other components were in perfect balance – this was an outstanding dish.

The St. Pierre was every bit its equal. The fish (a/k/a John Dory) was an almost translucent white, and seemed only barely cooked, still sweet and firm. Delicate ribbons of royal trumpet mushroom, burnished petals of red onion, and disks of creamy bone marrow added layers of umami, the flavors of the dish reinforced and echoed in a limpid, golden brown matelote sauce.

Some tasting menus seem to expend all their energy in the opening acts. The first few courses are bold and exciting, but the back end of the meal gets bogged down in the ubiquitous parade of heavy proteins. My experience at L2O was the exact opposite: this was a meal with a crescendo pattern, building momentum as it went on.

Berkshire Pig, Chestnut, Abalone – Scott Anderson dinner at The Dutch (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from the Scott Anderson dinner)

(In October, Conor Hanlon and the folks at The Dutch graciously played host to a collaborative dinner with Chef Scott Anderson of Elements restaurant in Princeton, New Jersey, with a big assist from Jeremiah Bullfrog too.) 

Scott followed with a sort of surf and turf: a cut of rosy Berkshire pork, paired with a tranche of abalone at that perfect tipping point between bouncy and tender. Silky cylinders of cooked turnip, a sort of hash of earthy chestnuts, and dabs of a tart, funky umeboshi sauce rounded out the dish. One of the things I found remarkable about Anderson's cooking is that while his combinations are unorthodox, they aren't what draw attention. Rather, it's the intensity of flavors, the interplay of textures, the precise technique, which resonate.

Angel Hair with Crab, Calabrian Chiles and Lemon BreadcrumbsProof (Midtown Miami) (see all my pictures from Proof)

I've only been to Proof once, but am itching to get back. Another "pizza and pasta" place doesn't sound like much to get excited about, but this is a classic example of under-promise and over-deliver. The kitchen is staffed by Justin Flit and Matt DePante, alums of Bourbon Steak and The Dutch who met at the French Culinary Institute. Their pizzas are very good, with some slightly unorthodox ingredients: I particularly liked one topped with braised oxtail and black garlic, and another with spicy n'duja sausage and broccoli rabe. I'm a big fan of the salad with shredded brussels sprouts, and another with farro and duck prosciutto

But their pastas – wow. Every one we tried was excellent, but if I had to pick one it would be this tender, chewy angel hair tossed with soft sweet crab meat and calabrian chiles, topped with a shower of crunchy, lemony breadcrumbs, all doused in a rich seafood broth.

Skate Wing, Tamarind, Kumquat, Radishes, Duck Broth and Black Cardamom - Alter pop-up at Miam Café (Wynwood, Miami) (see all my pictures from the Alter pop-up)

Chef Brad Kilgore recently left J&G Grill and is working on opening his own place in Wynwood, which will be called Alter. While Alter is still in build-out mode, Brad did a series of pop-up dinners at the nearby Miam Café. I went a couple times and got to try two different menus. The most striking and memorable dish was this skate wing, given a sort of sweet-sour tamarind glaze, and served with a handful of crisp radishes and other veg. But what made the dish was the duck broth that was poured tableside – intense, aromatic, spice-laden, complex, and ultimately unplaceable – but delicious.

Uni ToastSeagrape (Miami Beach) (see all my pictures from Seagrape)

Michy's could have been the closing that broke my heart this year,[2] but for the fact that Michelle Bernstein and husband / partner David Martinez assure me it will be reopening after a thorough revamping of decor and menu. In the meantime, Michelle has opened Seagrape, a beautiful, 1950's Miami, Morris Lapidus styled space in the new Thompson Hotel in Mid-Beach. I've only been once, but the item that most impressed was an old favorite in a new guise: uni toast. Back at Sra. Martinez, it was pressed into a bocadito with some soy-ginger butter. Here at Seagrape, it's served over brioche toast slathered with fresh avocado, then draped with silky, fatty lardo and a scatter of fresh greens. It's nice to have you back.

I've said it each time I've done one of these lists, and I mean it every time: thanks to everyone who made 2014 such an enjoyable year - all the chefs, line cooks, waitstaff, sommeliers, bartenders and busboys, all the farmers, fishermen and foragers, all the winemakers, brewers and distillers, all the guinea pigs who supported our Cobaya dining experiments, and all the great people I've had the good fortune to share meals with, both at the table and vicariously through reviews, blogs, tweets and pictures. As my grandfather used to wish us each year: always better, never worse.

[1] I recently learned that a third partner is a seafood distributor, so they found a clever way to get an inside track.

[2] It's seems every year there's at least one: BoxPark, Chu's Taiwan Kitchen, Sustain, Red Light, Talula ... I feel like I should be lighting a yarzheit candle. This year that dubious honor falls to another favorite of mine, Nemesis Urban Bistro, which Micah Edelstein closed down this month.

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