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 Paste – Cake 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 previously worked at Makoto, serves fresh, vibrant Bangkok style street food unlike what you'll find pretty much anywhere else in town. I'll mention two dishes, since my favorite (the rice with shrimp paste) is no longer on the menu.
Let's start by talking about their pad thai (top center). This is a dish I usually order for the kids. I've never experienced one I liked, usually finding it sticky, sweet and insipid. Cake's version is revelatory: smoky crushed dried chilies, tangy tamarind, funky dried shrimp, briny head-on tiger prawns, savory ground peanuts, crisp fresh bean sprouts all jockeying for attention. Several of the components are nestled into corners of the container, requiring some last-minute DIY assembly. Toss it all together: now, the dish makes sense.
The rice with shrimp paste (top right) is another DIY project, and another favorite of mine. The low-tide funk of shrimp paste permeates the rice, which you toss with cubes of rich, salty-sweet pork belly, shredded omelet, crisp dried shrimp, bits of tart green mango, slivered raw shallots, fresh chilies, and a squeeze of lime. It's a great dish.
Royal Red Shrimp, Florida Seaweeds, Beef Tendon, Chicken Jus; Elderflower, Reduced Whey, Cucumber, Tomatillo – Cobaya Chang at Vagabond (Miami MiMo District) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from our Cobaya dinner with Chef Alex Chang)
Foraging is not exactly a new thing – the influence of Rene Redzepi's Noma has turned chefs around the world into hunters and gatherers – but it's still not found its way into many Miami restaurant kitchens. Chang is looking to change that: here, he dusts royal red shrimp with dried seaweeds (foraged from along Key Biscayne) to bump up those oceanic flavors. The shrimp were served over a verdant sea purslane purée (another foraged ingredient), together with speckled lettuce leaves, crispy puffed beef tendon for a bit of crunch, and a reduced chicken jus for just a hint of richness. This was another great dish.
I've been pretty consistently wowed by the desserts at Vagabond (Chang doesn't have a pastry chef and does the desserts himself), and this was no exception: a creamy ice cream of reduced whey infused with elderflowers, together with a bright green cucumber granita, a sweet, tangy, just slightly vegetal tomatillo jam, and a sprinkle of elderflowers over the top. This is the kind of dessert I love: bright and refreshing, not too heavy, not too sweet, with a great contrast of textures.
Kanpachi Sushi – Myumi (Wynwood Miami) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Myumi)
Myumi is not your typical sushi bar. In fact, it's a truck – a converted FedEx delivery truck, stationed in a lot in Wynwood when I visited (it's since hooked up with the Wynwood Yard project and is working on a brick-and-mortar location) – serving an omakase only sushi menu. Myumi's rice was quite good: it holds together without being gummy or clumpy, preserving the distinct feel of each individual grain. And the fish is very good by Miami standards. I was particularly struck by the silver-skinned, pink-fleshed kanpachi (amberjack), dabbed with spicy, zesty yuzu kosho, which had a certain "snap" to the flesh.
Spaghetti Vongole – gastroPod (Wynwood Miami) (see all my pictures from gastroPod)
After dinner at Myumi, I popped next door to the gastroPod and had a chaser that turned out to be another of the best things I'd eat all year: Chef Jeremiah's version of spaghetti vongole. This is a product of his "Noodlehead" concept, a lineup of a few different kinds of fresh noodles that can be paired with an assortment of sauces, broths and other accompaniments. The "vongole" was a sort of Italian / Chinese hybrid, featuring briny fresh chopped clams in an XO-like paste of spicy chiles and fresh herbs.
Arroz con Pollo – Matador Room (Miami Beach) (see all my pictures from Matador Room)
Most out-of-town chefs opening restaurants in Miami these days make some nod to the local food culture. Almost invariably, it'll be a version of a Cuban sandwich. Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Matador Room, where Chef Jeremy Ford serves as chef de cuisine, took on a different trope: arroz con pollo. The chicken stock in which the rice is cooked is amplified with kombu; a squeeze of lemon adds that trademark JG brightness to what can often be a heavy dish. And a topping of crispy shards of chicken skin adds textural contrast, and, well, delicious chicken skin. This is a classic dish that's been reinvented to great effect.
Pork Tonkatsu Sandwich – Vagabond Restaurant (Miami MiMo District) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Vagabond)
This brunch and lunch menu item starts with a panko-breaded and fried pork cutlet in the Japanese style (most people think of sushi when they think of Japanese food, but they are also expert fryers, and not just with tempura; I'm coming around to the opinion that the Japanese just do everything better). The pork is nestled between layers of sauerkraut brightened with the citrus-chile sting of yuzu kosho. It's all squeezed between fat slices of Japanese-style milk bread (see?) that's softer and whiter than Brian Scalabrine, spread with a little spicy mustard for some extra zing, the edges of the cutlet flopping off the sides. There's a lot going on here: Is it a Japanese-style Indiana pork tenderloin Reuben sandwich? I don't know. But it was one of the best things I ate this year.
Soft Egg, Sea Scallop Espuma, Chive, Truffle Pearls, Gruyere, Caviar; Grouper Cheek, Black Rice, Shoyu Hollandaise, Sea Lettuces – Alter (Wynwood Miami) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Alter)
A "signature dish" can be both blessing and curse. It helps define a style – and bring customers in – but can also be a sort of trap, something that can never come off the menu. Alter's soft egg may be its signature dish, and I'm sure it's much too early for Brad to be worried about golden handcuffs. A fluffy, brûléed scallop mousse, bearing just a subtle whiff of the ocean (turn up the volume with an optional dollop of Florida caviar), blankets a runny-yolked, soft-cooked egg hidden within. Also suspended underneath the surface are truffle pearls and a crackly shard of gruyere cheese, like those crusty bits on the side of the bowl that are maybe the best thing about French onion soup. As signatures go, this is a fitting one for the cooking at Alter. The dish – like much of Brad's work – is a deftly executed balancing act between delicate subtlety and outright indulgence, earth and ocean, creamy and rich without being heavy and cloying. It also displays another thing I see often in Brad's cooking: the incorporation of dessert techniques into savory dishes, what with the mousse and the brûlée, inverting the past decade's trend of incorporating savory elements into desserts.
Cheeks are like the pork belly of fish: richer, fattier, moreish. This grouper cheek is meaty but giving, substantial enough to stand up to the intense shoyu hollandaise draped over it like a velvet robe. Various seaweeds and flowering dill are scattered about, like it just washed up on a black sand shore (that's actually creamy black rice). A couple twists of cucumber and thin rounds of chile pepper provide a bit of palate-cleansing snap.
Butcher's Roll Charcuterie – Quality Cobaya with Chef Patrick Rebholz at Quality Meats (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from our Quality Cobaya dinner)
After milling around at the bar while our group assembled, we were escorted upstairs to the "Bancroft Room" and its wafting meaty aromas. All the chairs were pushed back from the table so that Rebholz and crew could more easily make their way through to apply some finishing touches: cornbread cream on top of the smoked soppressata; aerated mozzarella on top of the coppa. There was plenty more: silky, intense cured foie gras torchon coated with malted barley and a mango gastrique; thin-sliced suckling pig coppa di testa and hearty headcheese; merguez "prosciutto" topped with preserved lemon; creamy calf liver mousse topped with pickled ramps; pork jowl pastrami; hickory smoked duck bacon; toasty pork jowl corn dogs with Tabasco mayo; popcorn dressed in dry-aged beef fat. It was a crazy good way to start a meal, and folks dug in pretty rapaciously.
Charcuterie Plate; Roasted Rabbit, Thai Sausage, Green Curry – Cobaya #55 @ FS65 with Chef Aaron Brooks (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from our Cobaya dinner with Chef Brooks of Edge Steak + Bar)
Chef Aaron Brooks' charcuterie platter inspired every bit as much ogling as the views from the 65th floor unit in the Four Seasons where we held our 55th Cobaya dinner. Wow. What good stuff. From top to bottom: duck heart and Sicilian pistachio terrine; smoked hock and head cheese; truffle stuffed trotter; soy cured pig's face; chicken, eel and peanut terrine en croute; and foie gras, chicken liver and truffle pâté, encased in truffle butter. These back to back Cobaya charcuterie plates were some of the best examples of the meaty art I've had.
Brooks' next course was a flashback to the Southeast Asian flavors of his first Cobaya dinner. Now I'm even more sorry I missed it, as this was probably the dish of the night for me. He stuffed a rabbit loin with bright, herbaceous Thai sausage, then served it with a tangy green curry redolent with lemongrass and makrut lime. A swirl of creamy avocado purée, a couple fresh, crisp bibb lettuce leaves, and a mound of slivered vegetables, crispy shallots and peanuts completed the dish. It was excellent.
Smoked Oyster Mushroom, Beemster Gouda Purée, Crispy Yuba, Chile Threads – Alter (Wynwood Miami) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Alter)
Vegetables are generally a strong suit at Alter, and their preparation gets every bit as much attention as the menu's animal population. Plump Florida oyster mushrooms are cured in salt and soy, then smoked and roasted for an intense umami payload. A fist of the mushrooms is plated over an equally intense Beemster Gouda cheese purée, then topped with an airy, crisp sheet of yuba (tofu skin) and some Korean chile threads. It's a great dish.
Callos a la Madrileña – Salero (Chicago) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Salero)
I am pretty much powerless when I see a tripe dish on a menu: I must order it. This is so even though I know that Mrs. F will not share it with me, having been burned once too often by my "I think you'll really like this one" pitches. (I have probably compromised our marital trust more by convincing her to try tripe dishes than if I told her I was concerned about the security of my Ashley Madison account).
Callos a la madrileña is a classic Spanish stew of beef tripe in a tomato broth, typically bolstered with chickpeas, chorizo and morcilla sausages. And I was happy to see it on the menu at Salero, a new modern Spanish restaurant in Chicago from Chef Ashlee Aubin. It's a tough thing to modernize such a dish while retaining its soul, but Salero pulls it off. The tripe is grilled, its honeycombed surface blackened with char. Fresh green fava beans substitute for the typical chickpeas. Plump chanterelle mushrooms are an unconventional addition which feel like they belong. There's spicy, soft 'nduja sausage where there would typically be chorizo. A soft poached duck egg adds yet another layer of gooey richness to that gelatinous, sticky broth. It was the best thing I ate during our last Chicago visit (and I didn't have to share a single bite of it).
Pork Carnitas – Carnitas Uruapan (Chicago) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Carnitas Uruapan)
Carnitas Uruapan is pretty much a single purpose entity: the place serves pork carnitas, and lots of it. A counter is set up with two glass cases which contain imposing heaps of slow-cooked pork: in one is the tender meat, cooked to a state of tender collapse; in the other is, well, a bunch of other stuff that used to be a pig. A brisk take-out trade moves across that counter pretty much non-stop, as a guy wielding a large knife chops the pork and hands out samples to the customers like a Jewish deli from a parallel universe.
If you sit at one of the formica booths, there will be no tortilla chips and salsa; instead, the waitress drops a towering pile of crisp, airy chicharrones on the table, along with a couple potato-filled tacos dorados. You can order carnitas tacos by the piece, but she will give you a scornful look and make clear you should be ordering by the pound instead. And at $2.50 per taco versus $8.50 per pound (which comes with a stack of warm tortillas, plus a couple salsas on the table), she's absolutely right. If you get there early enough, you can specify which parts of the pig you want; otherwise, request "mixto" and you'll be surprised by the occasional ribbons of slippery, translucent skin, and maybe odd bits of stomach, liver or possibly other miscellany. Add a couple tacos dorados de sesos (filled with creamy pork brains), and some creamy guacamole, and two people can feast like kings for well under $20.
If you missed it, please go back and check out part 1, and stay tuned for part 3; you can see pictures of all the dishes in this Best Dishes of 2015 flickr set.