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first thoughts: Pao by Paul Qui in the Faena Hotel - Miami Beach

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Of the many big-name Miami restaurant openings of late, the one I've been most curious about is Paul Qui's Pao in the Faena Hotel Miami Beach. I've followed the chef since he was in the kitchen at Austin's Uchi, watched him dominate a season of Top Chef and win a James Beard Award in 2012, then go on to open both a tasting menu format restaurant (Qui) and several ragingly successful food trucks in Austin (East Side King and its sibling Thai-Kun, which was on Bon Appetit's list of best new restaurants of 2014).

Pao is Qui's first venture outside of Austin, and it's a big one: the Faena is perhaps the most ostentatious and over-the-top of many recent ostentatious, over-the-top Miami developments. The billion dollar project includes not only the hotel, where rooms start at $900 a night, but also a Norman Foster-designed condominium where units are selling for an average of $3,000 per square foot (including a $60 million sale to a billionaire hedge fund manage…

best dishes of 2015: part 3

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We're in the home stretch now. Here are the final fifteen of the best things I ate in 2015. Still hungry? Check out part 1 and part 2, and you can also see all the pictures in this Best Dishes of 2015 flickr set. This final group splits time between Miami and Northern California, starting with what was, for me, one of the most unexpectedly exciting – and unfortunately, short-lived – restaurants that opened (and closed) here in 2015.

Once again, despite the title, this makes no claim as being the "best" of anything other than the things I had the good fortune to eat over the past year. There are oodles of intriguing new restaurants just in South Florida that I've not yet made it to, or only started to get to know, much less the broader dining universe out there. These appear in roughly chronological order.


Gordita, Haitian Griots and Pikliz, Cotija, Raw Vegan Verde - Centro Taco (Downtown Miami) (see all my pictures from Centro Taco)

This Mexican-Haitian mash-up was dar…

best dishes of 2015: part 2

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Last week I kicked off part 1 of my "Best Dishes of 2015." It started with a dessert at the new Vagabond Restaurant on Biscayne Boulevard, one of my favorite new Miami restaurants, and ended with a brunch at Oakland's Boot and Shoe Service. Today, we pick up with another of my favorite additions to Miami's dining lineup, on the same stretch of Biscayne Boulevard as Vagabond, and spend some more time in Miami before a brief excursion to Chicago. Again, these are not "ranked" but listed in rough chronological order, and despite the title, make no pretense of really being the "best" of anything – only my personal favorites from a year of good eating in 2015.


Rice with Shrimp PasteCake Thai Kitchen (Miami MiMo District) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Cake Thai Kitchen)

I've often bemoaned the cookie-cutter nature of most Thai restaurants in Miami. Cake Thai Kitchen is something different: chef Phuket Thongsodchareondee, who previo…

best dishes of 2015: part 1

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With the calendar winding to its end, that means it's list season. Not Santa's list; I'm referring to the annual tradition of "best" lists among food writers. Locally, we already have "2015's Best Dishes" lists from the Miami Herald and Miami New Times, plus "Best New Restaurants" lists from both as well (Herald; New Times). In the larger universe, the New York Times' Pete Wells has his "Top Ten Dishes" and "Top New York Restaurants," Eater has Robert Sietsema's "15 Best Dishes of 2015," The Guardian has an intriguing survey of several chefs' and food writers' "favourite meals this year," and Alex Balk has an – unusual – "Top 5 Memorable Meals" list over at The Awl (#2: "Two cough drops, Hoyt-Schermerhorn stop").

Before we all get full on lists, here's mine. Unrestrained by page limits or editorial discretion, this one goes to 45 (or something around there – we…

Cobaya Niu with Chef Deme Lomas

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Much of the talk in the Miami restaurant world these days is of all the big name chefs coming into town. I'm excited about some of them too, but it's the places like Niu Kitchen that really resonate with me: small, local restaurants with a distinct focus and vision. Niu Kitchen was opened about a year and a half ago by Chef Deme Lomas and partners Karina Iglesias and Adam Hughes. The compact restaurant, shoehorned into a downtown spot next to Miami Dade College that's about twelve feet wide, serves a tight menu of Lomas' modernized takes on the flavors of the Catalan region of Spain. I've been a fan since my first visit last July.

A couple weeks ago, we squeezed thirty guinea pigs in there for a Cobaya dinner and let Chef Lomas do his thing. He went entirely off-menu for us, but still created dishes that were faithful to his idiom. It was a really enjoyable dinner. Here's what we had:

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya Niu flickr set).


To start things…

best thing i ate last week: duck leg confit at Alter

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The best thing I ate last week could easily have been the Japanese wagyu beef shabu shabu at N by Naoe which I wrote about yesterday. But as good as that was, this was still better: the duck leg confit from the lunch menu at Alter.

The duck meat is pulled off the bone and served over a pearl onion kimchi that's given an extra jolt of flavor from little "sweety drop" peppers. These bright red, teardrop-shaped chiles are simultaneously fruity and spicy, and remind me of the Brazilian biquinho peppers which Chef Micah Edelstein of the late Nemesis Urban Bistro turned me on to a few years ago. Additions of a cashew condiment and black garlic tweak the umami dial. A sheet of drisp dehydrated cabbage mimics the usual crispy skin (Hey Brad - where'd the duck skin go?). Perky pea shoots add some contrasting freshness. This was a great dish.

It can also be part of one of the best value meals in town: Alter serves a 3-course, $29 lunch which may be the most effective use of $…

first thoughts: N by Naoe Shabu Shabu - Brickell Key, Miami

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It was nearly seven years ago that I first found my way into Naoe. Back then, I had no clue what to expect, having heard nothing about the place other than its short blurb on OpenTable. The restaurant turned out to be something of a portal to Japan located in an unassuming strip mall in Sunny Isles Beach, in which Chef Kevin Cory served a bento box of kaiseki style delicacies followed by a procession of what was, at the time, the best sushi I'd ever experienced.

Since then – as Kevin recently reminded me – I was the first to write about Naoe after its move to Brickell Key three years later, and also one of the first visitors to his side venture, N by Naoe, which he opened last year alongside Naoe in an adjoining space. N by Naoe did a pretty remarkable $80 lunch service similar to the opening salvos of a Naoe dinner, presented in a multi-tiered bento box. Alas, that is what you call a "niche market."

So N by Naoe has been repurposed. Now N by Naoe does shabu shabu.

(You…

best thing i ate last week: cod confit a la catalana at Cobaya Niu

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Sometimes I will read a dish description and have no clue how it could possibly taste good. This was one of those. The chef was Deme Lomas, the spot was Niu Kitchen, which was playing host to our 58th Cobaya dinner on Monday night. The dish was cod with dry figs, roasted onions, mustard and honey. Why would anyone put all those sweet things with a piece of fish?


Shows what I know. Here, the residual saltiness of the rehydrated bacalao, all unctuous and shiny, was balanced against the sweetness of the figs and honey; the zing of mustard for a bit of contrast, a nest of golden caramelized onions as a bridge between savory and sweet. The combination of salt cod and honey actually has a long history in Catalan cooking, which is Chef Lomas' focus at Niu Kitchen. Here's Colman Andrews in his book "Catalan Cuisine: Europe's Last Great Culinary Secret":
I remember a game I used to play with friends, in younger years, of trying to invent the most unlikely or revolting-sou…

best thing i ate last week: pork braised in milk at Eating House

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As I groggily arise, still digesting last night's Thanksgiving feast (while simultaneously plotting what to do with the leftovers), it occurs to me that I'm still a week behind on "best thing i ate last week." So let's catch up.

Sometimes for no good reason, restaurants fall off your radar screen. That had happened to me with Eating House. Though I've always had good meals there, somehow more than a year had passed without a visit. I've been back in twice in the past couple months, and it's been better than ever. The old "standards" are still around – the tomatoes with coconut ice, the chicken and "foiffles" – but much is new as well, including roughly half the menu now being taken over by vegetable-centered dishes.

(You can see all my pictures from the restaurant in this Eating House 2.0 flickr set).

Many of these have been very good, like the burnt cabbage with fried garlic and egg vinaigrette, and the red wine risotto with bitt…

best thing i ate last week: Guillermo's Taco de Chicalada from Taquiza

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Before I fall a full week behind, a quick "B.T.I.A.L.W." Competition was fierce, as everyone came strong for P.I.G. 6 last Sunday, but my single favorite bite of the day was "Guillermo's Taco de Chicaladas" from Chef Steve Santana of Taquiza. I learned from masa master Steve that "Guillermo" is Izzy's Oyster chef Will Crandall; I learned from a commenter here that "chicaladas" are the tasty little bits of pork from the bottom of the pot. Topped with a roughly chopped salsa and folded into a perfect two-bite sized taquito speckled with chiles de arbol, this was a perfect little package.

Runners-up: the chitlins and chorizo paella from Edge's Chef Aaron Brooks; the miso butterscotch laquered pork belly with black olive crumble and smoked banana purée from Alter's Bradley Kilgore. And there were plenty more great things too (you can see most of them in this P.I.G. 6 flickr set and read a recap here).

Cobaya del Cielo with Chef Juan Manuel Barientos

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There are few places in the United States where you can have as varied a sampling of Latin American flavors as in Miami. And yet there are only a handful of such restaurants here that strive to operate on the higher end of the dining spectrum. Decades ago Douglas Rodriguez did it with Yuca and then Ola, and more recently, Gaston Acurio's branch of La Mar in Brickell raises the bar for Peruvian food. But these types of places are still the exceptions.

Add El Cielo to the mix. Its chef is Juan Manuel Barrientos, a 31-year old who looks like he could be half that age, but whose flagship in Bogotá, Colombia has already been recognized in the S. Pellegrino "Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants" list. His ambitious tasting menus mix traditional Colombian ingredients with modernist methods and dramatic presentations. Earlier this year, he opened another iteration here in Miami, which a couple weeks ago played host to our 57th "Cobaya" dinner.

Here's how it went…

P.I.G. 6 [Pork Is Good] - a celebration of all things pig orchestrated by Chef Jeremiah

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I'm not usually a big fan of the typical food events where a bunch of restaurants set up stations and everyone lines up to taste a bunch of tepid – usually boring – bites. "P.I.G." (i.e., "Pork Is Good"), which Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog of the gastroPod has now orchestrated for six years running, defies those generally low expectations. In fact, it's one of my favorite Miami food events of the year.

This all started back in 2009 when Jeremiah rounded up a small group of people at Harvey's by the Bay (a bar in an American Legion outpost which backs on to Biscayne Bay) and served them some chicharrones, smoked pork butt char siu bao, and a whole pig rolled porchetta style and roasted in a caja china (all the pics here; you can also see pics from P.I.G. #2, P.I.G. #4, and P.I.G. #5 – I clearly didn't read the Book of Armaments for the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch since I missed #3).

In the years since then, he's made it a collaborative thing, roundin…

best thing i ate last week: "Amazon's Tree of Life" at Cobaya del Cielo

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It was a runner-up a few months when I first tried it; it will get top billing this week. Juan Manuel Barrientos is the chef of El Cielo, a highly regarded restaurant in Colombia which last year opened a branch in Miami. JuanMa's creative, theatrical style fit well with our Cobaya thing, so we asked him to host a dinner for us.

We usually ask chefs to go completely off-menu, but I can understand why he'd include a staple from the restaurant, which he calls "Amazon's Tree of Life." Visually it's a stunner: an undulating copper frame mounted to a stone, supporting a flatbread whose surface is pocked with bubbles, almost perfectly duplicating the appearance of a baobab tree. And it's delicious too, the chewy, crusty, cheesy bread meant to be torn and dipped into a a bowl with a creamy coconut sauce dusted on top with a black squid ink powder. It was the best thing I ate last week.

(You can see all the pictures from the dinner in this Cobaya del Cielo flickr…

best thing i ate last week: pork schnitzel at Cypress Tavern

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Sometimes, change is good. A month ago news broke that chef Roel Alcudia was parting ways with The Cypress Room, which he had joined as chef de cuisine when Michael Schwartz opened the place a couple years ago. That wasn't the only change: after a bit of revamping, last week the Cypress Room became Cypress Tavern. It's not a complete gut job by any means: chef Bradley Herron, who has a long tenure with the Schwartz empire, is now manning the kitchen, and maybe 1/3 to 1/2 of the menu will still look pretty familiar. The lovely aqua banquettes are still there, but the starched white tablecloths are gone. As the new "Tavern" in the name suggests, it's been simplified and un-fussified, and happily, the prices have been notched down too.

I was in there Saturday night for dinner, and enjoyed it so much I was back for brunch the next morning. (You can see all my pictures in this Cypress Tavern flickr set). There was much that was good, but my favorite was a new menu it…

calendar highlights: Taco & Tequila Showdown 11.8.15; P.I.G 11.15.15

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You may already know that in addition to the infrequent restaurant reviews, Food For Thought also features "The Calendar" – a list of upcoming dining events that may be of interest to food-minded people. Here are a couple highlights coming up soon on the calendar:


Taco & Tequila Showdown at the Vagabond on Monday November 8 (6pm-9pm). Presented by MIAbites and The Liquid Projects, the event will pair 12 chefs creating signature tacos with 12 bartenders creating signature tequila cocktails. If you don't get into the Cobaya dinner that night, this might be a good Plan B: about half the chef participants are Cobaya alumni. Tickets ($65) available at Eventbrite.


P.I.G. 6 in Wynwood on Sunday, November 15 (3pm-7pm). This shindig in celebration of the pig, orchestrated by Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog of the gastroPod, is always one of my favorites every year. Participants this year include Kyle Foster of Denver's Colt & Gray (and before that, my beloved Talula), Craig Deih…

best thing i ate last week: chirashi style squid ink noodles at gastroPod

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Some of the most interesting meals I've had in Miami have come out of a truck or shipping container – the various reincarnations of Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog's gastroPod. Its latest iteration – a shipping container stationed on a lot in Wynwood – took a temporary hiatus for a few months on account of permitting issues, but returned this past week. A friend orchestrated a little "welcome back" dinner, and Chef Jeremiah orchestrated the menu, which included ember-cooked, tempura-fried, porcini-dusted sweet potatoes, fancy musubi with "center cut" spam, crispy nori and fish roe, and a salad featuring absinthe-cured salmon belly, among other things.

But my favorite was a pasta course of jet-black squid ink noodles tossed with braised octopus and the octopus' braising liquid, served chirashi style with ama ebi, uni, and ikura cured with sake and soy. The Italian-Japanese hybrid was the best thing I ate last week.

(You can see all my pictures from the dinner in…

best thing i ate last week: soft scrambled eggs at Vagabond

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It doesn't sound like much the way it's listed on the menu: "soft scrambled eggs, fines herbes, pecorino, evoo." It looks like even less: a shallow plate of runny eggs that might have been scooped up from some budget hotel's breakfast buffet.

Don't be fooled. This, from the brunch menu at Alex Chang's Vagabond, is luxurious stuff. The eggs are warmed through but still virtually liquid, barely forming any curds. The texture is like silk, the flavor rich and pure. A few more grace notes: a tangle of fresh herbs, a dusting of salty pecorino cheese, a drizzle of good olive oil to sort of round everything out.

I just loved this. It was the best thing I ate all week. And it's only $7. (Pro tip: Vagabond's home made English muffins make a good vehicle for scooping).

Cobaya Seagrape with Chefs Jason Schaan and Tony Velazquez

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It's hard for me to believe that it was more than four years ago that one of my favorite chefs, Michelle Bernstein, agreed to do a Cobaya dinner with us. Not that the folks who had done the eleven dinners before her were slouches, but here was one of Miami's most celebrated chefs: a James Beard award winner running one of the top restaurants in town. This, for us, was the big leagues.

Even now, with more than forty more "experiments" under our collective belts (which may be set to a wider notch these days), that dinner in the atrium of the Melin Building still stands out as one of the most memorable – not just for the food (which was excellent) but for Michelle's eagerness to do it and the grace with which it was executed.

But for Experiment #56, though we were in Seagrape, the restaurant in the Thompson Hotel that Bernstein opened last year, it would not be her dinner. Rather, the spotlight was on Jason Schaan, the hotel executive sous chef, and Tony Velazquez,…

best thing i ate last week: pasta "vongole" at Cobaya Seagrape

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A bit behind schedule here, as it's already Friday, but better late than never. Last Tuesday we held our 56th Cobaya dinner, this time with chefs Jason Schaan and Tony Velazquez at Michelle Bernstein's Seagrape in the Thompson Hotel on Miami Beach. A full update will be coming shortly, but here let me just talk about my favorite dish of the night: their pasta vongole. This was no garden variety linguine and clam sauce. Here was hand rolled garganelli nestled among a couple different kinds of clams (manila clams and venus clams), batons of salsify and roasted mushrooms, a tangle of sea beans, with a generous knob of silky, oceanic uni butter mounted on top as it was served. It was a great mix of surf and earth, and the best thing I ate last week.