Saturday, November 30, 2019

Cobaya Arson with Deme Lomas



Almost exactly four years ago, we did a Cobaya dinner with Chef Deme Lomas at Niu Kitchen, the small, Catalan inspired restaurant he opened with Karina Iglesias and Adam Hughes in 2014. Since that time, as Niu has continued to thrive, the team opened up Arson right down the block, a restaurant dedicated to cooking with live fire. We figured it was time for another round with Deme, and brought forty guinea pigs to Arson earlier this month.

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya Arson with Deme Lomas flickr set).


It was another great experience – interesting, delicious food all touched by the flames, with equally interesting, exciting wines supplied by Arson and Niu's wine director, GM and ringmaster, Karina Iglesias. Here's what we had:


Ajoblanco, a traditional Spanish cold almond and garlic soup, topped with shavings of dried, salt-cured red tuna, served with fresh, ripe figs and a spear of charbroiled scallion. I've always been a fan of this "white gazpacho," and this was a really nice version.


Obscenely large but thoroughly tender white asparagus were topped with charbroiled green huancaina sauce (a creamy-spicy Peruvian blend of chiles, queso fresco and cream), and toasted sesame seeds.


One of my many favorites on the menu at Niu is a dish called "Clams - Deme's Mom's Recipe." This was a variation on that theme, with the clams steamed open and doused in a chipotle chile sofrito and a charbroiled garlic aioli. I could eat these every day.

(continued ...)

Monday, November 25, 2019

some thoughts on growing a Beard (Award)

There's been some griping from some quarters – OK, from me, among others – about how Miami has been under-represented in the annual ritual of bestowing James Beard Awards. On one hand, maybe it's silly to pay any attention at all – that argument's been made pretty eloquently very recently by Ghee's Niven Patel, who always has such a good perspective on such things. But the reality is that most chefs like to be recognized for their hard work, and a Beard Award happens to be one recognition that is still regarded as valuable currency by many in the industry and in the dining public.

Much can be questioned about the Beard Awards: that the voting process, standards, and accountability remain rather opaque, that some of the regional categories tend to disproportionately favor certain cities,[1] that the awards tend to go to chefs who have been around the block a few times over fresh new talent, and have historically been predominantly white and male. But that's not my purpose here, and I'll acknowledge that the Foundation has been taking steps to try to address all those issues.

Rather, my purpose is to consider what we, as South Florida diners, can do about it. And here's a simple thing: submit a nomination form. The link is right here – James Beard Foundation - The 2020 James Beard Awards – and anyone can create an account and submit a nomination, up until December 2.

Now, let me immediately make clear that I am not suggesting any sort of balloting campaign for anyone in particular. The awards are not popularity contests and the number of nominations submitted has nothing to do with whether someone is selected. Rather, what I'm suggesting is that if there is someplace or someone that you think is deserving of recognition, you should create an account, make your submission, and maybe most important, explain why you're doing so (each submission has a box for "Why are you recommending this chef/restaurant?").

I do think these are very good times for Miami dining, and that there are many people doing great things who deserve recognition for it. And I'm concerned that one of the reasons that's not as well seen from the national perspective is that there isn't a robust enough discussion of what's happening here. So FWIW, here are my nominations (which will be submitted to the Beard Foundation without pictures, those are just for your entertainment):

Best Chef South

Niven Patel (Ghee, Erba)


Niven Patel’s Ghee is not just a “great Indian restaurant.” It’s not just a “great Miami restaurant.” It’s a GREAT RESTAURANT. Period. If there is one place in Miami that I think would stand out in any city in the U.S., this is it. But at the same time, part of what makes Ghee so special is how closely it’s tied to South Florida - all the way down to sourcing a significant portion of the menu from Niven’s family’s backyard farm in Homestead.

Traditional Indian dishes like bhel puri, pakora, chicken tikka masala and saag paneer serve as inspiration but not a straitjacket, because the menu is equally inspired by South Florida’s local products – the bhel puri is topped with fresh local wahoo, the pakoras feature calabaza or taro leaf Niven grows himself, the tikka masala is enriched with local heirloom tomatoes, the saag paneer uses backyard kale. In season, a whole section of the menu is devoted to “Rancho Patel” local fruits and vegetables. Niven’s taken the farm-to-table ethos of his former alma mater, Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink (where he was Chef de Cuisine for 3 years from 2013-2016 under Best Chef South 2010 winner Michael Schwartz) to a new level and introduced it to the vibrant, deep flavors of Indian cuisine. I love the bright flavors, fresh products, and how the menu is always in constant motion, in sync with the seasons.

The three-course family-style tasting menu (which features an assortment of dishes for each “course”) is one of the best $55 meals you will find anywhere. There is not a person I’ve recommended Ghee to or taken there that hasn’t left happy.

(continued ...)

Sunday, September 29, 2019

deep thoughts: Boia De - Miami (Buena Vista)


Earlier this week, I got to speak to a seventh grade class at North Broward Preparatory School about food blogging. A food theme runs through their entire curriculum for the year, so while they are writing their own food blogs for English class, they are also learning about food in science class, and tending an on-campus edible garden. It was a lot of fun to pass on a few nuggets of "wisdom" from my own experiences, but what was really great was hearing from the students about their own interests, projects and questions.

Of course, one of them asked "What is your favorite restaurant?" And invariably, this is the question everyone asks every food blogger. It's also a question I always have trouble answering. Because I have lots of favorites! Even if you narrowed it by category I'd still struggle, because so many different restaurants satisfy so many different cravings and moods. (I am voracious, I eat multitudes).

Having said that, I actually do have a favorite right now. And by favorite right now, I mean, if you asked me pretty much any day the past few months, "Where do you want to eat tonight?" the answer would likely be "Well, we could go to Boia De." This is a conversation that occurs frequently in our household. And frequently ends in the same place.


So what is Boia De? Maybe we should start with a related question: "What does "boia de" mean? Somehow, I got it in my head that it's an Italian expression that means "How cool!" But that translation exists only in my imagination. According to chef/owners Luciana Giangrande and Alex Meyer, it loosely translates as "Oh my!" which is much nicer than what turns up on Google Translate, which says something about an executioner?

It's perhaps appropriate that the name "Boia De" is a bit ambiguous, because the restaurant "Boia De" is itself delightfully difficult to typecast by genre. If I were to call it anything, I might go with "Italian-American," but I mean something almost the exact opposite of the checkered-tablecloth, red-sauce and mozz stereotype that phrase typically invokes. Alex and Luci mine Italian cuisine for ideas and ingredients – pastas and polenta and 'nduja and tonnato sauce – but those rub shoulders with green goddess and ranch dressing and and miso and mango. In lesser hands, this would be a recipe for disaster. But Alex and Luci know what they're doing.

(You can see all my pictures in this Boia De flickr set - over multiple visits I've now covered about 90% of the menu, though several items like the pastas change regularly).


Start, for instance, with the baked clams: tender littlenecks tucked under a blanket of spicy, smoky 'nduja sausage and breadcrumbs, torched til they're brown and bubbly, then finished with a squeeze of fresh lemon. They make for a delightful little one-bite surf-n-turf experience.


Or maybe instead a crudo? The hamachi is rich and buttery but delightfully clean and fresh, with splashes of yuzu salsa verde, ringlets of fresno chile, and briny fried capers to cut through the fattiness of the fish. It still feels kind of Italian even though nonna might disagree. Alternatively, you could go with the tuna crudo, which gets matched up in equally unorthodox fashion with a Sicilian pesto and smoky miso eggplant.

(continued ...)

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Cobaya Taymor at Three


For Cobaya Experiment #78, we had an out-of-town chef who came to Miami to immerse himself in the local flavors. For Experiment #79 earlier this month, we had sort of the converse: Ari Taymor, of Santa Monica's Little Prince, brought some Southern California to South Florida for our dinner at Three in Wynwood, where he is doing a stint as "guest chef." Two different approaches: two great meals.

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya Taymor at Three flickr set).

For someone who is still on the front end of his career, Taymor's path has already taken plenty of twists and turns. The California native was fired from his first cooking job, as an extern at Susanne Goin's Lucques, but later made his way into some of San Francisco's best kitchens – Flour + Water, Bar Tartine, as well as a half-year stint at La Chassagnette in Arles, France. Taymor returned to L.A. to open his first restaurant, Alma, in 2012. The tiny, 8-table spot started as a pop-up, and was built and operated on a shoestring. It was also beloved by critics and food media, getting named Bon Appetit's "Best New Restaurant in America" the next year. But success is a fickle mistress, and despite the accolades, the restaurant struggled financially, was beset by litigation, and had trouble filling seats, possibly a victim of the "Nobody goes there any more, it's too crowded" mentality. Taymor has spoken openly about the physical and psychological toll, too, which included an emergency room visit with a bleeding ulcer.[1]

By 2015, Alma in its original incarnation had closed. It resurfaced for a time as a pop-up in the Standard Hotel in West Hollywood, until Taymor decided he didn't want to run a hotel restaurant. So he pivoted once again. Little Prince began as a weekends-only brunch pop-up, inspired by the all-day cafés he saw during a visit to Australia, and a year later, it now has a permanent home in Santa Monica.

Clearly, Taymor is a restless spirit: who comes to Miami in the middle of the summer to cook in someone else's restaurant? But that's exactly what he did, partnering up with Three restaurant in Wynwood to do some special menus, dinners and cooking classes. Our Cobaya group had just made a  visit to Three almost exactly a year ago, where one of my culinary heroes, Norman Van Aken, cooked for us. We made a return visit to see what Ari Taymor was up to.


To start, baked oysters with braised bacon, camouflaged underneath a blanket of frothy, creamy smoked potatoes, red veined sorrel giving a pop of color and tartness.


Next, thinly shaved slivers of Col. Bill Newsom's country ham, plated with curled ribbons of cucumber, juicy melons, creamy burrata, fresh herbs and a pink peppercorn vinaigrette. This was deceptively simple – a riff on prosciutto and melon, after all – but compulsively good eating, balancing salty, sweet, fat, and acid with some vegetal crunch.

(continued ...)

Friday, August 23, 2019

Cobaya Isabela with Chef Jose Ramirez-Ruiz


Sometimes it takes an outsider to see the things you don't always see in yourself.

José Ramirez-Ruiz was a New Yorker through and through. He refined his cooking skills at some of the city's top restaurants – Per Se, Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare, Isa – before going out on his own in 2012 with a pop-up in Williamsburg called "Chez José." Chez José eventually ripened into a full-blown restaurant called Semilla in late 2014. Despite its diminutive size – there was only seating for 18 around a U-shaped counter, and the staff consisted of a grand total of two cooks and two servers – Semilla earned accolades disproportionate to its stature. Pete Wells praised its vegetable-forward tasting menus in a two-star New York Times review in early 2015,[1] Eater's Ryan Sutton issued a glowing four-star review a couple months later, naming Semilla "New York's Next Great Restaurant,"[2] Eater's Bill Addison included it in his "21 Best New Restaurants in America," Bon Appetit included it in its top 10 "Best New Restaurants of 2015," and by that fall, Michelin awarded the restaurant a star.

But Semilla was not built to last – Ramirez-Ruiz's partner Pamela Yung, who handled Semilla's highly regarded breads and desserts, left late the following year, and by March of 2017 the restaurant was closed. In the aftermath, Ramirez-Ruiz found his way down to Miami on a corporate consulting gig. Fortunately for us, he's decided to stick around for a while, and recently has devoted himself full-time to opening a new restaurant – Isabela – in Little Haiti. Earlier this month, we got him to do a dinner with our Cobaya group that provided a preview of what's to come.

(You can see all my pictures from the dinner in this Cobaya Isabela with Chef Jose Ramirez-Ruiz flickr set).

Unlike many out-of-town chefs who have rolled into Miami like emperors visiting the backwards colonies, Ramirez-Ruiz arrived with humility and curiosity:



I am often asked: Why did I move to Miami? Truthfully? It is a complicated answer... but I will say what sold me (and @madreselvamia ) on it was the #10B growing region. A region like no other in the continental USA. A place that owes nothing to the seafood, vegetables or fruits from anywhere else. A place so unique that makes you look no further than your own backyard when trying to find inspiration. A place with so much potential that I even struggle to articulate. A place that often makes me feel like I know nothing about ingredients. A feeling that I can only compare to the way I felt 18 years ago when I first stepped into a profesional kitchen and knew nothing about food. — I will most likely never know how it feels to change careers, but I will say that moving to the 305 is probably as close as I will get to start from 0. All though very challenging, I fucking love it. — Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome. - Arthur Ashe — 📸: mango/lychee, mamey/bitter nut, papaya/lime.
A post shared by Jose Ramirez (@chezjosebk) on

The result is a unique and fresh take on Miami's subtropical "local flora and fauna," as Ramirez-Ruiz puts it. He uses ingredients we're all familiar with – mangoes and papaya and plantains and yuca – but in new and inspired ways we haven't necessary seen before.



While he works on getting Isabela off the ground, a nearby space at Little River Miami played host for our dinner. I've now been here for a few different things – Eat Here Now's Friday lunches, Scott Linquist's Chivo! goat barbacoa – and while it's pretty bare-bones at the moment, the space also has some great potential. Lots of foliage from plant and floral designer Madre Selva, which keeps a studio nearby, helped soften the rough edges.





Ramirez-Ruiz started things off with a round of snacks, all brought out to the tables at once: delicate little mussels swimming in paprika-laced oil with sautéed onions, in the style of the wonderful canned seafood conservas of Spain and Portugal; flat-out delicious green olives stuffed with shrimp paste and warmed in the wood oven; rounds of fresh cheese also roasted in the oven and doused in a lemon vinaigrette, a sort of saganaki minus the flaming tableside presentation; some Wigwam country ham from Edwards Smokehouse;[3] and freshly baked sourdough bread, served with an army-green moringa butter. I've been told that moringa doesn't have a lot of flavor on its own, so maybe there was something else in here, but it had an intriguing, vegetal thing going on that I kept on coming back to for more.


I'd been to Ramirez-Ruiz's pop-up dinners at All Day and Jaguar Sun, and each time he'd served some variation on this dish: a creamy plantain soup, with melting comté cheese and crispy plantain "crunchies." It eats like a crazy hybrid of a Caribbean sopa de platano and a French onion soup, and this was possibly my favorite iteration.

(continued ...)