Saturday, February 28, 2009

Spain ... On the Road

Yup, just me, Batali, Bittman, Gwyneth, and Claudia Bassols (ahh...), driving around in fancy cars, blathering on endlessly and mindlessly, and occasionally having some tapas or something. OK, it's actually just me and Mrs. F, no fancy cars, and we'll spare you our mindless blather. But we will be doing some good eating in Spain and I will report back, though it may not be until our return. If I get the chance, I'll apologize to the King and Queen for Mario's linguistic foibles. When I return, I promise, in addition to reports from España, lots more Miami restaurant discussion, and less cursing and porn references. Adios amigos.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Hey Man Nice Shot

So only about a couple weeks into this endeavor, and I already find myself at a crossroads. To shoot or not to shoot? Every red-blooded eater loves them some food porn. I'll readily admit that among my favorite things about many of the blogs I follow are the pictures. And next week I'm off to Spain, the culinary equivalent of ... well, let's not play out the porn analogy any further.

And yet - there is a part of me that really wants to avoid becoming "that douchebag taking pictures of his food." It can annoy other diners. It can annoy chefs and other restaurant staff. Sometimes, there seems to be something of a self-righteous sense of entitlement that because you've mastered the rudiments of WordPress or TypePad or flickr, every restaurant should bend over backwards to let you snap away.* Somehow, nobody ever thinks they're "that guy" but rather they're all models of discretion and subtlety in their photojournalistic stylings.

Besides, it is no false modesty to say I have no photographic or general artistic skills whatsoever. I am capable of operating the most rudimentary functions of a point-n-click camera, but that's really about it. The results are rarely much to look at. Even were I to try to take some good food pix, the product would likely be amateurish at best and embarassing at worst (again, the porn analogy comes to mind).

But perhaps even more importantly, I'm concerned with the potential dissociative effect - the loss of the opportunity to actually experience, rather than merely critically observe and document, a meal. When a dish is brought out to me, I don't want my first reaction to be "Is the lighting right?" Despite my interest in chronicling great meals, I've always found it fairly easy to write something later by merely paying attention, sometimes taking a couple notes, and saving menus. A good meal usually provides both a visceral, hedonistic satisfaction and an intellectual satisfaction as well, though the weight of each type of reward varies considerably depending on the type of meal. I'm concerned that the addition of a camera into the equation has the potential to screw up that balance.

David Chang, who got some flak for banning photogrpahy at Momofuku Ko, said, "It's just food. Eat it." (There's some interesting comments from several other chefs and others in the same article.) Though I'm not sure it's quite that simple, I understand the sentiment.

Our lineup for Spain includes Viridiana and Goizeko Wellington (or possibly Kabuki Wellington, we'll see) in Madrid, Arzak, Akelare, and lots of pintxos in San Sebastian, and Dos Palillos (new restaurant from Albert Raurich, former El Bulli chef de cuisine) in Barcelona. Would I love to come back with hundreds of beautiful pictures of fantastic food? Sure. Will I do it? We'll see.

*This is not any sort of general knock on the site linked to, which I often find is a very good read.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

spam sausage spam spam bacon spam tomato and miso

miso soup

No, not that kind of spam - the kind that comes in a can. With 54 variations on miso soup, this sounds like the miso soup equivalent of the Monty Python Spam Skit, courtesy of Japanese Food Report. I learned to make good dashi from this site, so I bet the upcoming miso soup recipes won't be all bad. But if miso soup isn't your bag, you can always join the Spam Fan Club instead.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

It Takes Guts

I'm not sure what it says about the current state of our foodways that a chef can solicit unpaid volunteers to work for free for five days carving up and prepping a melange of various bits of guts and make it sound like the the opportunity of a lifetime - but I think it's a good thing.

Chris Cosentino of Incanto in San Francisco is proposing to take in two volunteers (professional chefs only) to spend five days prepping for one of their head-to-tail dinners. What's in it for the volunteers? Well, you can learn what to do with the likes of goose intestines and beef hearts, for one. And you get both the cutesy "I [Heart] Offal" and the more visceral "Lips and Assholes" t-shirts. And you actually get to rest and dine on your own creations on the final night.

I regretted missing Incanto on my last visit to San Francisco, this sounds like my kind of food.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Locals Growing Beards?

Beard Award
My James Beard Cookbook is probably among the most tattered and splattered in my kitchen. For a long time, it served as my initial reference point for basic cooking - how best to cook a burger or a steak, what to do with green beans, and so on. His meatloaf recipe remains one of our favorites. Though a few years ago, the Foundation that bears his name nearly collapsed under a scandal over misuse of funds, it seems that they've done a good job of setting things right since, and their annual restaurant awards and nominations are always interesting to peruse. I referred briefly in another post to a local nominee for one of the regional James Beard Awards. Here is a complete list of the local products who are semifinalists:

Best New Restaurant (National) - Michelle Bernstein with Sra. Martinez. She's up against some tough competition, though, with Jose Andres' new leviathan, The Bazaar, Paul Liebrandt's Corton, David Chang's Momofuku Ko, Scott Conant's Scarpetta, and Laurent Gras' L20, among several others, all in the mix.

Outstanding Wine Service (National) - Palme d'Or in Coral Gables, and California Grill in Disney World's Contemporary Resort (OK, calling that "local" is a stretch, but I've included it mostly just because of the "Who knew?" reaction I had).

Outstanding Service (National) - Palme d'Or again. Anyone surprised there's not any South Beach nominees?

Best Chef (South) - Zach Bell of Cafe Boulud in Palm Beach, Edgar Leal of Cacao in Coral Gables, Dean James Max of 3030 Ocean in Fort Lauderdale, Douglas Rodriguez of Ola in Miami Beach, Philippe Ruiz of Palme d'Or in Coral Gables (yet again!), and Michael Schwartz of Michael's Genuine Food & Drink in Miami.


  • Palme d'Or? Three nominations? I'm not sure I even know anyone who's been. Guess I ought to try it.

  • What would the oddsmakers say of MGF&D's chances for "Best Chef (South)"?

  • If you're wondering why local darling Michelle Bernstein isn't among the nominees for "Best Chef (South)" category - she won the award last year.

  • Not a single Florida nominee for the "Rising Star Chef of the Year" category - what to make of that?

Monday, February 23, 2009

South Beach Wine & Food Festival Recap

Other than taking my kids to a very silly "Kidz Cooking" demonstration with Giada DeLaurentiis a couple years ago (where they learned how to not complete a single dish in 45 minutes), I have generally steered clear of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Too many yahoos, too much bad wine, too expensive. Just for the price of one of the "Grand Tasting" events ($200+ a head), for instance, I can do some quite fine eating on my own, thank you, usually without being elbowed by a bunch of inebriated chuckleheads.

But it's still always fun to hear reports from the front. Here were some of my favorites: Mario Batali shouting down the noisy "weasel f---wads" at the Viva Espana dinner (and apparently playing some grab-ass with Jose Andres too), lots of coverage from Eater, lots of pix from New Times, Feedbag's weird crush on Rachael Ray (though his obsession is probably healtheir than this guy's), plus this nice little bit of gossip:

Item! Mr. Snitch tells me that a certain chef had quite a wake-up call when, after a night of carousing out on the town, he picked up a floozy and headed back to his hotel. The next morning, the befuddled toque, one of New York’s most lauded talents, found himself hungover, alone, naked, and without his phone or
any of his cash. It’s a jungle out there, chef! Watch out!

(sounds like any meal at Barton G).

Things I can happily live without: Paula Deen losing her pants (Stop Crack!), Sandra Lee's semi-homemade cocktails (replete with goofy silver-painted dudes standing like statues).

Sunday, February 22, 2009

3030 Ocean - Fort Lauderdale

We don't eat much in Broward, but family was visiting in Boynton Beach and we needed to pick some middle ground to meet for dinner. I saw recently that Chef Dean James Max (that's a lot of first names, no?) of 3030 Ocean had been nominated for a James Beard Award, and its location was geographically desirable, so we figured it would be worth a try.

The restaurant is inside the Marriott Harbor Beach resort in Fort Lauderdale, and looks pretty much like every other semi-upscale hotel restaurant, the primary distinguishing characteristic being an overloud guitarist/singer serenading the room from the bar at the restaurant's entrance. Both the bar and the restaurant were fairly well packed when we were there on a Friday night.

The menu, on the other hand, is far from generic hotel restaurant fare. The story on 3030 Ocean is that they are dedicated to using fresh seafood and produce, with a focus on local purveyors. The menu is strongly oriented toward fish and seafood, but there's a good number of mammals available for the carnivores (including several nice porky products in the apps). When we visited, there were at least a dozen different piscine options, some local like pompano, red snapper, cobia, and wahoo, others exotic like walu (a/k/a escolar, a fish that should come with a warning on possible side effects) and monchong. I found it just slightly curious that despite the proclaimed focus on local and seasonal, roughly half of the fish on the menu appeared to come from places more than a thousand miles away, though the variety was appreciated.

We were a big group and I didn't get to stick a fork into everyone else's plates, so for the most part I can only describe the dishes I had. My starter was some thinly sliced smoked Benton's ham, draped over a salad of greens accompanied by slices of avocado and melon. The ham was magical stuff, the pairing with melon being a classic while the avocado played off its richness. What really made this pop with an assertively flavored basil-vanilla vinaigrette which worked perfectly with the other components. Clearly Chef Max is a fan of Benton's products, which make appearances in a few other appetizer items as well. Frod Jr. and Little Miss F also split a salad with culatello ham, burrata and heirloom tomatoes (FJ apparently taking the ham and LMF the cheese and tomaters).

While I was tempted by several of the fish offerings, I wound up picking a wild striped bass, something I've not seen on very many South Florida menus. The fish was paired with coins of slivered potatoes dressed in a mustard-y sauce, along with baby zucchini and maitake mushrooms. The surprising star here was the mushrooms, which had an incredible intensity of flavor. The zucchini also were very brightly flavored, not the usual non-descript baby vegetables on the plate for their cuteness rather than taste. The fish itself was actually somewhat disappointing. Though the fat tranche of fish was perfectly fresh, it was a bit mealy-textured, tending to shred rather than flake and the skin not quite as crispy as could be hoped. My taste of the red snapper - served over a boniato puree with grilled green onions and a carrot sauce - was much better, a very nice spanking fresh piece of fish. It was surprising to me for a place with such a particular focus on fresh fish that there was nothing at all available whole, with all the fish served as filets.

The wine list offered some good choices, though prices were a bit high (not a surprise for a hotel restaurant). A Leth Gruner Veltliner went great with the fish; I was less impressed with a Cloudline Pinot Noir. Both were running approximately 3x average retail prices.

This is true ingredient-driven cooking, but saying that should not undermine the chef's hand in things. Despite our proximity to water, it seems that sourcing great fresh fish is perversely difficult for many local chefs. Likewise, a dedication to using fresh local produce often shows in the brightness and depth of flavor of the finished dish. But to me, "ingredient-driven" doesn't mean simply buying something and throwing it on a plate (notwithstanding stories of the Zuni Cafe "$8 nectarine" - which actually turned out to be only $4.50, if that makes it any better). It means finding the best stuff you can, and then making the most of it. It seems at 3030 Ocean they agree.

edited to add - Chef Dean James "First Names Only" Max featured in New Times' Short Order today.

3030 Ocean
Marriott Harbor Beach
3030 Holiday Drive
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33316
6pm - 10pm daily

3030 Ocean on Urbanspoon

Bulldog BBQ - North Miami Beach

Howie Kleinberg is probably known to most people for his appearance on Top Chef Season 3, shot in Miami, where he was one of three local products. While Howie may be remembered best by Top Chef viewers for his abrasive manner and propensity for perspiration (given that among my talents are sweating and growing hair in inappropriate places, I can sympathize), he also seemed to cook his best when working with pork. The bulldog personality makes its appearance in the name of his new restaurant, and the affinity for pork also shows up in many items on the menu at the recently opened Bulldog BBQ.

Though the space is in an undistinguished strip mall along Biscayne Boulevard in North Miami Beach, it's actually reasonably pleasant once you step inside. It's clean and modern looking, with some red walls, simple furniture, an open kitchen with about 8 bar seats around a portion of it, and a soundtrack of guitar rock of the late '70s and early '80s that made me feel like I was back in high school. It looks like most of the 'cue items are done in a couple cabinet smokers, with ribs and chicken heated up on a grill for service and small amounts of other meats pulled throughout the night and kept warm in a steam table setup. It's not likely to please a bbq purist, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's not good eats.

On our first visit, we started with "BBQ Lettuce Wraps," which brought a pile of pulled chicken (or pork if you so choose), a pile of shredded cheese, a ramekin of scallion studded sour cream, and a few big crisp leaves of iceberg lettuce for some DIY lettuce wraps. Not the most elegant presentation, but tasty, in a slightly white-trash-y, Bennigan's kind of way. I'm not knocking it, it tasted good; Little Miss F loved it. On a return visit, I tried the cornbread-crusted oyster starter which brought three wee fried oysters, each over a little bed of diced avocado, tomato and onion, and dotted with a garlicky green aioli. The oysters were nicely crisp on the outside without being completely obliterated, and the flavors were on target, but this was an awfully dainty portion (particularly compared to some of the mammoth servings of other items). The turkey chili on the other hand was a hefty and hearty portion, with ground turkey, white beans, a layer of toasty cheddar cheese, sour cream, and crispy bits of cornbread on top (these in particular were a nice touch). Really almost a meal unto itself, I can't imagine eating a bowl of this and then moving on to a full plate of 'cue.

As for that 'cue ... a pulled pork main was decent, not stellar, very tender but a bit bland - though it perked up quite a bit when doused with some of the neon yellow mustard-y bbq sauce provided (a milder red bbq sauce is also available but this was just sweet and insipid). A hot smoked salmon was also good, distinctly but not overly smoky, and cooked nicely to a medium so that it stayed moist and tender throughout. The next time around I ordered the beef brisket, which was an outrageously humongous portion - there may have been an entire side of beef on my plate. This was not bbq brisket like I've ever had it before. Served up very wet, some of the slices had some nice deep char on the edges, but certainly no discernable smoke ring. In an interview, Howie's made clear that he's not trying to do super-traditional 'cue, and describes his brisket as "a cross between Jewish brisket and Texas brisket." An unusual goal, but I actually think he's accomplished what he set out to do. Me, I'd still probably prefer one or the other, but this still ain't all bad. Generally, though, all of the meats were somewhat bland, and it seems that if Bulldog isn't going to go hard-core on the barbecue technique, they should be working on something else to elevate the flavors some.

Mains come with coleslaw (good but unremarkable), cornbread (ditto, though the kids loved it) and a choice of one side. First time around, we went with cheddar grits and mac & cheese, and added on an order of the sweet fries. The cheddar grits were interesting, surprisingly using what I believe was whole hominy rather than ground grits, held together with a nicely gooey white cheddar. Not at all what I was expecting but I liked it quite a bit. The mac & chee was of the neon orange variety (but not out of the blue box), and used a distinctly smoky cheese which I found overpowering and somewhat redundant, what with the smoked meats and all. The sweet potato fries were OK, a bit limp (tough to avoid with sweets) but tasted fresh and well-salted.

On our second visit, we tried the "burnt end beans," which might be the most substantial side dish I've ever encountered. Containing far more than just some burnt ends (the crispy bits of brisket trimmings that don't make for great presentation but offer great flavor and texture), these beans were loaded with almost as much brisket as my plate - along with a topping of crispy fried sweet onions. It was so loaded with brisket it took me a few minutes just to find any beans, enough to possibly reach the point of overkill (somewhat ironic because I'm pretty sure I saw Howie prepping these, while I also later witnessed him riding one of the other kitchen staff for sending out over-large portions of the desserts). I brought home most of the beans and thoroughly enjoyed them reheated with a fried egg on top for breakfast.

For dessert the kids went with s'more pie and milk & cookies. The s'more pie was a dense slab of chcoolate with a graham crust, topped with a generous shmear of gooey marshmallow which gets toasted with a blowtorch. A sweet, sticky guilty pleasure, though what I believe was some shredded coconut in the pie filling was an unexpected and unnecessary addition, which also contributed a disconcerting grainy texture. Milk and cookies was just that, about a half dozen home-made cookies (chocolate chip, white chocolate chip, and butterscotch chip), which hit the spot for Little Miss F.

Beer selection was pedestrian, seems like a place that could really use even just a few carefully chosen microbrews to go with the 'cue. There are about a dozen wines, all nicely priced at under $25 / bottle.
Service was completely warm and friendly and food got out to the tables reasonably quickly on both our visits; it looked like they were doing a good job of turning the tables throughout the restaurant, impressively so for a packed house and a soft opening.

So is Bulldog BBQ going to be a barbecue mecca for the true believers of the low and slow arts? I doubt it. But while a number of the items could stand to be refined, I've still enjoyed a couple good meals there.

Bulldog BBQ
15400 Biscayne Boulevard
North Miami, FL 33160
T 305.940.9655
11am - 11pm daily

Bulldog Barbecue on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Wineconomics 101

A couple interesting bits of reading material on the economics of the wine business and in particular what smaller producers are doing to cope: West Coast Wineries Wrestle with Recession (from Wine Spectator), Wine markups at the wholesale, restaurant and retail level (from Tablas Creek's blog).

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Foodie By Any Other Name

I don't know that I'm quite ready to take on "molecular gastronomy" yet, but how about smaller prey - "foodie"? A Dallas writer sneers at the term, "except perhaps in mocking form." Why? Well, with all those amateur, non-elitist connotations, it just seems so Palin-esque. So what does he suggest instead? How about "gourmand"? I know it sounds a little snooty, but we should be assured that it's not pretentious because "Gourmands may know foie gras, but they may also deeply appreciate peasant fare." Ahh, yes, peasant fare. That's what these folks eat, right?

But then we really get to the heart of the matter: "Ultimately, I shy from 'foodie' because some of this self-styled set in this town rave eloquently about mediocre dishes and drinks." So a "gourmand" is a "foodie" whose tastes agree with mine. Glad to have that cleared up.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Valentine's Dinner at Hiro's Yakko-San

Here is just one small reason why I love my wife. It's Valentine's Day, we have baby-sitting, and as we head out the door, the question is, "Where should we go?" After kicking around some options and even sidling into someplace that had a romantic Valentine's prix fixe menu, Mrs. F sets down her menu and says, "Let's go to Yakko-San." Let's indeed. Because a cozy spot at the bar and some Japanese tapas are all we need to have a wonderful night.

Hiro's Yakko-San is an izakaya-style restaurant in an unassuming strip-mall location in North Miami Beach. There's sushi-bar style seating with about a dozen seats, about 15-20 tables, and no real decoration to speak of unless you count a few TVs scattered around the place (usually showing whatever sporting event is in season). The menu lists something over 100 dishes, most various tapas-style small plates, plus there's always about a dozen or so daily specials and several fresh fish specials. There is sashimi (gloriously fresh) and onigiri but no nigiri, and no maki. If you want a deep-fried roll with four different kinds of fish and cream cheese, sorry, you'll have to go elsewhere (there's always Hiro's Sushi Express next door, take-out commodity sushi which is a different beast entirely).

Because most items are fairly modest portions and pretty reasonably priced, you can order several to assemble a meal. A snapshot from our "Valentine's Dinner" last night: tofu with kimchee, a great contrast between the cold, creamy tofu and the spicy, funky kimchee; negitoro tartare (a daily special), lush, rich toro diced with scallion, topped with a generous dollop of caviar, served over shiso leaves with strips of nori for wrapping up little DIY tartare tacos; grilled local shrimp (another special), served head-on, incredibly fresh, well-salted, needing nothing at all but a tiny squeeze of lemon (don't forget to suck on the heads); grilled half-dried squid, made even better with a dip in umami-rich Kewpie mayo spiced with togarashi (I love these things, the drying giving a concentrated flavor and a somewhat chewy, but not bouncy, texture); octopus nuta-ae, sliced thin in a way that somehow renders the octopus completely tender, served over chopped scallions and greens with a mustardy miso sauce; uni sashimi, a generous serving of at least a half-dozen sea urchin "tongues," with that wonderful briny essence-of-the-ocean-with-a-hint-of-sweet-apricot creaminess.

A perfect Valentines' night - they even gave Mrs. F a rose as we headed out.

Here's a longer list of some of the many things we've tried and enjoyed - this list was compiled over the course of a few years visiting, over that time some of these items have gone off the menu, and others that were specials have now found their way onto the regular menu - with stars on some of the favorites:

-spicy miso cod or sea bass*
-flash-fried bok choi*
-hamachi usuzukuri (very thin-sliced yellowtail sashimi, to which they'll add slivers of jalapeno and ponzu)
-kabocha tempura
-maitake mushroom tempura (sometimes on the specials)*
-hamachi kama (often a special - collar of a yellowtail broiled and served w/ ponzu; a little work, but worth it for the delicious meat)
-salmon kama & belly (occasional special - outrageously rich and fatty; you'll feel like a bear fattening up for winter)
- takoyaki! (octopus dumplings; and there's a waitress who always says it like this, with the exclamation point, whenever I order it)*
-nasu buto miso itame (sauteed pork w/ eggplant and miso)*
-spicy chile shrimp
-uni & ikura pasta
-fried chicken gizzards (not bad, but not sure what the point is)
-grilled pork belly (used to be a frequent special, now on the regular menu - little slivers, nice and crispy)
-sanma (like a big sardine, grilled whole including innards - sometimes a little dry but if you like strongly flavored silver-skinned fish like sardine or mackerel, etc. it's good)
-steak w/ garlic sauce
-tongue stew
- spicy manila clams (a semi-regular special)*
-grilled fiji shrimp (they haven't had these for a while, but when they are on the specials they are absolutely delicious)
-ikura onigiri (since they don't do regular sushi, this is as close as you can get - it's like a pyramid of sushi rice stuffed inside with salmon roe - or salmon or a couple other things - with a sheet of nori wrapped around it; almost as good are the little japanese pickles that come with it)
-salmon ocha zuke (over rice w/ green tea poured over it - very refreshing)* (no longer on the menu)
-okonomiyaki (they call it a japanese pizza - an odd omelette type concoction with cabbage, fish, fish flakes and mayo - really rich and an excellent late night munchie) (no longer on the regular menu)
-jack tataki
-jack nanbanzuke (sometime special - this was surprisingly good - jack, a somewhat strong-flavored fish, fried and served cold, sort of pickled with vinegar and peppers - almost exactly like a jamaican fish escovitch)
- kimpira gobo (sauteed burdock root)
- crispy fish & onion salad
- local octopus ceviche (occasional special)*
- black pork sausage (a favorite of our kids)
- motsuni (pork intestine stew, occasional special; not for everyone)*

It's always fun to watch the open kitchen, where 3-4 chefs make almost everything other than the fried or stewed items that come from a back kitchen. It was a beautiful thing to see one of the chefs start to slice a loin of tuna and then, amidst all the chaos of a busy kitchen and full house, just stare at it intently for a minute while assessing his plan of attack. Yakko-San is open late (2am weekdays, 3am Fri-Sat) and you will frequently find local chefs and other restaurant biz folks there late or on their off-nights.

UPDATED: Yakko-San has moved, note new address below. Also, to avoid confusion, note that there is another restaurant along the 163rd St. Causeway called "Hiro." That is not Hiro's Yakko-San and is not asssociated with Yakko-San. Yakko-San is in the Intracoastal Mall, just west of the bridge over to Sunny Isles, right next to the Old Navy store.

Hiro's Yakko-San
3881 NE 163rd St.
North Miami Beach, FL

Hiro's Yakko-San on Urbanspoon


Why indeed. I suppose it all started when I was about 10 years old. My parents were good enough to take my sister and I with them on trips to Europe. After some initial culinary neophobia, I gradually came to realize that there were adventures to be had, and began to seek out the unusual, and sometimes unpronounceable, on restaurant menus. On one particular trip to France, I ordered something which we all recall being called a "segoina." I have no recollection of what it was (nor has Google shed any light in retrospect), but it was good, so much so that I had a bit of a bulging belly after dinner - which was also dubbed by my family a "segoina."

Many years later, there are still many culinary adventures to be had. As a Miami Beach resident and South Florida native, I feel fortunate to have an interesting, diverse and vibrant restaurant community here, and this blog will focus on our local dining destinations while periodically following me on ventures further afield. Please enjoy.