Monday, March 21, 2016

best thing i ate last week: everything at the Central + Alter dinner

Don't make me pick a favorite. I just can't.

Last Tuesday was the second collaborative dinner hosted at Alter restaurant by Chef Bradley Kilgore. This time, he brought in Chef Virgilio Martinez of Central in Lima, Peru. These kinds of team-ups can be something of a crap shoot for the diner: even with talented chefs, it's unpredictable how effectively their styles will mesh, or how well someone's cooking may show on the road.

Yet this dinner was so in tune that for most of the night I couldn't tell who had cooked which dish, other than that Virgilio's sometimes had a tell: if I had to google an ingredient, it was one of his.[1] But regardless of the creator, everything - everything! - at this meal was exceptional. If I had to narrow it down to two:

(You can see all the pictures in this Central @ Alter flickr set.)

"Valley Between Andes" – I later figured out that Martinez's menu at Central features dishes inspired by the products of different elevations of the Peruvian topography. This one included avocado, tree tomato (a/k/a tamarillo), and kiwicha (amaranth seeds). The avocado was so creamy and rich that it almost ate like tender braised beef, napped with a tangy sauce and speckled with the nutty, quinoa-like kiwicha, with shards of translucent, herb-dotted crackers for some textural contrast.

"Fallen Tree" – Brad started with a caramelized tranche of heart of palm as the base of the dish, with the other components evoking a tropical forest floor: snails, dehydrated mushrooms, a tangle of green (seaweed?) moss, a pouffe of spring garlic mousse with pickled honshimeji mushroom "spores" poking up out of it.

But these are just examples – every course of this menu impressed. It's unusual to have so many dishes that simultaneously achieve the delicious, the beautiful, and the unexpected all at once.

[1] I.e., kiwicha (amaranth seed, a pseudocereal like quinoa), tree tomato (which I'm more familiar with as "tamarillo"), airampo (a magenta hued prickly pear fruit), chaco clay (an edible clay which apparently has been consumed since pre-Colombian times).

Monday, March 14, 2016

best thing i ate last week: razor clams and rice at Bazi "kaiseki" dinner

I was surprised when I heard that pasta master Michael Pirolo of Macchialina was opening an Asian-inspired restaurant – Bazi. Pirolo's culinary upbringing is Italian through and through. He was raised in Italy, went to culinary school in Torino, and did apprenticeships in Bologna and the Piemonte. The first kitchen he ran as chef de cuisine was Scott Conant's Scarpetta, then he went out on his own with Macchialina (originally opened with the Pubbelly boys, but from whom he split a few years ago).

I didn't see how an Asian restaurant fit with that resume and, to be very candid, figured the motivation was money rather than passion. My theory was thrown into doubt, though, when Bazi recently announced it would start doing a special "kaiseki" style dinner on Wednesday nights for up to eight people at the downstairs bar. Not that $150 per person is exactly giving food away, but considering it's for a ten-course dinner inclusive of drink pairings, tax and tip, it doesn't seem like much of a money-maker either.[1] This is the kind of thing a chef does because they really want to, and maybe because they're a little crazy.

Let's not dwell too long on how much this truly resembles a traditional Japanese kaiseki dinner (short answer: not too much).[2] Instead, let's talk about the best thing I ate last week: the clams and rice dish Pirolo served as one of the courses.

(You can see all my pictures in this Bazi Kaiseki Dinner flickr set).

In this one dish, Pirolo ties together his Italian background and his Japanese ambitions. Diced razor clams are combined with chewy but tender viaolone nano rice, all served in the clam's shell. The rice is prepared in classic "all'onda" fashion, and bound with the clams by an uni vinaigrette which further highlights the flavors of the sea. A shower of fresh lemon balm adds a bright, herbaceous, citrusy note. It's a beautiful dish.

It was a close call between this, the chicken wing stuffed with five-spiced foie gras torchon, the black cod stuffed with Key West shrimp and Alaskan king crab with a nasturtium and avocado purée, and the roasted squab served with a coconut and ginger rice fritter. If that many dishes were in the mix, that's the sign of a pretty good meal. If you're interested, maybe check it out yourself this coming Wednesday.

1200 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach, Florida

[1] Full disclosure: Chowfather and I were guests of the house for this first of their Kaiseki Dinner Series. Had I been spending my own hard-earned dollars, however, I'd still have felt this was a pretty good value. Ten courses, several featuring at least some small doses of luxury ingredients like osetra caviar, uni and foie gras. A pairing with each course by Will Rivas, the talented beverage director of Bazi and Macchialina, including cocktails, sakes (some fruit-infused in-house), smartly selected wines, a rare Japanese beer, and a couple JoJo teas. With tax and tip included. You can spend $150 on a meal in Miami and do far worse.

[2] Longer answer? To my admittedly extremely limited knowledge, most of which is derived from the gorgeous book "Kaiseki" by Yoshihiro Murata (of Kikunoi restaurant) and a couple meals in Japan, there are a few key components to kaiseki. One is the procession of courses, which typically follows a certain pattern though there is some room for variation. Another is the importance of seasonality, with dishes and presentations that attempt to capture a particular moment in time (and consequently are often locally sourced as well). Finally, and linked indelibly to the seasonality component, is the focus on the ingredients themselves; presentations and plating can be rather ornate, but the dishes themselves are often quite elemental – not so much austere as serene, if that makes any sense.

Pirolo's menu paid some heed to the traditional kaiseki progression, without being mindlessly obedient to it. He started with "sakizuke," effectively an amuse-bouche, followed by "hassun," typically an assortment of several different seasonal items, then a sashimi course. Where there are usually then a series of simmered dishes and soups, often followed by a grilled fish, Pirolo took a detour through a series of dishes that didn't really have much traditional antecedent. But whatever – they were some of the best courses of the night. I did miss one of my favorite parts of the typical progression: a rice dish, typically served with pickles and soup, as the final savory item before dessert.

But what I felt was missing more than the progression was the seasonal, local element. There were lots of  great dishes; but the ingredients were from literally all over the map, not much of it local, and not seemingly connected much to the season. Perhaps on a related note, too many dishes seemed to be more about the preparations than the ingredients themselves. For instance, with three fish used in the sashimi course, none were local and none were actually served raw: the arctic char was cured, the escolar was marinated in koji, the eel was grilled. This was also probably my least favorite course of the evening; while I have huge respect for Pirolo bringing in live eels and tackling the task of butchering and preparing them from scratch, I'm not convinced the end result is better – or more to the point, more in the spirit of "kaiseki" – than a simple preparation of pristine, fresh local fish.

Personally, I'd love to see a menu that's more about the ingredients, and less about what's been done with them. In this sense, I think Chef Kevin Cory's omakase dinners at Naoe – though he doesn't call them "kaiseki" – are actually much closer to that spirit. And if Pirolo called these "omakase" dinners rather than "kaiseki," I could spend a lot less time spinning wheels in my own head over whether that term really makes any sense here, and instead just focus on the food, which is what I'm really trying to do in this post, other than in this overlong footnote.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Cobaya Kamayan with Chef Dale Talde

We encourage chefs to think of a Cobaya dinner as a chance to do something different, something they typically couldn't otherwise pull of in their restaurants. Chef Dale Talde of Talde Miami Beach (and also of Talde Brooklyn, Talde Jersey City, Pork Slope and Thistle Hill) got the message.

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya Kamayan with Chef Talde flickr set).

We gathered in the restaurant's bar as our twenty-five guinea pigs made their way to Mid-Beach. Though Talde is inside the Thompson Hotel, it ditches the typical bland, anonymous feel of a hotel restaurant for a hodge-podge of Asian-Americana and hip-hop motifs: behind the hostess stand is a tongue-in-cheek portrait of Talde with a couple bikini-clad models all holding plates of food; one wall is covered with a street art style picture of a tangle of ramen noodles.

As we were assembling our guinea pigs, the Talde crew was getting ready for us, spreading out layers of banana leaves on one long communal table. Though Talde describes his style as "proudly inauthentic" Asian-American cooking, this was going to be a meal with a genuine connection to his Filipino ancestry: a kamayan feast.

What does that mean? From what I can gather from a few minutes of Googling, "kamayan" literally means "with your hands," and derives from a pre-colonial tradition in the Philippines of eating with one's hands. The Spaniards of course saw this as "uncivilized," and brought with them the use of cutlery. But great eating traditions don't die easily, and there is a real pleasure and sense of community in everyone literally digging into a meal with their hands. I've also seen the same thing described as a "boodle fight," referring to a Filipino military custom in the same style where soldiers and officers, regardless of rank, all eat with their hands from the same table.

So as we entered the dining room (after making sure everyone washed their hands), we found one long table covered in banana leaves, and then piled high with dinner for twenty-five. No plates, no utensils, just a lot of food – and a lot of napkins.

(continued ...)

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

first thoughts: Plant Food + Wine - Miami (Wynwood)

Skeptical. Doubtful. Dubious. Let's just say I wasn't really so sure that I'd enjoy a restaurant committed to an entirely vegan, raw menu. It's not that I'm opposed to vegetables – I love them. But as an unrepentant omnivore who cares about flavor first and foremost, I'm wary of any dogma that would keep huge categories of delicious edible things off my plate, and even more suspicious of the notion that none of the things on that plate should be cooked.

But that's the thinking behind Plant Food + Wine, Chef Matthew Kenney's new restaurant in Miami's Edgewater neighborhood.[1] Kenney is a chef and "lifestyle" guru who also runs The Gothic in Belfast, Maine as well as another Plant Food + Wine in Venice, California. He has published several books and hosts "Culinary Academies" to teach plant-based cooking techniques, all under the tagline of "crafting the future of food."

Pleasantly surprised. That's how I felt after my first meal at Plant. Despite an entirely vegan menu where no food is heated beyond 110° (and maybe even in some instances because of that commitment), the food at Plant was mostly quite delicious. Somewhat uncharacteristically for a restaurant that is in a sense defined by what it chooses not to serve, there's as much attention paid to flavor and presentation as there is to principle. And that's a welcome distinction.[2]

(You can see all my pictures in this Plant Food + Wine flickr set).

The place itself is a stunner. It's on a gigantic lot with a sprawling patio bisected by a blue-lit wading pool, surrounded by towering date palms. There's as much seating outside on the deck as there is inside the dining room, which feels open and breezy thanks to its double-height ceiling, bright white open kitchen,[3] and retracting glass doors that open the indoor and outdoor spaces up to each other.

The menu features several smaller items "for the table," followed by about eight "small plates" and around the same number of "mains," with most smaller plates priced in the low teens and larger plates hovering around the $20 mark. We ordered a couple of items from each section of the menu.

I've often puzzled over why so much plant-based food feels like penance. Vegetables can be so bright and colorful, yet so much vegan food – all the "field roasts" and "chik'n" and their ilk – looks like processed pet food. That's not the case at Plant, where vegetables are rightly celebrated.

Kimchi dumplings feature bright green translucent wrappers wrapped around a nutty filling, with even brighter beet-dyed magenta swooshes adorning the plate. I’ve gradually come around to Gael Greene’s conclusion that most foams are “insipid,” but here's one that actually tastes pointedly of ginger and contributes a nice accent to the dish. Banh mi lettuce wraps, another item "for the table," actually use deep-green collards for their casing, which are filled with a smoked chili-almond pate, crunchy napa cabbage, and slivers of pickled daikon radish and red peppers.

A sunflower caesar salad uses both crunchy romaine and peppery arugula, dressed in a thick sunflower seed dressing with a rich, tahini-like flavor.[4] Sunflower seeds play the role of croutons; briny capers even more effectively play the role of the traditional anchovies. It happens to be a great salad, mixing both bright and deep flavors and a bunch of nice textures.

A small plate of romanesco cauliflower, lightly cooked to soften its raw edge, is tossed with a tangy salsa verde, served over a rich toasted pepita cream, and laced with ribbons of preserved lime. More good flavors: but I wished it had been given another pinch of salt and that the preserved lime had more prominence.

The MK Bowl pictured at the top is listed in the “mains” – and I have to confess that while I have no opposition to salads generally, I often struggle to think of them as a main course to a meal. But this achieved a certain substantiality, combining delicate lettuces with heartier shaved root vegetables, creamy avocado, fresh sprouts, grassy carrot greens, and crunchy hemp seeds, all lightly bound with a tangy, savory lemongrass tahini dressing. I might have wished for the sunflower-chia seed “croutons” to have more crunch, instead of the texture of wet paper, but everything else here worked.

(continued ...)

Monday, March 7, 2016

best thing i ate last week: sweetbreads with tomato, fennel and pickled strawberry at Cena by Michy

The decor and menu have changed at Cena by Michy (f/k/a Michy's), but at least one thing remains the same: if there is a sweetbread dish on the menu at a Michelle Bernstein restaurant, it will be outstanding. Case in point: this sweetbread milanese, like a cloud encased in a crispy shell. It's served with a tangy sort of stew of cherry tomatoes and fennel ribbons, with a wonderful little surprise: pickled strawberries, which provide little jolts of refreshing, sweet-tart contrast.

I had been holding off on a visit to Cena because the online menu had not changed since my last visit and I was hoping for a little variety, but it turns out that's just because it's not updated in real-time. A couple other new items I really liked: croquetas of 'nduja and stracciatella, served with a romesco dipping sauce; and lurid magenta beet cavatelli with a pistachio and green almond crumble and Point Reyes blue cheese.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Cobaya SoBeWFF 2016 with Chefs Alex Chang, Andrew Zimmern, Vinny Dotolo, Jon Shook and Carlo Mirarchi

Last year, Cobaya Gourmet Guinea Pigs brought its talents to South Beach, teaming up for the first time with the South Beach Wine and Food Festival to put on a dinner together. That one worked out pretty nicely, so we decided to do it again.

This time around, Chef Alex Chang (an alumnus of Cobaya Experiment #53) of the Vagabond on Biscayne Boulevard played host, Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods made a repeat appearance, and Carlo Mirarchi of Blanca, the exceptional tasting-menu sibling to Roberta's Pizza in Brooklyn, joined us, along with Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, of Animal, Son of a Gun and several more new L.A. restaurants.

It was another great night: an ideal location in the refurbished Vagabond Hotel, some great chefs serving some great dishes, and a really nice crowd that included a lot of Cobaya veterans, as well as a good number of SobeFest attendees who were new to our little experiments. We don't really get the chance to do anything of this size (over 100 guests) on our own, so it was a great opportunity to reach a broader group.

Here's how the evening went:

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya SoBeWFF 2016 flickr set).

The festivities started with drinks at the bar by the Vagabond pool, including a concoction featuring Lustau manzanilla shery,[1] Pimm's No. 1 and grapefruit soda garnished with mint, cucumber and berries.

As the crowd gathered, bites from the chefs made their way around: from the Animal boys, crisp mini tacos filled with raw hamachi doused in fish sauce vinaigrette, with peanuts and avocado; a silky vichyssoise adorned with a citrus-cured oyster from Zimmern; shaved ribeye with black sapote and burnt eggplant folded into a nasturtium leaf, and snap peas bathed in a spicy leek oil and goat's milk from Chef Chang.

Behind the bar, a caja china loaded with glowing coals was a hint of things to come.

As the group meandered their way into the dining room, the kitchen was already busy plating the first course. Jon and Vinny led off with a dish that combined cucumber in various fresh and pickled forms, together with sweet juicy cherry tomatoes and pickled peppers, all over a pickled ramp ranch dressing and dusted with a za'atar spiced crumble. There was a great mix of fresh and tart, pickle-y flavors here, that za'atar spice blend could go on just about anything and make it great, and anyone who doesn't love ranch dressing is just missing out.

Like he did last year, Zimmern once again more than held his own among a group of incredibly talented restaurant chefs, serving what was my dish of the night: a spin on vitello tonnato that layered thin-sliced poached veal tongue over an anchovy-laden tuna and mayo dressing, paired with some bright fresh citrus, briny olives, chile oil-spiked fried capers, and delicate chickpea crackers. I said a bit more about the dish – and Zimmern's clever presentation of it – in an earlier post, when it was the "best thing I ate last week."

(continued ...)

Thursday, March 3, 2016

best thing i ate last week (feb. 15-21): beef, chimichurri, lettuce cores at Alinea Miami pop-up

There is something surreal about any dinner at Alinea, a meal which may feature edible helium balloons, bottomless plates, and desserts served right on the table. There is something even more surreal about having such a dinner in Miami.

But the surreal has become real. While their Chicago home, which opened in 2005, gets a facelift, the Alinea team has been doing a traveling road show: first a couple weeks in Madrid, and starting a few weeks ago, a run here in Miami at the Faena Hotel.

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

I was there on February 18, the day after the opening, and overall, was very impressed by how well they played for a road game. The menu included both some "greatest hits" from the Alinea oeuvre – hot potato cold potato, black truffle explosion, the bacon trapeze – as well as a few items that took inspiration from the local flavors.

From this latter category came my favorite dish of the evening, and of the week. To save a bit of the mystery of the dinner, I won't tell how the steak was cooked, other than to say that sometimes things are hidden in plain view. But I will say that the tranche of crimson-hued wagyu beef was paired with a bright tangy green emulsion inspired by Argentinian chimichurri, complemented by my favorite item on the plate: spears of crunchy, tart pickled lettuce cores, a really effective use of an unheralded and unexpected ingredient.

Although the Alinea Miami dinners have been reported as sold out for several weeks, when I checked this morning a few open spots were showing up in their ticketing system for this weekend and next. If you're intrigued, you may want to jump on those quickly.