Monday, January 6, 2020

deep thoughts: Silverlake Bistro - Normandy Isles (Miami Beach)

The restaurant review is having a midlife crisis. So says this guy, anyway. While there's a kernel of truth in his identification of the symptoms, I'm far less convinced of his diagnosis as to the cause. At its heart, his claim is that the problem is the restaurant review format itself:
I just want to deal with one of the genre’s challenges — namely, its form. ... To be blunt, the traditional review is a terrible vessel for inventive prose, contrarian opinions, and nuanced arguments about the mystery and meaning of food.
Well, on that point, I must beg to differ. Good writing transcends genre. Restaurant reviews are as useful a format as any to paint a portrait of of a city, as Jonathan Gold did so beautifully for Los Angeles, to explore social and cultural issues, as Soleil Ho does at the San Francisco Chronicle, to craft poetry like Ligaya Mishan does at the New York Times, to entertain and enlighten with wit and snark, like Jay Rayner does at The Guardian. The problem isn't the vessel; it's all about what you're putting inside.

Also: there's a whole universe of food writing that isn't restaurant reviews. That's not to say I believe reviews should be devoid of any discussion of broader issues – if you've been reading here at all, you know I'm prone to plenty of digressions – but rather, that there are lots of ways to talk about culture through the lens of food, reviews being just one of them.

Also, also: I am perhaps one of a dying breed who believe that the underlying purpose of a restaurant review – to help answer the question, "Where should I want to eat?" – while not as noble or important as curing cancer, is still itself a worthwhile and valuable endeavor.[1]

Having said that, it does seem that the restaurant review industry, in some quarters anyway, is in the doldrums. I don't think the problem is the format, though no doubt it is kind of a bore to read reviews that just grind through the "here's the apps, here's the mains, here's the desserts" routine by rote. To my mind, it's more a combination of the decline of media outlets that provide the budgetary, editorial and promotional support for restaurant criticism, and the rise of crowd-sourced opinions a la Yelp. Combine that with a lack of diversity and community representation in the voices that still get heard. Throw a little "death of the blog at the hands of Twitter and then Instagram" into the mix too. Sprinkle some "influencers doing it for the freebies" over the top like finishing salt. And what you have is a dearth of credible, reliable voices motivated and able to write thoughtfully and critically about restaurants.

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Monday, December 30, 2019

favorite dishes of 2019: worldwide version

I made a decision this year to split my "favorite dishes" list between Miami and elsewhere. You can see the 25 best things I ate in Miami over here. This list (All lists! All the time! At least until the end of the year!) covers the best things I ate everywhere else in 2019.


We started the year in Marfa, Texas[1] before taking a long drive to Austin, which is a really fun town where there's a taco truck, a BBQ place, a beer hall, and a live music venue on every block. There were brief visits to New York and San Francisco, and then a wonderful week in Italy (Rome and Venice, broken up by a day in Florence), where I practiced some immersion therapy to get over my biases against Italian food.[2] Back to the Bay Area for a week. A long weekend in Los Angeles, making only the tiniest dent in the long list of places I want to visit in what may be the best eating town in the U.S. And finally, a late year return to N.Y. before the calendar flipped over.

charred cabbage, satsuma butter - Emmer & Rye (Austin)
Our first dinner in Austin was at chef Kevin Fink's Emmer & Rye, a place with a focus on heirloom grains (as the name suggests), local seasonal products, carts circling the dining room with little snacks a la State Bird Provisions, and generally speaking, some really creative stuff happening in the kitchen. I enjoyed everything, but especially this dish of charred cabbage, satsuma butter, trout roe and mustard greens. Savory, smoky, citrusy, and more, it was odd and delicious.

(See all my pictures from Emmer & Rye.)

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Thursday, December 26, 2019

favorite dishes of 2019: miami version

More lists! I already spilled nearly 5,000 words in my last post recounting the decade of dining in Miami. I'll try not to do that for another ten years. But this one is an annual tradition: the best things I ate over the past year. I've always made clear that this in no way purports to be any sort of definitive "best of" type of list, but is based solely on my own personal experiences and as a result is heavily influenced by my own preferences and proclivities.[1] Something new for 2019: rather than throw them all in a bucket together,[2] I've made one list of the best things I ate in Miami, and another for the best things I ate everywhere else. These appear in chronological order.

unagi shirayaki - Hiden
For a while, Miami was behind the curve on the trend of high-end, omakase-only sushi dens that have overtaken New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. We're catching up with places like Hiden, which opened in mid-2018 but which I didn't manage to book until January of this year. Hiden is an intimate eight-seat sushi counter hidden away in a private room in the back of the Taco Stand in Wynwood, serving a chef's choice menu of about a dozen courses of sushi and other raw and cooked things for, as of press time, $170 before tax and tip. It was excellent when I visited with chef Tadashi Shiraishi running the show, but he left in a split with ownership the following month and I've not been back. My favorite bite among many very good ones was this unagi shirayaki (grilled freshwater eel), seasoned only with salt and a dab of fresh wasabi rather than the typical sweet tare.

(See all my pictures in this Hiden flickr set).

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Monday, December 23, 2019

Miami's restaurants that defined the decade

It's nearly the end of the year – the end of a decade on top of that – which means it's a time for taking stock, for somber reflection ... and for posting lists. Yes, everyone hates lists, but here's the thing: everyone actually loves lists. A good list, anyway. Not the clickbait-y ones posted by uninformed bozos of places they haven't even visited and only read about on Yelp. But one that gathers a year, or a decade, of actual personal experience and tries to put it all in some kind of context? That could be a good list. And personally, anyway, I find these end of year rituals give me an opportunity to think about and say some things that I never found the time for over the past year.

This one, in particular, was inspired by a twitter post from Paolo Lucchesi, currently editorial director at Resy and before that the Food and Wine Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, which in turn was inspired by one from Jeff Gordiner (Food and Drinks Editor at Esquire):


So: what about Miami? (hat tip to Charlie Crespo, who asked that exact question).

When I started considering the answer to that question, one of the first things I realized was what an incredibly fruitful time the years immediately before 2010 were for the Miami restaurant world. Michelle Bernstein won a Beard Award in 2008 for her work at Michy's, which had opened two years earlier in the Upper East Side / MiMo District back when it was still a hotbed for motels-by-the-hour and those who patronize them. She also opened Sra. Martinez in 2008, providing a showcase for cocktail maestro Julio Cabrera as well as a bunch of dishes I still miss (R.I.P. uni panini, crispy artichokes, eggplant and honey, white bean and butifarra stew). Michael Schwartz opened Michael's Genuine in 2007 in the then very sleepy Design District, and picked up his own Beard Award two years after Michelle. Kris Wessel opened the wonderful, quirky Red Light back in 2008, where my family spent countless evenings at the counter (R.I.P. barbecue shrimp, oyster pie, roast quail). Kevin Cory opened the original Sunny Isles location of NAOE in 2009 and blew my my mind open with a bento box that was like a kaiseki dinner in miniature for $26, followed by the best sushi Miami had ever seen. Richard Hales opened Sakaya Kitchen in 2009, an early harbinger of the recent trend of chefs with high-end backgrounds doing the fast-casual thing. Add Bourbon Steak (2008), Scarpetta (2008) and Hakkasan (2009) to that list, among others I'm surely forgetting, and the end of the last decade was a pretty good era for Miami dining.

The next thing I realized was that I was going to need a bigger list. While I instinctively had some thoughts as to which restaurants "defined the decade" of dining in Miami, I needed to reconstruct the timeline to figure out which of those opened 2010 or after, and also see if there were others that I'd overlooked. After consulting the archives, there was a long list of more than forty potential candidates, from which I chose the dozen that to my mind best fit the bill. That selection process is pretty arbitrary, but includes consideration of how much that restaurant reflected or predicted local and national dining trends, as well as popularity and staying power.[1]

So, in chronological order below is my list of the twelve restaurants that opened since 2010 that defined Miami dining over the past decade, with brief explanations. I've also included other notable openings year by year, for the sake of posterity and context, with some occasional additional notes as well.[2]

1. Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill (2010)


Small plates? Check. "Dishes will come out as they're ready"? Check. Sushi, a globally inspired mix of tapas, and a French bistro style roasted chicken, all on the same menu? Check. Sugarcane, which opened in January 2010, embodied much of the experience of dining in Miami over the past decade. For better or worse, some might say, but I will say this: while Sugarcane has evolved into more of a "crowd-pleaser" over the years,[3] when it first opened chef Timon Balloo was doing some fun, delicious exciting stuff – I still crave that crispy tripe with Brussels sprout kimchi. The kicker: Timon is closing out 2019 with the opening of a small, intimate space that features a deeply personal menu at Balloo: Modern Home Cooking. It's the kind of food I always wished he would do, and a place I hope we're talking about through the next decade. (Here are my thoughts on Sugarcane from back in the day).

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