Saturday, December 31, 2016

best dishes of 2016: part 3

We're coming in for a landing here – the final segment of my Best Dishes of 2016 (you can read Part 1 and Part 2 here).

(You can see pictures of all of them in this Best Dishes of 2016 flickr set).

pan con tumaca - Alter
Let me start here with the kind of superlative I'm usually loathe to state: Brad Kilgore's Alter was my favorite restaurant of the year, and for my money, the best restaurant in Miami right now (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Alter). Brad's cooking is creative, smart, beautiful, lush without being overly heavy, and most important of all, flat out delicious.

Now a year and a half in, he's not afraid to change things up either. The dishes that appear here were from the last lunch service at Alter on October 1 (partly a result, I have to imagine, of the attention drawn by Brad's newest project, Brava at the Arsht Center). Then last month, Alter quietly switched its dinner service to a predominantly tasting-menu format, with either a 5-course $69 or 7-course $89 options, and only a very abbreviated list of a la carte alternatives. And now another new piece, just added in the past few days: a more casual a la carte menu for the no-reservations outdoor bar area.

A recent twitter exchange hit on a nugget of truth: more often than not, when a dish is "revisited" or "reinvented" (or worse, "deconstructed"), the end result pales in comparison to the original.

The classic Spanish snack, pan con tumaca (a/k/a pan con tomate or pa amb tomàquet), is a simple thing: grilled or toasted bread, rubbed with raw garlic and tomato, drizzled with olive oil, and sprinkled with salt. And yet with the right ingredients – crusty bread, ripe juicy tomato, fruity peppery olive oil – it is magically good, and difficult to improve upon.

The version I had this weekend at Alter, though, manages it. A thin plank of sourdough, golden on its surface but with still a whisper of tenderness at its center. A daub of tomato butter, warmed with Aleppo pepper. Soft, crushed cherry tomatoes, bleeding their juices. Slivers of pickled garlic, as thin as Paulie cut in prison. Red vein sorrel – pretty, sure, but also providing a bit of grassy, tart contrast.

potato purée, smoked cod - Alter
The same lunch featured another successful "reinvention" – this incredibly luxurious version of brandade. The base of the dish was a rich, Robuchon-esque potato purée, enriched with local burrata (presumably from Mimmo's Mozzarella), and topped with flakes of silky smoked black cod, crisp puffed potatoes, and sweet-savory onion jam.

steelhead roe, maple cream, chive, crispy crepe - Willows Inn
One of my all-time favorite meals was a visit to Blaine Wetzel's Willows Inn, off the coast of Washington State on tiny Lummi Island. I was thrilled to have an opportunity to make a return visit in October (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Willows Inn). Sometimes those magical experiences are like lightning in a bottle, never to be captured again. But the second time was every bit as good, maybe better, than the first. Wetzel is a special chef and this is a special place.

There's nothing particularly showy or ostentatious about chef Blaine Wetzel's cooking. Quite the opposite, he willingly sets his ego aside and let the ingredients take center stage. That's not to diminish the skill with which he handles the wonderful things he finds in this little corner of the world, but rather to say that he really knows how to tell a story of time and place through a meal, eschewing unnecessary embellishment in favor of clarity.

An old favorite: a fragile, crisp crepe shell encasing steelhead roe and a maple cream, capped with finely snipped chives on the ends. This is just perfect. 

smoked black cod doughnuts - Willows Inn
Followed by a new (for me), perfect bite: puffy, savory doughnuts, filled with silky smoked black cod, and sprinkled with sea salt and dried seaweed. I could eat a dozen of these.

herb tostada - Willows Inn
With the sun setting over the Rosario Strait outside, there was another burst of color at our table: what Wetzel calls an herb tostada. The "tostada" is a mustard green leaf, fried in a delicate tempura style batter. It's spread with an oyster and herb emulsion, and then then topped with an assortment of vividly flavored leaves and flowers: nasturtium, shiso, basil, mint, brassica flowers, and more. It's incredibly delicate but intensely flavored, with each bite yielding a different surprise. This is a beautiful, wonderful dish.

breakfast spread - Willows Inn
One final thought. If you go to Willows Inn, you'll likely stay at Willows Inn, and if you stay at Willows Inn, a word of advice: don't skip breakfast. It is outstanding. Served family style, the lineup varies from day to day. Ours started with some fresh, luridly magenta-hued plum juice, served in a coupe glass, followed by some local doughnut peaches with creamy fresh yogurt topped with toasted hazelnut butter. Then a really glorious breakfast smorgasbord: a runny soft boiled egg; a pile of buckwheat crepes; fat slices of gravlax with fresh farmer cheese; house-smoked bacon, pancetta, and an aged, spice-rubbed cheese; kale wilted in flaxseed oil with coarse salt; sweet plum jam, tangy late-season rhubarb compote, silky fig custard drizzled with honey; a fat slab of creamy butter. Assemble as you wish. I can't imagine a better send-off.

aji chopped with ginger and scallion - Myumi
Myumi is not your typical sushi bar (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Myumi). In fact, it's a truck – a converted FedEx delivery truck, currently stationed in a lot in Wynwood. From that truck, they serve an omakase only (chef's choice) menu with only two choices: do you want to spend $40 or $60? The omakase-only format means they know exactly what they need to buy, so they buy some very good stuff: fish and shellfish straight in from Japan, uni and ikura from Alaska, tuna from Ecuador. Some items get just a brush of shoyu, others more elaborate garnishes.

Maybe my favorite bite from my last visit was this nigiri of aji, the pleasantly oily, fatty fishiness of the minced horse mackerel counterbalanced by the zing of ginger and scallion, then topped with toasted sesame seeds.

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Friday, December 30, 2016

best dishes of 2016: part 2

It's a tradition, here and everywhere else in the known universe, to do year-end "best of" lists. It's cheesy and facile, but it's also a good opportunity to reflect on the year that's passed – the highs and the lows. In a year that had a brutal number of untimely demises, the Miami restaurant world had some as well. The first four dishes in this Part 2 of my Best Dishes of 2016 (click here for Part 1) were all served at restaurants that are no longer with us.

(You can see pictures of all of the dishes listed in this Best Dishes of 2016 flickr set).

vitello tonnato - Andrew Zimmern at Vagabond Cobaya / SOBEWFF dinner
The story picks up here in late February with our second Cobaya dinner in conjunction with the South Beach Wine and Food Fest, which was hosted by Alex Chang at the Vagabond (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from the Cobaya / SoBeWFF dinner). Chang and the Vagabond parted ways several months ago. He's now back out in Los Angeles but still has some Miami connections: he'll be heading up the new Broken Shaker / Freehand restaurant in L.A., The Exchange. But it was actually Andrew Zimmern's dish that was one of my favorites of that meal, and of the year:

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.


One of the really great things about this event was to see the teamwork of the chefs and their crews in the kitchen. As Carlo Mirarchi and his pastry chef Sam Short started to plate their dessert, everyone else jumped onto the line to help. The end result was outstanding: a nutty, burnt lemon cake, surrounded by a couple globes of coconut "fluff," with puddles of fragrant meyer lemon curd, a sort of celery jam, and sweet poppy seeds. Too often, these savory-leaning desserts feel contrived; but here, everything improbably made perfect sense together.

sweetbread, tomato, fennel, pickled strawberry - Cena by Michy
Another casualty of 2016: Michelle Bernstein's Michy's, which last year renamed itself Cena by Michy (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Cena). She's still plenty active and engaged, between Crumb on Parchment, a Michy's pop-up for Art Basel, TV gigs, and her work for Common Threads, but it is a real loss to Miami that Bernstein closed what has been one of the city's best restaurants since it opened ten years ago. Nobody cooks foie or sweetbreads like 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.

clams and rice - Bazi
Michael Pirolo's Bazi, a high-end Asian venture for the chef whose Italian restaurant Macchialina is one of my favorites on the Beach, wasn't around long enough for me to really mourn its closing (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Bazi). Truth is, I only got there once, for a multi-course "kaiseki" dinner he did for a small seating at the bar. There were several very good dishes, and one in particular stood out.

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). Instead, let's talk about the best thing I ate there: the clams and rice dish Pirolo served as one of the courses.

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.

valley between Andes | avocado, tree tomato, kiwicha - Alter / Central dinner
Many of the best things I ate this past year were found in Miami, though not necessarily from Miami chefs. Here's another from an Alter collaborative dinner, this time with Virgilio Martinez of Peru's Central (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from the Alter / Central dinner).

"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 | heart of palm, snails, fungi, moss, spores - Alter / Central dinner
While the Alter dinners are collaborations, Brad Kilgore and the visiting chefs tend to alternate courses rather than create dishes together. Even so, sometimes the inspiration of working together can cause the identities of each chef to fade into the background. I would have been hard pressed to know if this was Kilgore's or Martinez's dish if I hadn't been following the back-and-forth cadence of the menu.

"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.

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Thursday, December 29, 2016

best dishes of 2016: part 1

2016. Stick a fork in it. Put it on a boat, light it on fire and send it out to sea. Let me join in the chorus of those who wish this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year a hearty fuck you and good riddance.

In the greater world, 2016 was lousy. So lousy that it often makes talking and writing about the food world, the way I usually do here, seem pretty trivial. But that food world can be a little corner of joy and connection, a place where people aim to make each other happy – and I suspect we can all use some of that. I've had more than my fair share of meals that made me happy this past year, and I'm incredibly grateful for the people who made them and the people with whom I got to share them. Here, then, are the best things I ate over the past year.

Despite that word "best," I make no pretense of this being any sort of objective listing, only my personal favorites of the places I had the good fortune to visit in 2016. They are not ranked, but rather are listed here in roughly chronological order. For ease of digestion, I'll be breaking this up into three parts.

(You can see pictures of all of them in this Best Dishes of 2016 flickr set).

Benton's ham brushed with coffee vinegar - Husk Nashville
My best dishes of 2016 list actually starts with New Years' Eve of 2015, which found us in Nashville, celebrating in style at Sean Brock's Husk (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Husk Nashville):

Husk's NYE menu was a three-course affair which offered about five choices for each course. Before those arrived, though, we were brought an amuse bouche of thinly sliced Benton's country ham, unadorned but for a brush of coffee vinegar. Allan Benton's hams are pretty magical on their own, and the coffee vinegar offered the most subtle counterpoint of rounded bitterness to the salty, nutty pork. It was like an elemental version of red eye gravy, and it was a perfect bite.

Rappahannock oysters with bone marrow butter and TN hackleback caviar - Husk Nashville
Out of several really good dishes, my favorite were these roasted Rappahannock oysters, swimming in an herbaceous bone marrow butter, and topped with spoonfuls of Tennessee hackleback caviar. a great way to close out 2015.

royal red shrimp, a bisque made from their heads, rice middlins, bronze fennel - Husk Nashville
"Royal red shrimp, a bisque made from their heads, rice middlins, bronze fennel" is a really long way to say "shrimp 'n' grits." But that's OK, because it was the best version I've ever had. Royal reds are a sweet, soft deep water shrimp from east coast waters that rank among my favorite crustaceans, here doing double duty with their flavorful heads used as a base for the sauce. That deep, rich oceanic bisque was a perfect pairing with the creamy rice middlins (broken rice grains with a texture much like corn grits).

roasted bones, XO butter, kim chee, radish, lettuces, sesame miso vin - Proof on Main
From Nashville we moved on to Louisville, home of one of my favorite hotel / restaurant combinations: Proof on Main in the 21c Museum Hotel (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Proof on Main).

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.

carpaccio: short rib, pear, asiago - gastroPod
After our trek through Memphis, Nashville and Louisville, I got back home in time for a brunch collaboration between two of my favorite Miami chefs, Jeremiah Bullfrog of the gastroPod and Kris Wessel, last seen at Oolite and the beloved Red Light, and now working on opening a barbecue spot in Little Haiti (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from this gastroPod / Kris Wessel brunch).

The standout for me may have been the short rib "carpaccio" – thinly sliced boneless short rib cooked at low temp to bring it up to medium rare and melt all the connective tissue, brushed with warmed beef fat, and plated with slivers of fresh and dried pears, nutty asiago cheese and a drizzle of olive oil. 

tendon and conch, tardivo, pine nut, XO - Contra / Alter dinner
For the first of several collaborative dinners hosted by chef Brad Kilgore at his restaurant, Alter, in Wynwood, he teamed up with Fabian Von Hauske and Jeremiah Stone of New York's Contra. It was an auspicious start, and these were some of the best meals I had all year (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from the Contra / Alter dinner).

Dish of the night? For me, it was this combination of beef tendon and conch in a pool of creamy, nutty sauce, given funky depth by XO sauce and bitter contrast with sprigs of radicchio tardivo. It was a great, unexpected combination of flavors, but even more so was all about the unusual, exciting textures of the components: the gelatinous tendon, the spingy conch, the subtle crunch of the radicchio, the creamy sauce.


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Monday, December 12, 2016

Cobaya Smokers with Chefs Andres Barrientos and James Bowers

We've been on a run of fancier Cobaya dinners lately, inside swanky South Beach hotels and other posh places, some with some very well known chefs. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but for Experiment #67 we were looking to get back to our roots a little bit: a more casual dinner with some guys you may never have heard of, at a place you might not know.

Miami Smokers is a butcher shop and sandwich shop (they call it an "urban smokehouse") in a nondescript stretch of Little Havana run by Andres Barrientos and James Bowers. You may have never been in there, but if you've been eating around Miami for a while, you may well have already sampled Miami Smokers' bacon, which they supply to several local restaurants. They also produce a few different kinds of salumi, several sausages, some other charcuterie items, and a small supply of fresh pork cuts, which come from heritage pigs they're raising at a farm in Clewiston, Florida. They turn out a really nice selection of sandwiches from their products, including a great version of a classic Cubano, which are also now available at the American Airlines Arena.

After they recently expanded their place on 27th Avenue to add more seating, we talked to them about using that extra space for a Cobaya dinner where they could spread their wings a little. Here's what they came up with – a very pork-centric menu modeled after the Cochon 555 events which celebrate heritage pigs by using every bit of them possible.

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya Smokers with Andres Barrientos and James Bowers flickr set).




They started everyone off with a self-service charcuterie bar, featuring several of their house-made products: a couple different kinds of cured and smoked hams, a silky coppa, a couple different dried sausages. These were accompanied by a complimentary cocktail with a frothy egg-white crown, which struck me as like a whiskey version of a pisco sour.



As everyone found their way to a seat, Andres and James made their introductions and talked to the group about what they do at Miami Smokers: the focus on making everything in-house, using local products and heritage breeds. It's a common refrain these days, but these guys really seem to be walking the walk.



To start things off, a little amuse bouche with some local flavor: bacon croquetas, warm and oozy and barely holding together, served over some house-made guava jam.

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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

first thoughts: Olla - Miami Beach


I have always had a particularly soft spot in my heart for good Mexican restaurants. I'm not talking about taquerias, though I have another very soft spot for those too. Rather, I mean higher end restaurants that treat Mexican cuisine with reverence and genuine curiosity rather than an excuse to blanket everything in melted cheese and decorate with piñatas and sombreros. I don't remember much about my long-ago college years, but I fondly recall such a place on the outskirts of Atlanta called Mexico City Gourmet.[1] Even after a couple decades, I can still taste in my mind the outstanding duck fajitas they made at a spot called Las Puertas on Giralda Avenue in Coral Gables, and the gorgeous chiles en nogada that would occasionally turn up as a special.

So when I saw a preview menu for Olla, a new restaurant which opened last week from chef Scott Linquist (who also runs Wynwood's Coyo Taco), I was pretty excited. Far from the garden variety selection of tacos, burritos and enchiladas, here's something creative and different that explores the variety of flavors of Mexico: chapulines and huitlacoche and menudo, a kaleidoscope of chiles, four different kinds of moles. Yes, I could really get into this.

We popped in at noon this past Sunday, just as they were opening the doors, to try it out for a pre-Art Basel brunch.[2] (You can see all my pictures in this Olla Miami - South Beach flickr set).


The menu leads off with several "tarros," or jars, with a variety of different layered compositions inside. You hear so often these days about dishes "designed for sharing," when they are really nothing of the sort – either a few measly bites, invariably in a number not divisible by the number of diners at the table, or something so preciously constructed as to be impossible to split. These tarros are truly designed for sharing, and do it well.

The "remolacha" has cubes of garnet and golden beets nestled over a walnut cream, topped with jewel-like pomegranate seeds and toasted walnuts, served with spears of pale endive. Scoop some into an endive spear; crunch; repeat. I liked how the combination of walnut and pomegranate echoed the traditional toppings for that chiles en nogada dish ingrained in my memory so many years ago.


Maybe even better was the "ahumado," with hot smoked salmon, chunks of boiled egg, crema, a dark green poblano-tomatillo salsa, and a dollop of salmon roe, with soft toasted bolillo bread soldiers for dipping.


Another section of the menu is given over to masa in various forms (supplied, I believe via masa maestro Steve Santana of Taquiza). We tried the gordita, similar to a Colombian arepa, split and stuffed with duck carnitas rubbed with pasilla Oaxaca chiles, and sauced with an orange-kumquat marmelada which ran a little too sweet for me. There's also a sweetbread sope, a skirt steak huarache, and a chicken tamal with mole coloradito.


"Olla" means "pot" in Spanish, and another section of the menu is given over to more than a half-dozen different dishes all served up in this fashion. Some are stews, like this rich, sticky menudo chock full of tripe, pork, and hominy in a red chile broth, topped with a fried egg and a garnish of chicharrones. There's also frijoles charros – cowboy beans – enriched with pork belly and cheek. There are also vegetables dishes, like huitlacoche (corn fungus) with wild mushrooms, toasted garlic, arbol chiles, queso fresco and epazote; and esquite, seared corn with the typical Mexican accompaniments of morita chile, mayo, cotija cheese and lime.

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