Monday, February 29, 2016

best thing i ate last week: Andrew Zimmern's vitello tonnato at Cobaya SoBeWFF

Last week, for the second year in a row, Cobaya Gourmet Guinea Pigs teamed up with the South Beach Wine and Food Festival to put on a dinner together, this time at Chef Alex Chang's Vagabond restaurant in the hotel of the same name. In a repeat performance, Andrew Zimmern joined us again, and once again stole the show among a group that also included Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo of Animal, Son of a Gun and an ever-expanding roster of other Los Angeles restaurants, and Carlo Mirarchi of Brooklyn's Michelin two-star Blanca, the grown-up sibling of Roberta's Pizza.

(You can see all my pictures from the dinner in this Cobaya SoBeWFF flickr set).

Most folks probably know Zimmern from his James Beard Award winning Travel Channel program, Bizarre Foods. What they may not know is that the guy can also flat out cook. In addition to a silky vichyssoise with a citrus-cured oyster that was served as guests gathered around the Vagabond's poolside bar, he also was responsible for my favorite course of the evening: a riff on an Italian classic, vitello tonnato, done here with thin slices of veal tongue, a tangy anchovy-laden dressing, citrus segments, chile oil spiked fried capers and slivered olives for some punch, and crispy chickpea crackers for scooping.

Whenever we do a Cobaya dinner on our own, people generally know they're going to be in for something a bit different and adventurous. But seats at the SoBeWFF dinner get filled by all sorts of folks, including many who may not quite know what they're in for. So one of the highlights of the evening for me was Zimmern making sure to wait until everyone was about four bites into the dish before giving its description, and letting everyone know that he'd used veal tongue. I'd guess that about a quarter of the diners' jaws dropped. It makes me even more grateful for the support and open-mindedness of the group who come out to our regular dinners.

We had some great dishes from everyone, and I'll post more on our SoBeWFF dinner soon.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

best thing i ate last week (feb. 8-14): chow fun with braised pork and mustard greens at Talde Miami Beach

I still have little hope of keeping up with the pace of Miami restaurant openings, but lately I've made a small dent in the list. Saturday before last, I braved my way through Miami Boat Show traffic to visit Talde Miami Beach, Chef Dale Talde's new restaurant in the Thompson Hotel (OK, maybe not even so new any more - it opened in November).

(You can see all my pictures in this Talde Miami Beach flickr set).

Where its companion in the Thompson, Michelle Bernstein's Seagrape, harmonizes with the hotel's 1950's, Morris Lapidus vibe, Talde brings a little of Chef Talde's Brooklyn home base to the beach: half the seating is in a re-purposed shipping container, graffiti covers the walls, hip hop blares over the speakers. The menu is similar to the chef's Brooklyn outpost which also bears his name, and features a hodge-podge of unabashedly inauthentic "Asian-American" dishes: kung pao chicken wings, pretzel pork and chive dumplings and the like.

It's a refreshingly casual place in a part of the beach that is becoming increasingly fancy. Prices are not exactly cheap, but they aren't ridiculous either, especially the short list featured on the "Late Night Noodles" menu from midnight to 4am on Thursdays to Saturdays for the club kids crowd.

I took a spot at the small kitchen counter that lines the back of the restaurant, where I tried a few things including one real standout: Talde's chow fun with braised pork and mustard greens. The broad rice noodle is given an unusual presentation, rolled in a tight spiral and seared on its top surface, the idea being that you break up the noodle and mix it with the rest of the components at the table. It makes for a great combination of crispy and chewy. The noodle, once given some encouragement, is an effective vehicle for the flavors of the tender braised pork, a broth that's redolent of sweet soy (and possibly Chinese fermented black beans), and some pleasantly tangy pickled mustard greens that provide much-wanted brightness.

I'll be back soon to try the Benton's bacon dumplings and the Korean fried chicken with spicy kimchi yogurt.

Monday, February 22, 2016

first thoughts: Ichimi Ramen, Coral Gables

There are so many new restaurants opening in Miami these days that I have given up on the prospect of keeping current with all of them. In fact, I've somewhat happily resigned myself to the opposite: I'll just wait six months, and a good number of them will have already closed.

Still, amidst this latest wave, there are some good things happening. I was sad to see Little Bread (formerly Bread & Butter) close in Coral Gables as Chef Alberto Cabrera heads off to Las Vegas, but was happy to see a promising-looking replacement coming into the space; Ichimi Ramen. Ichimi is a ramen-ya and izakaya run by Chef Constantine DeLucia, who previously worked at Momi Ramen as well as Lure Fishbar and Estiatorio Milos. I've already been in there twice since it opened a couple weeks ago.

Like Momi, Miami's only dedicated ramen specialist, the noodles are made in-house. The prices are also close but not quite at Momi-esque levels (depending on contents, ramen bowls run $18-22),[1] though at least they take credit cards so you don't need to bring a wad of cash. The menu currently features four styles of ramen (tonkotsu, seafood, veggie, and beef brisket) as well a few cold ramen dishes. They are planning to do tsukemen (plain noodles served with an intense dipping sauce on the side rather than in broth), but it wasn't yet being served on either of my visits.

(You can see all my pictures in this Ichimi Ramen flickr set).

The first bowl I sampled was their veggie ramen, and it was great: a focused, flavorful shoyu broth (that I assume starts with a kombu dashi) stocked with shiitake and nameko mushrooms, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, and a bouquet of pea shoots and tiny greens. The noodles are simultaneously hardy and supple, with a nice spring to them. It brought back memories of one of the first and still best bowls I had at Momi, a vegetarian ramen I've never seen on the menu there since. I've also tried Ichimi's tonkotsu ramen, which was good but not a show-stopper: the slabs of pork belly were delicious, but the broth lacked that lip-sticking unctuousness that typically characterizes the long-cooked pork bone elixir.

Ichimi also offers a pretty extensive menu of "izakaya" type small plates, most of which are much more ambitious and chef-y than your average izakaya. Maybe the best example is this "uni taco," which cleverly uses a tempura-fried nasturtium leaf as the tortilla, then tops it with a slice of wagyu beef, a couple lobes of tender, bright-orange sea urchin, and a spray of shiso "air, with a final garnish of purple micro-shiso and more pea tendrils.

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Sunday, February 21, 2016

WeWork Miami & Food Panel Discussion - Monday February 22 6pm

Pop-up panel alert! Come out on Monday and see me do my best to moderate a discussion about the present and future of Miami's food and cocktail world with some of my favorite people in the business: Brad Kilgore of Alter, Steve Santana of Taquiza, Jessica Sanchez of Loba, and Elad Zvi of Bar Lab and Broken Shaker.

We'll all be at WeWork, located at 350 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach, on Monday February 22, starting at 6pm through 8pm. Please RSVP to if you're coming, thanks.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

best thing i ate last week (feb. 1-7): salsify, nori, black trumpets at Aubergine, Carmel-by-the-Sea

This was not an easy one. The fact is, I had two exceptional meals back-to-back during our most recent brief visit to the west coast. In Carmel-By-The-Sea, we went to Aubergine, where Chef Justin Cogley does some masterful things with both local products like Monterey Bay abalone and exotica like insanely marbled Hokkaido beef, all in an elegantly restrained, almost Japanese style.

The next day, after dropping Mrs. F at the airport (she was off to another conference in San Diego) and visiting Frod Jr. in Berkeley, I still had several hours to kill before a red-eye flight home. So I'd booked an early seating at Michael Tusk's Quince in San Francisco, and proceeded to have one of the most indulgent, pleasurable, flat out smile-inducing dinners I've had in recent memory.

(You can see all the pictures from these two great meals in this Aubergine - Carmel flickr set and this Quince - San Francisco flickr set).

Both experiences are worthy of further thoughts (I've been jotting down notes), and any of about a half dozen or more dishes from the two nights could easily go here. So I've opted for the one that was the most unexpectedly good: a baton of Belgian salsify served at Aubergine, roasted until it had gone slack and almost sticky, shellacked with a dark, dense purée of nori and trumpet mushrooms, all adorned with a spray of fresh, grassy chickweed. There was just such a beautiful intensity and purity to the flavors here, an unexpected beauty in fairly simple ingredients.

Ask me another day, and I might instead single out that incredible Hokkaido beef dish, or Aubergine pastry chef Ron Mendoza's beautiful combination of chocolate, walnut, fermented pear ice cream, Amaro Nonino, and wood sorrel, or from Quince, a beautiful dish of caviar, uni and julienned apple, or the zenned-out bliss triggered by the combination of truffle-shrouded pork tortellini and old Burgundy.

Monday, February 15, 2016

travelogue: three days of dining (and other things) in Louisville, Kentucky

We finished 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. We started 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky. Of our three-stop Southern road trip, Louisville was the only city I'd visited before. In fact I'd been there a few times, but only on work-related matters, and never saw much other than the New Albany, Indiana courthouse (just on the other side of the Ohio River) and my hotel.

That hotel, though, was a pretty special one. The 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville is very possibly one of the greatest places I've ever stayed.[1] Its name is not just a marketing ploy: the basement is a gallery dedicated to 21st century art featuring both rotating exhibitions and selections from the hotel's own collection, and the focus on contemporary art permeates the entire space.

In addition to the gallery downstairs, artworks are incorporated throughout the property. Their signature red penguins (originally a commissioned art work for the 2005 Venice Biennale created by Cracking Art Group) lurk everywhere (and the staff regularly moves them around, so that you may exit your room in the morning and find one staring at you). The area in front of the elevators features an interactive digital video installation called "Text Rain" by Camille Utterback, in which letters cascade down upon a projected silhouette of the people standing in front of it. A chandelier festooned with menacingly pointed manicure scissors hangs in an upper floor common space.

(You can see all my pictures of the hotel in this 21c Museum Hotel flickr set).

The 21c also has a great restaurant – Proof on Main. During my earlier visits, the chef was Levon Wallace – who recently left Louisville to open a Cochon Butcher with Donald Link in our last stop, Nashville. The Proof kitchen has since changed hands a couple times, first to Michael Paley (who recently moved on to Austin, TX to open Central Standard), and now is run by Mike Wajda. Despite all the turnover, it's as strong as ever.

The food at Proof has a southern accent, but not an overwhelmingly strong one: enough that you can tell where it's from. It's also picked up several other curious inflections along the way: Chef Wajda plays around with Korean, Caribbean, even North African flavors, but the patois somehow feels natural, not contrived.

These "roasted bones" are a good example. It seems like 90% of the bone marrow dishes I see on restaurant menus simply recite the Fergus Henderson liturgy of parsley salad and coarse salt. Here, instead, Wajda brushes the bones with an XO butter, then plates them with an assortment of pungent house-made kimchis. There's a subtle nod back Fergus' way with a light salad dressed in a sesame miso vinaigrette, but also a bunch of strong, assertive flavors to play against the sticky richness of the marrow. It was an outstanding dish.

(All my pictures from the restaurant are in this Proof On Main flickr set).

Other appetizers are equally creative, like a sweet potato pop-tart with a chicken liver pâté "frosting" and a sprinkle of crispy cracklings, which was a hit even among the non-offal fans at the table. Even the more traditional stuff, like a smoked catfish dip or the house-made charcuterie, is well done and tasty.

I'm accustomed to a fall-off from the appetizers to the mains, but that wasn't the case at Proof. In fact, even a potentially nebbish dish like a stuffed chicken was done exceptionally well. This hen roulade (the bird came from Marksbury Farm in Lancaster, Kentucky) was one of the best iterations I've ever had: flavorful, juicy chicken, crisp skin, a savory smoked pork stuffing, a dappling of jus, some roasted and fresh winter vegetables underneath. The "hog and dumplings" was also great, a Caribbean -Southern hybrid with a brightly jerk-spiced pork sausage ragu topped with big puffy featherweight dumplings that were like oversized gnudi.

Pecan pie can be cloyingly sugary, but Proof's finds a nice balance with a shot of Kentucky bourbon for a bit of an edge, and a scoop of buttermilk gelato for some creamy tang. If that's not sweet enough for you, every dinner finishes with a big pouf of pink cotton candy.

While many hotel restaurants mail it in for breakfast, we ate well in the mornings at Proof too, like their southern take on eggs benedict with a cornmeal biscuit, country ham and red-eye hollandaise, and an inspired smoked salmon and egg salad sandwich on everything-spice brioche. The bar at Proof also lives up to the name, and stocks one of the broadest – and most fairly priced – bourbon selections I've encountered, some of which can be sampled in themed tastings like the "Bottled In Bond" flight.[2]

Proof On Main
702 West Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky

The following day featured more bourbon, as we started the morning at the Frazier History Museum down the street. In addition to a nice Lewis and Clark exhibition (I am a sucker for things Lewis and Clark related), there was also an exhibition on Prohibition and Kentucky, sponsored by the (completely impartial) Kentucky Distillers Association. It featured some great pieces of temperance propaganda, like this "Moral and Physical Thermometer" of temperance and intemperance. Clearly, the descent is quick from idleness and peevishness to suicide, death and the gallows. It was also interesting to see the federal prohibition permit issued to Frankfort Distillery, then the producer of Four Roses Bourbon, which allowed it to be one of the few distilleries that could continue selling bourbon for "medicinal" purposes throughout prohibition.

The exhibition makes a pretty compelling argument that prohibition was counter-productive in many ways: it depressed the economy, encouraged excessive illicit drinking, fostered organized crime, and overtaxed the court and penal systems, which spent an overwhelming proportion of their resources dealing with prohibition-related crimes.

All of which just made me want to have a nip of the stuff. Fortunately, we'd made arrangements to do a tour at Willett Distillery in Bardstown that afternoon.

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Monday, February 8, 2016

best thing i ate last week (jan. 25-31) - camarones en aguachile verde at Mariscos Puerto Nuevo, Seaside CA

I finally got caught up on "best thing i ate last week" and then immediately got sidetracked once again. But rebounding will be quick. We spent the weekend before last on the left coast again, as Mrs. F had a conference in Monterey. While Aubergine in Carmel-by-the-Sea would be the dining highlight of our visit (you can sneak a peek at the pictures here), that wouldn't be until later in the week and there were many meals to be had in the interim.

Lately when traveling, I've been using Google Maps as a form of aerial restaurant reconnaissance, scouring nearby neighborhoods for places that might not turn up on the usual lists. I doubt I would have found Mariscos Puerto Nuevo otherwise. But there was a promising density of Mexican restaurants in Seaside, a town just north of Monterey that felt less hoity-toity than its other neighbors, Carmel and Pacific Grove. And the menu sure looked right: scan past the usual suspects, and true to the name, there's a focus on oceanic dishes like ceviches, cocteles, and seafood soups.

(You can see all my pictures in this Mariscos Puerto Nuevo flickr set).

Like these camarones en aguachile verde: sweet raw shrimp, swimming in a bright green sauce rippling with citrus and chile, simultaneously cool and spicy. More freshness from some cubed cucumber suspended in the marinade. A few slices of dead-ripe, creamy avocado. This, along with a crisp tostada topped with octopus ceviche, was a pretty perfect lunch.

Mariscos Puerto Nuevo
580 Broadway Avenue, Seaside, California

Saturday, February 6, 2016

travelogue: three days of eating (and other things) in Nashville,Tennessee

My first report from our Southern road trip started with three days in and around Memphis, Tennessee. From there we hit the road to visit another city I'd never seen: Nashville. The contrast is striking: while Memphis feels a bit stuck in time, Nashville is booming. The city is experiencing rapid job and population growth, is filled with shiny new public works projects like the massive Music City Center, and the skyline is dotted with as many construction cranes as Miami in the throes of a building craze.

I was amazed to hear from one of our Uber drivers that the East Nashville neighborhood of our (pretty fabulous) AirBnB was, just five years ago, one of the roughest parts of town. You would never know. Now, it's filled with charmingly restored bungalows, third-wave coffee houses, boutique clothiers, a butcher shop, and several restaurants.[1]

After three somewhat BBQ-intensive days in Memphis, we were ready for something different. Happily, a place within walking distance of our home base offered just that: Little Octopus.

The restaurant is the product of husband-and-wife team Sarah and Brad Gavigan, who had previously used the space to run a pop-up called – appropriately enough – POP Nashville. POP was the testing ground for a ramen shop that's now made a permanent move to another location called Otaku Ramen (which we also visited, more below), and also hosted guest dinners with folks like Dominique Crenn (Atelier Crenn), Andy Ricker (Pok Pok) and Ryan Prewitt (Peche). Now it houses Little Octopus, which, coincidentally, is run by a chef with some Miami roots, Daniel Herget.[2]

Little Octopus serves up a long menu of mostly small plates, the overwhelming majority of which are vegetable- and seafood-centric. They are also entirely agnostic as to culinary genre: a Mexican style ceviche spiked with Worcestershire sauce shares space with Mediterranean sardines and a congee that starts in China but ends up who-knows-where, with smoked pumpkin, durian and shiitake mushrooms (it was one of the strangest things I've eaten in a while, but good).

Some highlights: fatty hamachi, block-cut like sashimi, served with a chunky romesco sauce, burnt bread powder and cerignola olives; juicy, crisp-skinned pan-roasted chicken, served over a vibrant salsa verde with a perky herb salad; those sardines, fat and fresh, simply grilled, dusted with bottarga, and drizzled with lemon and olive oil.

While I often seek out local flavor when traveling, not every restaurant needs to bleed the terroir of its immediate surroundings. This was good, fun food, and a welcome change of pace.

(You can see all my pictures in this Little Octopus flickr set).

Little Octopus
604 Gallatin Avenue, Nashville, Tennessee

The next day we checked out the usual tourist things downtown, including a peek at Ryman Auditorium and taking in a little honky-tonk at Robert's Western World. The highlight for me was Hatch Show Print, a letterpress print shop dating back to 1879, still operating and now situated inside the Country Music Hall of Fame. Lunchtime found us in the Gulch, which everyone talks up as a booming new Nashville neighborhood,[3] and also happens to be where Otaku Ramen recently established a permanent home.

The menu at Otaku is short and sweet: basically, four types of ramen, supplemented by a couple different steamed buns as "snacks" and a few rice bowls. The ramen was quite good. I'd be torn in picking a favorite between the "Tennessee tonkotsu," which featured a hearty, creamy pork bone broth along with confit pork, woodear mushrooms, black garlic oil and a runny egg; the restorative paitan ramen featuring a rich, cloudy chicken stock with chashu and greens; or the more traditional shoyu ramen with a limpid golden-brown chicken and dashi broth base.

For an extra $6, a lunch "set" will get you a bun and an "add-on" to your ramen bowl (i.e., an extra egg, a spice "bomb," or some karashi takana), which is money well spent. The hot chicken bun was pretty much a perfect little snack, the puffy clamshell bun holding a slab of juicy, spicy chicken along with some Kewpie slaw and a couple sweet dill pickles.

(You can see all my pictures in this Otaku Ramen flickr set).

This was an ideal lunch for a cold, blustery Nashville day.

Otaku Ramen
1104 Division Street, Nashville, Tennessee

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