Monday, September 17, 2018

Cobaya Three with Norman Van Aken


Let me just get this out of the way: Norman Van Aken has always been something of an idol of mine. One of my formative food experiences was at his restaurant A Mano, which he opened in the Betsy Ross Hotel on South Beach (now known just as The Betsy) in 1991. A Mano was Van Aken's first venture in Miami after making a name for himself at Louie's Backyard in Key West, and it was a great restaurant: fancy but not stuffy, bringing classical technique and refinement to the ingredients and flavors of Latin America and the Caribbean. If that sounds old hat now, it's a testament to the influence of Van Aken and several other chefs of that generation who helped to democratize, in a way, what we think of as fine dining.[1]

I celebrated my 25th birthday at A Mano the next year, and can still recall the "Down Island French Toast" with seared foie gras and a savory citrus caramel, the massive bone-in ribeye "gaucho" steak studded with slivers of garlic and jalapeño, and a dessert that topped ice cream with bananas cooked in rum and sugar, then laced it all with a spicy-sweet chile jelly.[2] Fresh out of law school and just starting my career, in a position for the first time in my life to really celebrate the joys of good eating on my own dime, this was how I wanted to do it.

I went back to Van Aken's restaurants as often as I could – the more modestly priced Stars and Stripes Café in the front of the Betsy Ross more frequently than A Mano, and then later his longtime flagship Norman's in Coral Gables. I bought his cookbooks, and cooked from them. And I followed many of the paths they illuminated – other chefs and writers – along the way learning a good bit of what I know about food now.

So how often do you get to ask one of your idols to cook for you? We've been trying for years to make a Cobaya dinner with Norman Van Aken happen. It finally did in late July, and it was worth the wait. This was a particularly special one for me – another dinner I'll remember for a long time. Here are some notes and pictures.

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya Three with Norman Van Aken flickr set).


Three, in Wynwood, actually may be my favorite of the venues Van Aken has operated since he came up US-1 from Key West.[3] Part of the Wynwood Arcade, it has a dining room that glows with plush, richly hued greens and blues, a long dining counter along the open kitchen, plus a rooftop bar (No. 3 Social) which is where we started the evening.


After plying us with cocktails – a choice of the "Hit the Deck" with vodka, habanero syrup, watermelon and mint, or the "Norman's Revenge" with tequila, lime, jalapeño and a black salt rim – we were led back downstairs to the dining room, which we'd taken over for the evening.



We started with a dish inspired by a classic Mexican[4] hangover cure, "Vuelve a la Vida," a ceviche-style seafood salad with supposedly restorative powers. This one was more refined than most, combining a chilled lobster tail, a cocktail-sauce like spicy tomato dressing, a mezcal gelée (a little hair of the dog), avocado purée, and fresh cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and crunchy jicama batons. Some crispy empanadas rode along sidecar.


I loved the next dish, which put together fat, flavorful grilled asparagus spears,[5] wispy garden lettuces, a smoked benne seed dressing, and shavings of preserved citrus. It's not always easy to give depth of flavor to vegetable dishes, but this one accomplished it.[6]

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Monday, July 9, 2018

Chez Panisse - Berkeley, California

Some places aren't just restaurants; they're institutions. Chez Panisse certainly falls in that category. Its founder, Alice Waters, is widely regarded as the patron saint of the "farm-to-table" movement: the restaurant, which she opened in 1971, made the sourcing of local ingredients a cornerstone long before that term was commonly used, much less beaten to death.[1] And generations of restaurants since have followed suit.

My last visit to Chez Panisse must have been about twenty years ago.[2] It doesn't seem to have changed much at all, even though the two-story Arts and Crafts style space got a major facelift about five years ago after a fire. (No doubt it helped that the architect who first designed the restaurant, Kip Mesirow, was responsible for the renovation as well.) Downstairs is the original "restaurant," which still serves a three- or four-course prix fixe menu in a sort of country French idiom that changes on a daily basis. Upstairs is the "café," opened in 1980, which offers an à la carte menu and a somewhat more casual feel. Maybe the biggest change is that both upstairs and downstairs now have open kitchens, whose wood cabinets and shelves blend so seamlessly into the rest of the space that it really does feel a bit like eating in someone's home.

(You can see all my pictures in this Chez Panisse flickr set.)


Remarkably for a restaurant that's been around for nearly half a century, Chez Panisse doesn't feel particularly dated. Indeed, aside from the farm-to-table thing, there are at least a couple other facets of contemporary dining culture where I think Chez Panisse was way ahead of the game, including those daily changing menus, and the combination of high-end food in a more informal setting. If I told you that a rustic-looking place, with a charcoal grill and wood burning oven, serving food straight from the farms, fields and docks had just opened in the East Bay, you'd probably think it was right on trend. It's a testament to the restaurant's outsize influence; and, I suppose some would say, to the stagnancy of what's come to be known as "California Cuisine."[3]

There's a reason for the genre's staying power, though: when it's done right, it's still very good, especially in Northern California, which produces some of the greatest raw ingredients on the planet. And Chez Panisse is still doing it right.

We opted for the café over the restaurant. Although it may lack the dinner party vibe downstairs, the food still captures that "of the moment" feel: while the format of the à la carte menu stays largely the same, the particular pieces change from day to day, and sometimes even from lunch service to dinner.

Some of the highlights from our visit:


A simple salad of crisp, perky gem lettuce, dotted with juicy, sweet sungold tomatoes, napped with an assertively salty, funky anchovy dressing.


A crudo of wild California king salmon with cucumbers and green coriander, accompanied by a wispy salad of greens, herbs and slivered radishes.


A pizzetta cooked in the wood oven, topped with pancetta, hot peppers, capers and fresh rosemary – great to order as an appetizer "for the table."

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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

first thoughts: Sixty10 Organic Rotisserie Chicken - Little Haiti


In the kitchen, unitaskers are anathema. All those avocado slicers and egg peelers and meat shredders just do the same things you can do with standard kitchen tools while taking up extra space in your drawers. As Alton Brown used to say on Good Eats, "The only unitasker allowed in my kitchen is a fire extinguisher."

When it comes to restaurants, though, I'm a big fan of unitaskers. Focus on just one thing, and you're more likely to do it well. Case in point: Sixty10 Organic Rotisserie Chicken, recently opened in Little Haiti. There are several items on the menu at Sixty10, but they are all essentially variations on one theme: chicken, rubbed with salt and spices, and cooked on a rotisserie until its skin is well-bronzed and its flesh pulls apart in soft, juicy ribbons. It may come as a whole, half or quarter chicken, along with a few different sandwich or salad iterations, but it's all about the bird. And happily, it's a really tasty bird.

(You can see all my pictures in this Sixty10 flickr set).


On a first-time lunch visit last week, I got the Sixty10 sandwich: pulled rotisserie chicken meat, a tangle of caramelized onions, coins of fingerling potatoes slippery with chicken jus, all smooshed inside a kaiser roll It was simple, straightforward, and delicious. The seasonings are subtle, not overpowering; it tastes like chicken, but actually like chicken, not just a bland blank canvas. Having said that, a smear of mustard or a daub of hot sauce would probably do it wonders.

I'll have to make a return visit to bring a whole roasted chicken home for the family, which can be had with two sides (options include those roasted potatoes, a creamy, tangy cole slaw, brussel sprouts or green beans) and two sauces (could be jalapeño jam, curry sauce, or pikliz, a nod to the Little Haiti neighborhood, among others) for $34. That's about 50% more than you'd pay for a commodity chicken family meal at Pollo Tropical and it's probably about 200% better.


There's not much to the place right now, which used to be a Haitian Creole take-out joint: a window into the kitchen where you place your order, a covered patio with some tables and benches if you want to "dine in." But there's a huge, sprawling yard out back, partly shaded by live oaks spreading their branches over from the neighboring property, and the owners have bigger long-term plans: live music (a stage is already set up), a chickee hut (plans have been filed with the city), wine and beer in a picnic-style atmosphere (there's no liquor license yet, so for now they're sometimes pouring wine for free).

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Friday, June 15, 2018

Wabi Sabi by Shuji - Miami Upper East Side

My first taste of chef Shuji Hiyakawa's food came at an event last spring hosted by the Japanese Consulate in Miami, described as "Culinary Secrets of Traditional Washoku." "Washoku" literally means "Japanese food," but more specifically, the traditional cuisine of Japan (here's a good primer). After breaking down a whole tuna loin and making sushi of it, Chef Shuji also served a variety of other less heralded Japanese items: a seasonal dish of hotaru ika (firefly squid) with fresh bamboo shoots, yu choy in dashi broth with bonito flakes, sweet soy-braised root vegetables.

At the time, Chef Shuji, who made his way from Fukuoka, Japan to Miami by way of Philadelphia, where he had worked for several years as executive sushi chef for Morimoto, was weeks away from opening his own restaurant, Dashi. I went to Dashi shortly after it opened (you can read my first thoughts) and came away pretty impressed, albeit dismayed by the absence of a conventional sushi bar. But Dashi closed only a few months later after Hurricane Irma caused extensive damage to the River Yacht Club, where the restaurant was situated.

Fortunately, Chef Shuji had a back-up plan. Turns out he was already at work on another concept in a different space – and even better (for me, anyway), it was right along the path of my daily commute, in Miami's "Upper East Side" on N.E. 79th Street just over the Causeway from Miami Beach. In early January, Wabi Sabi by Shuji opened.

(You can see all my pictures in this Wabi Sabi by Shuji flickr set).


It's a simple but striking space, built out and decorated almost entirely by Chef Shuji himself. Across one wall sprawls a flock of multi-colored origami cranes. A table underneath is laid out with enough beautiful Japanese ceramics to serve a feast for about ten people (more on that later). Hanging from the ceiling and resting on counters are an abundance of kokedama moss ball planters. A few rough wood tables provide seating for maybe a dozen diners. At the back, there's a small kitchen island where you'll find Chef Shuji and assistant chef Maggie Hyams working away, and on some days, marketing and event coordinator Koko Makoto working the register, serving as hostess, and doing everything else that needs doing with grace and charm.

There's still no sushi bar. Rather, the idea of Wabi Sabi combines some Japanese tradition with the latest in American fast-casual trends: food in bowls. We all love food in bowls these days. Buddha bowls, poke bowls, power bowls, acai bowls – seems we'll eat anything if you put it in a bowl.[1] While some food trends are just plain stupid, this is one I can get behind: it's convenient, it's right-sized portioning, and when you put nice things in the bowl, it can be both delicious and aesthetically pleasing.

Which are also some of the things I love about Wabi Sabi. The menu at Wabi Sabi is straightforward: a choice of four different combinations of raw fish and accompaniments, over a choice of four different bases (sushi rice, a multigrain mixture, green tea soba noodles, or salad greens), with a choice of four different sauces – served in a bowl.[2] Any of the basic configurations will run you between $11 (for a vegetarian version which includes cucumber, avocado, scallion, seaweed salad, soy-marinated shiitake mushrooms, carrots and radishes) and $18 (for a fully decked out version with tuna, salmon, lump crab, tobiko, and an assortment of vegetables).


Or, for the ballers out there, there's also an "omakase" bowl, which features an ever-changing assortment of fish and seafood, much of it flown in straight from Tsukiji Market in Japan, served chirashi style over seasoned rice. That may mean blocks of fatty hamachi (yellotwail), ribbons of silky, clean kinmedai (golden-eye snapper), shimmering sayori (half-beak), creamy uni (sea urchin), silver-skinned aji (horse mackerel), house-cured iwashi (sardine) or kohada (gizzard shad), baubles of ikura (salmon roe), or any number of other possibilities, served over a bowl of seasoned rice, with seaweed salad, maybe some sprouts, maybe some soy-cured shiitake mushrooms, and a scatter of shredded nori batons.

Unlike the standard menu options, the omakase bowl is not cheap – pricing usually runs between $35 and $40, depending on what ingredients are featured that particular day. But if you add up what you would pay for a comparable sashimi or sushi order at any good sushi-ya – and the quality of the ingredients at Wabi Sabi is on par with what you'll find at the few places in Miami that fit that description – I think you'll find it to be roughly equivalent. It is also probably the easiest, most convenient way to eat some great sushi that you'll find in Miami, one that you can even take home and eat in front of the TV if you wish.

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Monday, May 28, 2018

Duck Duck Goose Trois at The Anderson

I've said here often that P.I.G. - Pork Is Good, Jeremiah Bullfrog's locally grown celebration of all things porcine, has become my favorite Miami food event. A few years ago he added a spin-off – Duck Duck Goose, starring the one protein that may come close to rivaling pork's range, versatility and deliciousness: duck. The inaugural DDG in 2016 was a blast, but I sadly missed Number 2. The birds were back for Duck Duck Goose Trois this past Sunday afternoon.

(You can see all my pictures in this Duck Duck Goose Trois flickr set.)

It didn't look like good flying weather for ducks Sunday morning, with Subtropical Storm Alberto creating a wet and windy maelstrom. But somehow, like the eye of the storm, a perfect little window of calm, sunny weather opened up at just the right time. The festivities, hosted by The Anderson bar on Miami's Upper East Side, went off without a hitch. Here are some highlights:



Duck terrine with a wild mushroom gelée, pickled sunchokes, smoked duck egg yolk and duck chicharrones from David Coupe and Josue Peña of Faena. Really beautiful technique and great flavors.



Torched miso and duck fat onigiri stuffed with miso seasoned slow cooked duck, from Katsuya Fukushima of Washington DC's Daikaya – very possibly my favorite bite of the day.



Fuqi Feipian – literallly "husband and wife lung" – done here as crispy tripe and confit duck wings laced with Szechuan chili oil from Jeremiah Bullfrog. A close rival for my favorite bite of the day, given my penchant for tripe.

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