Sunday, April 26, 2009

NAOE - Sunny Isles

What would you say if I told you there was a tiny place, in a little strip mall somewhere in Miami, that was turning out incredible, creative, beautiful Japanese dishes like nothing else you will find in this city? That they were flying in fish overnight from Japan or buying it that day from fishermen at Haulover Marina? That they did only an omakase menu, followed, if you're still hungry, by the chef's choice of beautifully pristine sushi until you say "uncle"?

No way?


A couple weeks ago while surfing OpenTable, I saw a new name on the list of restaurants. The description was intriguing:

Brand new to Sunny Isles Beach, Chef Kevin Cory specializes in natural Japanese Cuisine at NAOE. Every Wednesday through Sunday from 7pm - 1am, Chef Kevin Cory serves a unique Chef's Choice menu.
Looking over the website for NAOE, I learned that Chef Cory had trained in Japan at a traditional kaiseki restaurant, and returned to the States in 2001 where he took over the sushi bar at Siam River, a then-undistinguished Thai restaurant along the eastern stretch of the 163rd Street Causeway. Chef Cory's work with the sushi bar at Siam River earned him many fans, and apparently a couple years ago he got the ambition of running a place entirely his own. He opened NAOE about a month ago and it is undoubtedly one of the most unique restaurants I have eaten at in Miami.

It is a small but quietly elegant space, done mostly in shades of grey, brown and black with soft lights throughout (of course you have to recognize that I see nothing inelegant about an open kitchen literally stacked with shining stockpots, pans and steamers). There are 17 seats total, roughly half of which are at a beautiful blond wood bar which faces the open kitchen. The bar - made from hinoki wood, the same wood used for Japanese temples, this stuff sourced from Oregon - is sanded down with a small file every week. The entire restaurant staff consists of two people - Chef Cory (whose business card reads "executive chef, general manager & dishwasher") and Wendy Maharlika (that's who was listed on our receipt as "server", but her business card ought to read "maître d', hostess, sake sommelier, and public relations liaison"). We were the only ones there when we arrived around 9pm, but another couple came in shortly after. The location is a tiny little strip mall on the 163rd Street Causeway right before it connects with Collins Avenue on the beach side.[1] You could easily drive by a dozen times without ever noticing it.

You are given a small menu, but there are no choices as to what food to order. Rather, there are about a half-dozen choices of sake, all produced by Chef Cory's family in Japan, including junmai (organic to boot), ginjo, and daiginjo styles. There's also Sapporo beer - on tap! - and a couple non-alcoholic choices, including one of our kids' favorites, Ramune soft drink. For the food, you must put yourself entirely in the chef's hands, with only an inquiry as to food allergies before he gets to work.

Given the minimal staffing, obviously the cooking is entirely a one-man show. We watched as Chef Cory began his prep, meticulously fileting a small locally sourced Spanish mackerel (a/k/a sawara) and then slicing and arranging small strips. As he continued his preparations, our anticipation began to build. I had initially anticipated a series of small dishes like a tasting menu, but instead they explained that the service is bento box style with all the dishes presented together.

After about 20-30 minutes - during which our hostess conscientiously made sure our sake glasses never went dry, gave us some of the backstory on herself and Chef Cory, and showed us the future plans they have for the restaurant space - we were presented with two covered wooden boxes which were simultaneously unveiled before us. Alongside was a small covered bowl of soup.

The contents were just magnificent, at least if you're an adventurous and open-minded eater. The bento was divided into four compartments:
  • aji (horse mackerel), in a small bowl with a dab of wasabi paste (made not from the stuff in a tube but from freshly grated wasabi root supplemented with some horseradish), along with wasabi leaves and flowers. The aji's slight oiliness was nicely offset by the piquancy of the wasabi. The wasabi leaves and flowers - which I've never seen before - have the flavor of wasabi without the heat, providing a nice contrast and a texture similar to the smallest florets of broccoli rabe.
  • home-made egg tofu, beautifully silky and rich like a custard, topped with an uni (sea urchin roe) sauce with a delicate, almost peachy flavor, and crowned with a nasturtium flower.
  • a small little bowl carved from a turnip, filled with cubes of cooked turnip and rich, delicious ankimo (monkfish liver); alongside was a marinated whelk (sea snail), removed from its shell and then replaced for service, along with a small "cracker" of kohada (gizzard shad),[2] basically the frame (bones and tail with a little bit of attached meat) quick-fried, the entire thing crispy and edible, together with a couple little dumplings of parsnip with potato and seaweed.
  • a rice dish made with sardine and portobello mushroom, not at all overwhelmed by the sometimes strong taste of sardine, pleasantly dry and crispy and molded into the shape of a star or flower, and topped with slices of pickled daikon (daikon nukazuke, pickled in rice bran). Chef Cory is working on doing these in-house as well but they're not ready yet.
The soup was dashi-broth based but gelatinous and dense (thickened with kuzu) and carried the flavor of a cage-free chicken egg yolk that was poached in the broth (mine hardened to hard-boiled because I saved my soup for the end), and another tongue of uni floating within along with a fiddlehead fern.

The price for this fantastic little assemblage? $26.

After what we'd experienced so far I definitely wanted to try more. Chef Cory then moved us on to nigiri, serving two pieces at a time until we'd had enough. He started by first getting warm rice, and put some into a small wooden bowl with just enough for our service. We were started with salmon belly, a couple pieces for each of us cut from a beautiful slab of Scottish salmon which was immediately wrapped back up in plastic wrap and stowed away again in the fridge. The nigiri were quickly shaped with the warm rice, presented to each of us on small wooden boards, and given a delicate brushing of a shoyu-based sauce the chef has prepared himself to perfectly match the sushi. The salmon was wonderfully fresh and rich, and the contrast of the cool fish against the still-warm rice was just magnificent.

Knowing there was kohada in the house, I couldn't stop there. The next round of nigiri was the kohada, which Chef Cory brings in fresh from Japan and does a light vinegar cure himself in-house. The fish - which has beautiful silver skin speckled with black dots - was cut into strips and braided. One of my favorite things, and one that I've not been able to find elsewhere in Miami.

Next - and finally, for us, though I didn't really want to quit - was aori ika, a big squid brought in fresh (our hostess showed us a picture of the squid with its suckers still holding onto the cutting board). It is lightly salt-cured, with a small bed of finely shredded nori over the rice, and then the squid topped with a tiny yellow flower. Unlike any squid I've ever had before, this had a soft, almost creamy texture, rather than the bounciness you usually associate with squid.

Though we didn't try it during our visit, our hostess advised that Chef Cory does his own in-house "bbq" eel - unlike the pre-packaged eel you will find at most sushi places, he brings the eel in fresh and cooks it and makes his own sauce from scratch.

Everything we were served was elegant and beautiful, but most of all, delicious. The ingredient list here reads eerily like a list of my personal favorites (uni, ankimo, kohada, aji ...) but Mrs. F, who is not nearly as partial to these kinds of things as me, thoroughly enjoyed it as well. Chef Cory said that he tries to not give diners too much of a preview, so that they do not write off things before they've tried them.

This was, quite simply, one of the most unexpected and special dining experiences I've had in Miami in quite some time. The food was creative and delicious with adventurous and magnificently fresh ingredients. The chef and hostess were earnest, friendly, and absolutely charming. I enjoyed this so much, and was so pleasantly surprised, that I was afraid to go to sleep last night for fear that it would all turn out to just be a dream.

I will go back soon just to make sure.

Note: For pictures from a subsequent meal at NAOE, go here.

175 Sunny Isles Boulevard
Sunny Isles Beach, FL 33160
Wed-Sun 7pm - 1am[3]

[1] If it helps you get your bearings, it is right next door to the "Neptune Seafood Restauarant" - you can even sometimes hear the drumbeat of the Russian karaoke music through the walls.

[2] I may have misheard this, as I've never seen kohada cooked before. The size was about right though.

[3] Though the place is not busy (yet), I would highly recommend making reservations. Much of the food is made to order and with the one-man show in the kitchen, some advance notice will likely make for a much better dining experience.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Sra. Martinez - Miami Design District

Sra. Martinez

[sorry, this restaurant has closed]

I don't believe I've ever seen a restaurant come together quite as quickly as Sra. Martinez did. On October 6, 2008, Domo Japones, which had occupied the old Post Office Building in the Miami Design District for less than a year, shut down. The same day, it was announced that Michelle Bernstein (most recently famed for her eponymous restaurant Michy's on Biscayne Boulevard) would be opening a tapas bar in the space. I've always enjoyed Michelle Bernstein's cooking, back to the days when she was the chef at The Strand, one of the pioneers of the South Beach dining scene. The combination of her talents with a tapas bar format hit a real sweet spot for me (I am sort of a tapas fan), and this was an opening I was eagerly looking forward to.

Less than two months later - and just in time for Art Basel crowds - Sra. Martinez (the name a reference to Chef Bernstein's husband and partner David Martinez) was open for business. The refurbishment of the Domo Japones space (built in the 1920's and originally the Buena Vista Post Office) was done quickly but effectively, with the black & white Naomi Campbell photos swapped out for bullfighting posters, and the primary visual highlights being courtesy of some bright red Philippe Stark "Ghost" chairs and barstools. Most of the restaurant is open to a 2-story height, with the bottom floor taken up on one side by several large horseshoe-shaped booths, with more tables through the middle of the space and the opposite side providing about 15 bar seats, the space behind which is being used as the cold-prep station for the kitchen (which it later occurred to me must have been the sushi bar for the prior incarnation). A staircase ascends to a small upstairs loft, which has two long tables for bigger groups and a small bar (which happens to mix some pretty awesome cocktails, several involving house-made bitters and other intriguing ingredients like ham-infused bourbon). They make a mean Sazerac.

The menu [note: this is a very early iteration of the menu, which has - as is typical for M.B.'s restaurants - evolved and changed over time] clearly shows the influence of a recent trip to Spain. There's a healthy balance between traditional items like boquerones en escabeche, tortilla española, or pimientos de padron, and more contemporary creative items like a pancetta-wrapped rabbit loin with carrot-cumin sauce, sea urchin "sandwich," or crispy pork belly with a fennel-orange marmalade and "Benihana salad".

My first visit was the day after Sra. Martinez opened, yet remarkably the restaurant was running as smoothly as one that had been open for years. The waitstaff knew the menu, the service was efficient, and the kitchen was getting the food out timely (though we've always made clear when we're there that we're happy being served tapas style with dishes coming out as they're ready). We've been back several times, mostly with larger groups, with similar experiences (though our last visit, a final round arrived a good 20 minutes later than anything else, by which point most of our group had already stuffed themselves).

We've now worked our way through most of the menu at this point (in fact our last visit, with a group of ten, caused the kitchen to ask "Who ordered 'the menu'?"), and so I'll try to work my way through the dishes we've tried and identify those that have been my favorites.

crispy artichokes - elegant long-stemmed artichoke hearts, delicately fried with just a hint of a crispy bread crumb coating, served with an aioli dipping sauce brightened with a liberal dose of lemon. Have had these several times now and they're always good.

bacon wrapped dates - these seem to be the official snack of the Design District, with Sra. M, MGF&D and Pacific Time all having served their own variations. Sra. M's, like many of the dishes here, play on the salty-sweet thing, with a sweet date paired with salty bacon and a filling of Spanish blue cheese.

boquerones - traditional white Spanish anchovies marinated in vinegar. Nothing special, but good if you like such things. Me, I'm a big fan of the shiny-skinned fish.

pimientos de padron - another classic tapas bar item, these little green peppers - basically the same critter the Japanese call "shishito" - are quickly sauteed with olive oil over high heat till their skins blister, and sprinkled generously with sea salt, and have an herbaceous, smoky flavor. An added thrill is that roughly one in ten pack some serious spicy heat, so that eating a bowl of them is a bit like a culinary version of Russian Roulette. And this gives me an excuse to link to a Calvin Trillin piece on the peppers, which is always a good thing.

charred fava salad - this was a new item from my most recent visit and a nice one, the favas having their characteristic earthy flavor, and also a whiff of smoky spice (chipotle?). I preferred this to other salads I've had there, which were unmemorable.

croquetas - the filling of the croquetas has varied from visit to visit - sometimes wild mushrooms, more recently chorizo. These are very light in texture, but I've found the flavor of the fillings to be difficult to discern.

poached egg - I've seen this a couple different ways. The first time, it was poached then fried (a technique Jonathan Eismann uses at Pacific Time too) and served on a bed of crispy kale and serrano ham; the next visit, it was just a garden-variety, perfectly poached egg, over a nice hash of chorizo and potato. This one would surely please Jonathan Mardukus - [2:20 mark]. The Spaniards understand that eggs are delicious for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and Sra. M gets it too.

tortilla española - a somewhat small hockey puck sized portion of the classic Spanish omelette, but not too dried out like you often find it here in the States. Even better with some diced chorizo (what isn't?).

pan con tomate - a simple dish - just crusty bread rubbed with garlic and tomato and drizzled with olive oil - but one that can be wonderful when done right (like at Paco Meralgo in Bacelona). The bread was a weak link here, seemed like garden-variety Cuban bread that was too spongy and insipid, and not enough olive oil.

crispy eggplant - thin disks of eggplant are fried till crispy and drizzled with dark honey. A great combination, and one that sounds somewhat avant garde, but actually a fairly common Spanish tapa.

piquillo peppers - these smoky Spanish peppers with just a hint of piquancy are wonderful things, and they're served simply with a drizzle of good olive oil. A simple traditional tapa, good but nothing extraordinary.

patatas bravas - another traditional Spanish tapas item, typically cubes of potato are twice-fried and served dressed with a fiery tomato sauce, and often accompanied with an aioli as well. The first time I had these, the bravas sauce was too sweet, and the portion too dainty. Both issues were fixed on a subsequent visit, by which time these had become "untraditional" bravas with Peruvian dipping sauces. The tomato-based sauce was now happily fiery, and an aji amarillo sauce made for a nice alternative. I now understand the dish has been tweaked even further in the Peruvian direction, with potato skins subbing for the cubed potatoes and a salsa huancaina in the mix. This tilt towards Latin America seems to have generally become stronger over the few months since Sra. Martinez first opened.

prawns a la plancha - massive head-on "Madagascar prawns" were grilled head-on and whole, and served with cloves of "confit garlic" and a shmear of a smooth chimichurri sauce. I always love good head-on shrimp, but this dish seemed caught somewhere between a classic gambas a la plancha (simply grilled, often with nothing other than sea salt) and a gambas al ajillo (sauteed in olive oil and lots of garlic) and fell a bit short of either. I believe this has undergone some metamorphosis as the menu has been updated.

clams - steamed open with sherry, garlic, chiles and roasted tomatoes, I thought these were fantastic, juicy and loaded with flavor. Unfortunately, they are also off the menu, as M.B. said they weren't getting ordered often enough. What a shame. I hope they make a comeback.

white bean stew w/ duck & foie sausage - a great dish. Mammoth white beans (like the gigantic judion beans I recall seeing in Segovia) are served with big hunks of botifarra sausage made with duck and foie gras, all laced with a port reduction that gives the dish a hint of sweetness. M.B. gives full credit to the legendary Barcelona restaurant Cal Pep for the inspiration for this dish, though she self-deprecatingly says her version is not as good as the original.

garbanzos - the first couple times I had these, the beans were done with crumbled morcilla (blood sausage) and cubes of sauteed apple, a combination I quite liked. On my most recent visit, the recipe had changed, and they instead were flavored with an overpowering dose of orange. I liked the initial iteration much better.

sea urchin "sandwich" - another of my favorites, sea urchin roe, together with some soy-ginger butter, are pressed within some crusty bread, Cuban sandwich style. I usually don't like my uni messed with at all, but I thought the soy-ginger notes complimented and enhanced the salty, sweet, spicy flavors of the uni. On later visits the portion sizing of this seems to have been downscaled and it may not be the greatest value for the price.

calamari a la plancha - grilled calamari, served over a bed of arroz negro flavored and colored with squid ink and ringed with a circle of green herb oil.

pork belly - the pork belly is crispy outside, tender within, topped with a smidge of a not-too-sweet fennel orange marmalade, and accompanied with a "Benihana salad" (which is indeed much like its namesake). One of the standout dishes.

galbi pinchos - short ribs sliced thin across the bone, dim-sum style, marinated in a Korean style sweet soy sauce, and served with a kohlrabi "slaw" of thinly sliced and vinegared rounds of kohlrabi, reminiscent of a Korean banchan. A little chewy, but tasty.

rabo encendido - liked this one quite a bit, oxtails given a long braise, the meat then pulled and shredded and stacked onto little toasts. The meat was wonderfully tender and richly flavored, even if I missed the opportunity to gnaw on the ends of the bones.

rabbit loin - this is a dish I'd had as a special at Michy's previously, a loin of rabbit is wrapped in bacon and served with sauteed rounds of carrot, a carrot-cumin sauce, and cubes of panisse (chick-pea fries). One of the best rabbit preps I've ever had, and was just as good at Sra. M as it had been at Michy's. Unfortunately it was not on the menu for my last visit.

sweetbreads - Any sweetbread dish at Michy's is always one of the high points. Chef Bernstein has a complete mastery of the things, achieving a wonderfully light and crispy exterior while still preserving the ethereal, delicate fluffy interior, and I've had some fantastic pairings at Michy's. The initial incarnation of a sweetbread dish at Sra. M. was just as good for the prep of the sweetbreads themselves, but the pairing (a romesco sauce and a caperberry) was disappointingly bland. On my last visit, there was a new version, this one topped with a semi-sweet orange sauce and plated with some lettuce leaves for making sweetbread lettuce wraps. A vast improvement and a really nice twist.

marrow bones - a great ingredient but a flawed execution the time I tried them. Each order comes with 4 bones, the shanks split lengthwise in half and then crosswise into roughly 2-inch lengths so that the marrow is exposed. Unfortunately there was a lot of variation from one piece to the next so that one might be loaded with marrow and the other have almost none, and also there were little shards of bone which easily broke off. A shame, as I am a huge fan of roasted marrow and had a similar dish done just perfectly at Michy's on one visit (served there with a pear gremolata).

cheese plate - a simple presentation of three cheeses (a Manchego, a Mucria al Vino, and a Valdeon blue when we ordered it), each with a little dab of a different jam or marmalade to accompany it.

donuts - dulce de leche filled donuts, accompanied with a coffee granita (coffee and donuts!). The coffee granita was pleasantly strong and not too sweet.

goat cheese and honey - listed as a dessert but really more of a cheese course, a round of a really nice goat cheese (pale and creamy in the center, gooey and golden around the edges, with a soft white rind) is warmed, topped with a smear of honey and a sprinkle of fresh thyme leaves, served with olive oil crackers for spreading. I often love the combination of cheese and honey and this really worked for me.

torrejas - basically french toast for dessert, this tasted like it was made with a panettone-type bread, sweet and dense with hints of dried fruits. Since one of my favorite treats is to make french toast from panettone, this made me very happy.

greek yogurt ice cream - an interesting play between sweet and savory, with a very yogurt-y ice cream accompanied by a sweet tomato marmalade and another sweet syrupy component (reduced balsamic?).

There are a few entree-sized items on the menu - a steak, a fish, a chicken - but they seem to be there primarily to appease those folks who can't get into the tapas spirit. The one time I was with a group that ordered one of these, the fish, it was perfectly fine but completely unexciting. The lesson - stick with the tapas.

The wine list is exclusively Spanish and has a number of interesting items and some real bargains, including an Alto Moncayo Veraton (a modern-styled garnacha) very fairly priced at $55, and an eminently drinkable Borsao Compo de Borja garnacha/tempranillo blend for only $20. On another occasion I had a nice Rioja with some bottle age on it, a 2001 La Rioja Alta Viña Alberdi, for only a bit over 2x retail.

As often as not, Michelle Bernstein will be in the house making sure everything is running right (she regularly does double-duty here and at Michy's up Biscayne Blvd. the same night), though it's her former sous chef from Michy's, Berenice de Araujo, running the kitchen at Sra. Martinez. Portions can be on the small side, and prices have crept up a bit from when they first opened, with most items involving a protein around $15. Since a typical meal may be 3+ dishes it is certainly not a cheap meal, in contrast to the Spanish tapas bars it is patterned after. But it'll be a good meal, and the place also lends itself to having a little snack and a drink at the bar instead of a full-blown meal, perhaps even before a meal as you head off to one of the Design District's other eating establishments.

Sra. Martinez
4000 N.E. 2nd Ave.
Miami, FL

Sra. Martinez on Urbanspoon

Thursday, April 23, 2009

La Cofradia Ceviche Bar Menu Preview

ceviche bar lunch La Cofradia opened in Coral Gables in late 2005. Its Nuevo-Peruvian food was often pretty good, but the clubby-looking restaurant with an odd long narrow layout - and the high prices - seemed to keep it from ever getting much traction. About a month ago, La Cofradia closed its doors and filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Almost immediately after doing so, though, it asked to dismiss the bankruptcy case, and signs appeared in the window announcing the impending opening of "La Cofradia Ceviche Bar" in early May. A new menu has now been posted outside, of which I have a couple terrible photos. (Silly me - I now see that they've updated the website with the new menu as well).

ceviche bar dinnerThe quick recap: the food has gotten much simpler, with a fairly straight-ahead listing of about a half-dozen ceviches, tiraditos, and various combinations thereof (all priced around $13-15); several salads and cooked apps, including some traditional Peruvian causas, and a great pork and grapes dish which is a carry-over from the original menu; saltados (stir-fry?) with your choice of protein; and a number of other entrees all priced under $25. Plus daily lunch specials for $13.50. I often complain about "dumbing down," but if it helps a restaurant survive, in these times I suppose that's the name of the game. It'll be interesting to see if it works for this new incaranation of La Cofradia.

La Cofradia
160 Andalusia Avenue
Coral Gables, FL 33134

Cinco de MiMo on BiBo

cinco de mimo On May 2, the Biscayne Boulevard Historic District is playing host for the "Cinco de MiMo" festival. Several local restaurants and shops will be participating, with street performers, live music in the afternoon from the Almost Blues Band and Somebody's Mama, and restaurants offering "tastes" for $2 - $5. A "Pink Pooch Parade & Contest" is also in the works.

Participating restaurants (working north to south) include:

Anise Waterfront Taverna - 620 NE 78th St.
Red Light - 7700 Biscayne Boulevard
Ver Daddy's Taco Shop - 7501 Biscyane Boulevard
Le Cafe Bistro - 7295 Biscayne Boulevard
Che Sopranos - 7251 Biscayne Boulevard
Moshi Moshi - 7232 Biscayne Boulevard
Moonchine Asian Bistro - 7100 Biscayne Boulevard
Casa Toscana - 7001 Biscayne Boulevard
Michy's - 6927 Biscayne Boulevard
Wine 69 - 6909 Biscayne Boulevard
UVA 69 - 6900 Biscayne Boulevard
Kingdom - 6708 Biscayne Boulevard

What's That Growing in the Fridge Pt. II

It was never my intent for this to be a "home cooking" blog - and it won't be, but bear with me, this ties in to an earlier post. Mrs. F was off on her own at Sra. Martinez [as to which more detailed thoughts will be forthcoming] tonight, while I was left to rifle through the fridge and construct a meal from what I could find. OK, let's see - an Italian dry sausage ... some Cypress Grove Midnight Moon cheese ... some local grown baby bok choy and spring onion from Norman Brothers ... the rest of the Carlisle RRV Syrah we opened last night ... I can work with this. While I enjoy cooking, I don't relish spending a ton of time making a meal when I'm only getting started at 9pm, so this will be quick. Onion chopped and into a hot pan with some oil, when it starts going golden the bok choy goes in. A splash of soy, a splash of black vinegar ... this lapsang souchong vinegar still looks OK, some of that too ... and a spoonful of toban jan sauce. Toss, lid down for a couple minutes, done.

The sausage was chewy and rich with a little spice and tang. The cheese, a Gouda-like aged goat cheese apparently produced specially for Cypress Grove in Holland, was firm but not hard, with nutty, salty, caramel notes, and little grainy crystals like a good Parmigiano-Reggiano. The wine was even better on the second day - blackberry, graphite, smoke, some nice acidity. And my quickly cooked baby bok choy didn't suck.

So what did all of these have in common? Fermentation. The sausage relies on fermentation both for preservation and flavor development. The cheese likewise is the product of fermentation. The vinegar (doubly so the lapsang souchong vinegar, which was flavored with fermented black tea) and toban jan (made with chiles and fermented broad beans) too. Wine - well, yeah. Completely unintentional and coincidental. And actually quite delicious - as noted in a comment to that prior post, all loaded with umami.

I still would have rather been at Sra. M's.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Whisky Tango Foxtrot?

First, the "2 Dudes" from LA make possibly the single most unappetizing reference one could ever pick for a cookbook title ("Two Dudes, One Pan"); now Food Network is taking a South Park joke and making a show out of it (What Would Brian Boitano Make?)? I think my head may explode.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

You Must Remember This

maltitol Interesting news from the Far East, as Pierre Gagnaire and Hervé This are reported to have created the world's first "entirely synthetic gourmet dish". Described as jelly balls with apple and lemon flavors, creamy on the inside and crispy outside, they are fabricated from ascorbic acid, citric acid, glucose and maltitol (also known, more menacingly, as 4-O-α-glucopyranosyl-D-sorbitol).

Haven't these guys heard of a Twinkie? In any event, my question, as always, is: but how does it taste?

On a related note, Ian Kleinman of Food102 and O's Restaurant in the Westin in Westminster, Colorado, reports that Hervé This has a few words to say on the whole "molecular gastronomy" nomenclature kerfuffle (or, I should say, a few more words). This (for whom "cooking" is cooking, and "gastronomy" is the study of same) foresees the decline of "molecular cooking" as a descriptive term, as more chefs turn away from it, letting "molecular gastronomy" return to its original meaning as referring to the scientific study of cooking (though this seems to ignore the increasing traction "MG" seems to have in the mainstream press).

It's possible we're all reaching the "call it what you will" stage. Per Kleinman, "Our menu still says molecular tasting menu but I cannot wait for the day where we all are looking for the best technique, not the best label." And per This, "And to finish, let’s drop the question of science, technology, etc. The main question is « how best say « I love you » through food ? "

[My deepest apologies for the absolutely horrible pun in the title of this post; couldn't help myself.]

Monday, April 20, 2009

Area 31 - Downtown Miami

Area 31 menu I've had some less than kind things to say about the recent influx of carpet-bagging chefs and high-end hotel restaurants to Miami. But Area 31, in the new Epic Hotel downtown, seemed to be doing things a little differently. Though the chef hails from Boston, most of the food comes from much closer. The restaurant is named after a designation from the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization of the fishing area off the coast of Florida and stretching down to parts of Central and South America, and much of the seafood-centric menu (sorry for the terrible Blackberry photo) is sourced from the namesake region.

The Epic is run by the Kimpton Group, which happens to be one of my favorite hotel chains, as they typically manage to give every hotel a unique, non-chain feel, and also often make a real effort to bring good restaurants into their hotels, places that would be worth a visit even if you're not staying there. The Epic is a lot more grandiose than any other Kimpton hotel I've been to, but this is Miami, after all. The restaurant is up on the 16th floor, providing views primarily across the Miami River and down Brickell Avenue, but also out to Biscayne Bay, particularly from the sizable (but windy) outdoor area.

Area 31's menu is, unsurprisingly, heavy on the fish and seafood, but also shows a distinctly Italian slant. There are about 5-6 "crudos" (various raw or near-raw ceviche and tiradito type items), another half-dozen or so salads and cooked appetizers, about 5-6 fish available simply grilled with a choice of different sauces, about 5 pasta dishes, and then several entrees (fish, fowl and larger beasts) and a number of vegetable sides too.

Even though the seafood is clearly the focus here, I was very tempted by an appetizer of escargot, pork belly and carrots, but alas it was not available. Just as well, I instead shifted gears and went instead with an octopus "crudo," which brought a ceviche-like mix of thinly sliced shingles of octopus, fresh hearts of palm, slivers of kumquat, and an unadvertised bonus of thin slices of lightly marinated mackerel, bathing in a coconut milk spiked with citrus juices. This was an absolutely beautiful combination. I'm a big fan of kumquat, and its tart, slightly bitter pucker was a great contrast to the not-overwhelming sweetness of the coconut milk. The flavor profiles, particularly with the hint of sweetness to the marinade and the boldness of the thinly sliced whole citrus, were actually very similar to the octopus ceviche often served at Yakko-San. Mrs. F started with a beet salad with avocado and pistachio, which I found underwhelming.

I followed with a red drum, seared and served with a parsley root puree, caramelized cipollini onions, and pumpernickel crumbs, along with (again, unadvertised) thin discs of golden beet (I think?) that were infused with vanilla aroma and flavor. The fish's skin had a perfect crispy sear, but the meat itself was just a touch dry. I loved the accompaniments, especially the pumpernickel crumbs, which provided a nice, deep savory pairing with the fish, and the vanilla was a nice touch. Mrs. F had the sepia (a large cuttlefish) from the simply prepared "Ocean to Table" section of the menu. It was indeed simply prepared, grilled (a tiny bit under-cooked said Mrs. F) and served with a salsa verde that provided a nice burst of herbs and garlic. This was also priced pretty darn reasonably at $16. (The "Ocean to Table" section of the menu is all very reasonably priced, with options ranging from $15 for mahi mahi to $22 for red drum, though I believe this comes with smaller portion sizes as well). One disappointment was that a side order of broccoli rapini, advertised on the menu as being sauteed in garlic and olive oil, instead came literally soaking in way too much melted butter.

The wine list is fairly wide-ranging without being encyclopedic, and I was happy to see one of my favorite pairings with seafood, a Txakoli (the Oreka from Talai Berri) from the Basque region of Spain, available. At $50, this is almost exactly 2.5x retail, not great but not outrageous by Miami standards. However, the list was somewhat lacking in a lot of options under $50.

Despite my railing against carpet-bagging outsiders opening up fancy restaurants in big hotels, Area 31 is actually doing a lot of things right in my book.

Area 31
Epic Hotel
270 Biscayne Boulevard Way
Miami, FL 33131

Area 31 on Urbanspoon

Saturday, April 18, 2009

goes around ... comes around

I've always been intrigued by how food ideas and trends work their way through menus and restaurants. Often the phenomenon is at its most acute in a place like San Francisco, which is a serious foodie town but is also, in many ways, still a fairly small town. I recall one visit several years ago when every place we went had a beet salad with goat cheese (yes, that one seems to have some staying power). On our last visit a couple years ago, it was in-house charcuterie.

It's not all that uncommon to see basically the same dish done at different restaurants. Sometimes - often - that can be the result of spontaneous independent creation, but it's also often the result of conscious or unconscious influence. Because there is little intellectual property protection for a recipe or a plating presentation, there's little a chef could do about it even if they wanted to, though culinary plagiarism has been a topic of robust discussion. You can call it, respectfully, "homage" or "inspiration," or pejoratively, "copying" or "plagiarizing," and the distinctions are sometimes difficult to assess. The perception (and, I suppose the reality) can depend on a lot of things: how original was the dish in the first place? how willing is the chef to acknowledge the influence of others? what's the relationship, if any, between the two chefs?

But that's not really my point here, rather I just find it interesting to watch how food trends work their way through the restaurant biz. This particular reverie was prompted by a Ruth Reichl twitter about a dinner at Animal, a much-talked-up new Los Angeles restaurant. Animal, opened less than a year ago, is the product of Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, who were featured in a short-running Food Network show called "2 Dudes Catering." Little did I know, until looking at the Animal website, that Shook and Dotolo had South Florida roots, having gone to culinary school in Fort Lauderdale and gotten their start at The Strand restaurant with Michelle Bernstein as head chef.

But the South Florida connection that I saw was their menu - in particular, a couple of the dishes mentioned by Reichl. Pork belly with kim chee and peanuts? Fried hominy with lime? Sound familiar to any of you Miami folks?

For those not in the know, these just happen to be a couple of the mainstay items at Michael's Genuine Food & Drink. Now, it's not like Michael Schwartz would ever claim to be the first person to have combined these ingredients. Nor, for that matter, is he in any position to complain about someone riffing on the same tune that he's been playing. After all, another of the mainstays on his menu, the wood-oven roasted whole chicken (served with plumped raisins, toasted pine nuts and baby arugula) is, as I noted some time ago, pretty much the same recipe that Zuni Cafe in S.F. is famous for.[*] More recently, I had a porchetta de testa that appeared to be made using the same recipe that Chris Cosentino of Incanto had done in a video for Gourmet.

So I doubt that Chef Schwartz would ever make a stink about it. And let me be clear, I'm not accusing anyone of "copying" anyone else. But it is curious how a restaurant on one coast should be getting kudos for dishes that sound mighty similar to the dishes that were earning another restaurant on the other coast kudos a year earlier, no? Could just be that everyone loves them some pork belly and kim chee, and some crispy hominy with lime. I know I do.

[*] I had the good fortune of trying the MGF&D whole roasted chicken within a month of a trip to S.F. and trying the famous Zuni Cafe chicken. My verdict - the MGF&D version was even better than the original.

My Dinner With Toby?

Top Chef is something of a guilty pleasure for me. I normally can't stand the reality show format, the product placements are painful, and the competition structure is somewhat contrived and goofy, but at least there are some real chefs and some real cooking going on. This past season was a bit of a downer, as the caliber of the contestants seemed to have dipped, and the couple of folks who seemed to me to show any flair for creativity (Jeff McInnis, Jamie Lauren in my book, but to each his own, of course) struggled to get any traction, but I continued to watch anyway.

I didn't exactly find the season to be enhanced by the presence of the new judge, Toby Young, an English prat whose greatest claim to fame is his ability to annoy other people and somehow get marginally famous for doing so. (Don't take my word for it; he's published a book called "How to Lose Friends and Alienate People: A Memoir"). I have no issue with tough criticism, but he didn't even really offer that. Rather, I just found Young's comments to be stilted, forced, unfunny, and often just plain ignorant. I think you could hear the groans across the country when he attempted to make an "I've found the weapons of mass destruction" joke about five years after that could have remotely been thought of as topical. And it was a real thrill to have an Englishman pontificate on what makes for "authentic" New Orleans or Miami food.[1]

The kicker for me was when, in response to critics, he presumed that it was his mastery of basic grammar, rather than his contrived (lack of) wit, that us knuckle-dragging Americans found so off-putting:
But one of the penalties of being a well-educated Brit in America is that people are constantly accusing you of having memorised lines for the simple reason that you talk in complete sentences and — completely unheard of, this — you don’t make any grammatical mistakes.
Yeah, that must be it.

When I saw on Feedbag that (1) Toby Young was making another appearance as a judge on Top Chef; (2) he was amused by the hue and cry for someone, anyone other than him to serve in that capacity (some of the suggestions included Sirhan Sirhan, Beetlejuice, and an inanimate carbon rod); and (3) he was offering up a dinner in Vegas in his company for an eBay charity auction, well I couldn't resist sharing my two pence. OK, actually what I said was:
Don’t take too much satisfaction from being told that you’re funny by a guy who was making “I’ve found the weapons of mass destruction” jokes in 2008. Question about that eBay auction: do I get to order for TY? (”I’ll have the porterhouse, and my companion here will be having the shit sandwich.”)
Well, someone claiming to be Toby Young responded, "If yours is the winning bid, Frodnesor, I’ll eat what you tell me to eat, no questions asked. That’s a promise." And while it'd be perfectly easy for someone to pretend to be TY - why would anyone ever want to do that? So, on a lark, I put in a bid for the charity auction for a dinner with Toby Young at Tom Colicchio's Craftsteak in Las Vegas.

And - not that I should be all that surprised that the bidding is not exactly going like hotcakes - I'm currently the high bidder, with a whopping bid of $100.01. [I've since been outbid, and am contemplating how much this opportunity is potentially worth]. So here's my question. Assuming nobody else is willing to pay more than $100.01 to spend a weekend in Vegas and have a meal at Craftsteak if it means having to endure Toby Young's company for said meal, what choice things would have you have me ask (or tell) Mr. Young? Any thoughts you'd like to share?[2]

[1] Particularly one whose depth of understanding of New Orleans cuisine is evidenced by this quote from a review of a London restaurant called "Big Easy BBQ and Crabshack":

"The Big Easy is modelled on the informal seafood restaurants of America's Gulf Coast, with plain, utilitarian furniture, chequered tablecloths and plastic bibs for those who want to avoid getting crabmeat on their Hawaiian shirts. It's so laid back, it could almost be one of those bars in the French Quarter of New Orleans where the drinkers were undisturbed by Hurricane Katrina. My fellow diners all looked as though they'd consumed several jugs of frozen margaritas before sitting down to tackle one of the restaurant's gigantic meals."

[2] I'm a little concerned with some of the fine print in the eBay auction, specifically this piece:

Winner and guest understand they will need to behave in a reasonable and appropriate manner at all times during the experience. Violations will invalidate the experience for all participants and the winner and guest will be asked to leave the dinner. Causes for termination include but are not limited to: profanity, harassment, not following instructions of assigned escort or security at event, intoxication, or other codes of conduct which are considered unreasonable.
But I'm assuming that "reasonable," "appropriate," "profanity," and "harassment" will be narrowly construed. Surely someone with Mr. Young's resume has developed a somewhat thick skin by this time, no?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Indian Palate - Coral Gables

[Sorry, this place has closed]

It's generally been a struggle to find good Indian food in Miami. Renaisa, off Biscayne Boulevard and 78th Street, was my go-to place for a while (for take-out - I couldn't bear to sit in the dingy space, which has now changed hands and been made much nicer as Anise Taverna, a Greek/Med restaurant from the folks who used to run Ouzo's), but then they moved north to Heelsha around 163rd St. and I haven't gotten up that way. I've had a couple better-than-decent meals at Mint Leaf in Coral Gables, but it's rather pricy. So when a new entry in the market made its appearance, I was excited to try Indian Palate, and made my way over this week for lunch.

While walking my way to the restaurant's location at the corner of Salzedo Street and Alcazar Avenue, it gradually dawned on me what used to be there - it's the old Le Festival space! But this will not be one of my interminable reminiscences about restaurants-gone-by, I promise. It's still got ivy covering the walls outside, but the interior has been redone with Indian paintings and decorations. Lunch is done buffet-style, with a few serving tables set up in one room opposite the dining room (which appears to only have a portion of the full space open for lunch).

The buffet offered about 3-4 vegetable dishes , about 5 various meat dishes, basmati rice, a couple breads (the baskets of which were not refreshed nearly often enough), as well as another table set up as a chaat bar and yet another laid out with simple salad stuff and about a half-dozen chutneys and pickles.

My favorite thing was the chaat bar. Chaats are Indian street food, various combinations of miscellaneous crispy bits, sauces and spices. Here, they offered little puffed rice balls, crispy shredded wheat, and big round wheat puffs,along with several various sauces for topping them, including creamy yogurt, another yogurt-based sauce spiked with mint, a tart tamarind sauce, and a moderately spicy tomato chutney, along with diced fresh tomato and mint. The effect of the combination, which you can doctor as you see fit, is much like a spicy, savory, crunchy breakfast cereal, and oddly compelling.

The buffet fare was decent but not exceptional. The vegetables included a saag paneer (creamy spinach with cubes of mild cheese), a mild mixed vegetable curry, and a potato dish; the meats included a chicken tikka masala, a stewed lamb dish (rogan josh?), another dish with ground lamb or beef, and mussels in a peanut sauce. It was all OK, but there was nothing that really stood out. It was as if the spice had been turned down on everything, which I think is a mistake. Though I understand that not everyone likes spicy food, there's a difference between spicy and highly spiced. Indian food need not (should not) always be spicy, but if it's not highly spiced, then what's the point? To me that's the heart of Indian cooking.

I have read that the Indian Palate chef came over from Vix at the Hotel Victor on South Beach, which makes a lot of sense. I only ate there once, but what made the most memorable impression - other than the astronomical prices - was a bread plate that featured several delicious Indian breads, and some very savory dips including a raita and some chutneys. Now, Indian Palate offers a fuller panoply of choices, and at a much more affordable cost - our lunch buffet was $13, a bargain all things considered. The dinner menu seems a bit more convoluted, with a bunch of different combination plates, but I like the idea, since it gives an opportunity to try a broader variety of dishes. Now if they could just turn up the spice dial some so you can better distinguish one from another.

Indian Palate
2120 Salzedo St.
Coral Gables, FL 33134

Indian Palate on Urbanspoon

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Bulldog BBQ Redux - The Pros Check In

I gave my thoughts on Bulldog BBQ a couple months ago. Now, on the same day, the pros from Miami Herald and New Times check in. You'd think everyone had the same crib sheet.
  • look - sleek and modern
  • good - turkey chili, fried oyster app, burnt end beans
  • bland - curiously under-flavored meats, cornbread and slaw
  • not quite right - smoky, sour mac & cheese
  • portions - large
  • beers - lousy selection
  • "hot chocolate puddin' cake" - molten chocolate cake in blue-collar drag
  • bbq purists - don't bother
  • verdict - still a decent meal, even if it ain't real 'cue.

What's That Growing in the Fridge?

I think the area of fermentation is an under-explored genre of food manipulation. At our recent visit to Akelaŕe, a dish described as "milk and grape, cheese and wine in parallel evolution" promised to explore the subject, but while the concept was there, I thought the execution was somewhat lacking.

I've always generally understood how the fermentation process works with wine, with yeast acting to convert the sugars in the grape juice into alcohol. I understood it less with regard to fermented vegetables (i.e., kim chee) and meats (i.e., sausages) until doing a little research. My naive understanding now is that it is in most respects essentially the same process, but instead of sugar converting to alcohol, it is the conversion of carbohydrates into lactic acid by means of beneficial bacteria. It is this lactic acid which both acts to preserve the foods and helps eliminate bad bacteria.

In any event, here's an interesting little interview with Sandor Katz, fermentation maven, on the topic of home fermentation, which in turn led me to his website, Wild Fermentation. I suspect I've had some unintentional home fermentation projects going on at one time or another - this suggests a more purposeful approach.

Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before

Big name N.Y. restaurateur opens fancy restaurant in great big new Miami hotel. First reported in MenuPages, now with more detail - and a preview menu (sorry - link appears to be screwed up) - from UrbanDaddy, Eos in the Viceroy Hotel, a product of restaurateur Donatella Arpaia with a menu from chef Michael Psilakis, will be doing a soft opening starting next Tuesday.

At least it's not a steakhouse.

485 Brickell Avenue
Miami, FL 33131

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Everything Old is New Again

When we were in Spain, I noted on more than one occasion how traditional dishes were the springboard for creative contemporary dishes - a new-age variant of a Gilda pintxo at Akelaŕe, an apertivo of puding de kabrarroka at Arzak. This is hardly a new idea. There's a long line of chefs who play with variations on classics. Here is just one local example from here in Miami - oeufs à la gelée, inspired by Fernand Point's Ma Gastronomie. The use of classic combinations in conjunction with contemporary techniques, or alternatively, classic presentations with untraditional ingredients, is often an effective way to mediate the tension between neophilia and neophobia* (or, to skip the fancy lingo, "I want something new" vs. "I want something familiar") inherent in any dining experience.

Indeed, there seems to be plenty of looking backwards these days, with Zagat sponsoring a series of "Vintage Dinners" - including this magnificent offering from Thomas Keller and Jonathan Benno of Per Se from a few months ago (salmon coulibiac; lobster thermidor; veal a la maintenon; grand kugelhof - we're going to party like it's 1899!).

But in a recent post on the new Atlantic Food Channel, Grant Achatz of Alinea (as usual) takes it to another level. In "New Fusion: Making Old Modern," instead of using old recipes as a jumping-off point for the use of new techniques, he talks instead about the incorporation of classic recipes, lock stock and barrel, into contemporary menus, for purposes of contrast and comparison:
Can the juxtaposition of modern and classic preparations within the same menu elevate each by giving a clearer perspective of evolution? Or does it show how little cooking has really changed? Can it fulfill different emotional aspects through the contrasts? Will people even notice? Is it a moment of gastronomic time travel?
Most of these questions probably can't be answered until it's experienced, but they are all good questions to be asking. I've generally always been of the belief that there's a lot less that separates the "modern" and the "classic" than many people seem to think, but perhaps that assumption is off the mark. Are we ready for a Quantum Leap dining experience? And how long until Michael Mina comes up with a "time travel trio"?

*Borrowing a concept from Michael Pollan's great book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma", and redeploying it in a slightly different context.

El Carajo International Tapas & Wine - Miami

One of my colleagues, after seeing the Robert Rodriguez movie "From Dusk Till Dawn," described the scene in the Mexican bar, when Santanico Pandemonium (Salma Hayek) is dancing and ultimately reveals herself and the other bar denizens to be vicious vampires,* as the most dramatic paradigm shift since the transition from black and white to color in "The Wizard of Oz." That might be a stretch. But there's a comparable, though much more pleasant, paradigm shift when you walk into the gas station on the corner of US1 and S.W. 17th Avenue. Seemingly just an everyday gas station (used to be a Citgo, think it's now BP), once you go past the sodas and beers and sundries, you'll discover in the back a remarkable little wine shop and tapas bar which goes by the (apparently laden with double-entendre in Spanish) name of El Carajo.

The wall of wines lining the back holds a number of choices you'd never expect to find in a gas station. I just happened to be sitting last time in front of the Australia and South America sections, and glimpsed multiple different releases from Mollydooker, some Achaval-Ferrer Quimira, Montes Alpha Folly, and many other intriguing bottles. While the prices may not be the cheapest in town, here's a good deal - take anything off the wall, have it with your tapas, and you'll pay only $10 corkage.

The menu lists a surprisingly deep (for a gas station) selection of cold and hot tapas as well as paellas and more substantial entrees. I've stuck mostly with the tapas. On a recent visit I tried boquerones, very nice Spanish white anchovies in a pungent vinaigrette loaded with onion; fresh sardines, grilled and bathed in olive oil and lemon; and a tortilla de chorizo, a substantial slice for $4, redolent with the paprika-spiked sausage but a wee bit dry for my taste (though you rarely see here in the U.S. the more oozy tortillas you often find in Spain). On other occasions I've had their gambas al ajillo (decent), chistorras al vino (bright red little sausages cooked in wine, the wine and oil making a fantastic dipping sauce for their good bread), and a decent if somewhat oversalted caldo gallego.

When I first started to visit El Carajo, they used to have what I thought was possibly the finest tapa I'd ever eaten in South Florida - piquillo peppers stuffed with a bacalao mousse, lightly fried, and topped with a squid ink sauce. However, as a result of a chef change, the dish is now a shadow of its former self. When I last ordered it, the codfish stuffing was unpleasantly dry, and the sauce was just a nebbish red pepper sauce. This used to be a dish I'd actively pine for - it's now no longer worth ordering.

But there's still plenty else good to be had, somehow made all the more enjoyable by the incongruous location.

El Carajo International Tapas & Wine
2465 S.W. 17th Avenue
Miami, FL 33145

El Carajo International Tapas & Wine on Urbanspoon

*Now that I made you think of it, let me save you the effort: here's the trailer, and here's the dance scene in its entirety.

I'm all aTwitter ...

... and I don't know why. Surely there's a point to Twitter, and eventually I suppose I will figure out what it is. My present impression is that it is a curious mix of exhibitionism and voyeurism (a fortuitous pairing, no doubt), sprinkled with a healthy dose of banality. If you want to be there when the "eureka!" moment comes, follow me here.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Not Ready for Prime Time

Prime Blue Grill,which opened in mid-2007 in downtown Miami, had signs up today indicating that the restaurant was closed "for renovations" until further notice.

Whisky a Go Go

Is it a mere coincidence that the Great Depression came after several years of Prohibition? I think not. Indeed, it wasn't until Prohibition was repealed that this country emerged from its economic funk, with FDR declaring in 1933, "I think this would be a good time for beer." Or whisky. Of course, Prohibition actually did little to stifle whisky production, but don't let that distract from the point here - the times call for strong drink. Here to slake that thirst, a couple options for your consideration:

(1) On Tax Day, Bourbon Steak is hoping to "Raise Your Spirits" with half-priced cocktails ($6-$9.50), 25% off American whiskey and scotch selections, specially priced appetizers and entrees including their new bar burgers menu, plus live blues. 7:30 -10:30pm April 15.

Bourbon Steak
19999 West Country Club Drive
Aventura FL 33180

(2) A week later, on April 23, Neomi's Grill is hosting "The Great Whisk(e)y Debate," with master distillers comparing whiskys from around the world. 6pm hosted cocktail hour, followed by the great debate and grand tasting at 7pm, then stay for dinner as the chefs battle over who's got the best backyard BBQ recipe. $49 inclusive of taxes and gratuities.

Neomi's Grill
18001 Collins Avenue
Sunny Isles, FL 33160

IM Tapas - Naples

We had a quick hit-and-run visit to the west coast of Florida a few weeks ago and ended up at IM Tapas after being told there was an hour-long wait at USS Nemo (unbelievable how busy some places were - the Naples real estate market sure shows the state of the economy, but you'd never know it from some of the restaurants). The menu was a nice mix of straight-ahead old-school tapas and some newer more contemporary twists, including, in addition to the regular menu, a printed list of about 10-12 daily specials (which, somewhat disconcertingly, had no prices listed). We had Frod Jr. and Little Miss F in tow and collectively got to try several items.

beet salad - the now-classic pairing of roasted beets and goat cheese, enlivened here with a sprinkle of pine nuts and little bits of crispy serrano ham. Nice presentation too, with slices of beet layered with goat cheese and stacked impressively in a tower.

fabada - a classic bean stew, and a nice rendition here, with big fat white beans and a rich broth, studded with chunks of chorizo and morcilla.

fried calamari - one of Little Miss F's favorites, the calamari were generously dusted with what I believe was pimenton (Spanish smoked paprika) and served with a spicy tomato dipping sauce.

skewered pork - very juicy cubes of pork, very assertively spiced with Moorish spices; I'm often underhwelmed by meat-on-a-stick, but these were quite good.

zucchini blossoms - stuffed with goat cheese blended with minced serrano ham, these were perfectly fried and the mild chevre didn't overwhelm the delicate blossoms. Really well done.

chorizo in cider - another traditional item, little rounds of chorizo sausage cooked in cider with sweet caramelized onions, served bubbling in a hot cazuela. Another hit with Frod Jr. and Little Miss F.

stuffed piquillos - yet another classic tapa with a clever presentation, 3 piquillo peppers were balanced with their tips upward, stuffed with a bacalao mousse, the plate lined with two sauces, one a red pepper sauce, the other a vibrant translucent yellow, and tasting almost like a very loose, oily aioli. A well-done take on the classic.

cheese plate - we opted for a 5-cheese plate which arrived at the end of our meal as a dessert course (which was fine by us), and it was a very nice, authentically Spanish spread: tetilla (the "tit cheese," as the chef happily explained, due to the shape) which was wonderfully soft and creamy; garrotxa (a nice moderately firm goat cheese); majorero (an unusual, somewhat nutty goat cheese from goats that, according to the chef, eat only marjoram); a ball of soft cabrales (a blue that I often don't particularly like, but I enjoyed this one); and one I can't recall. They were served with a couple slices of membrillo (quince paste) and a couple rounds of bright red prickly pear - an interesting accompaniment.

The wine list includes lots of choices from more "exotic" regions of Spain. We had a bottle of a wine called "Oriol" from Vinyes del Aspres in the Ampurdan region of Spain which was a nice quaffer but seemed overpriced at around $50 (though I have no idea what this might retail for).

Indeed, if I had any complaint, it was with the pricing. With most of the tapas-type items being priced in the $15+ range, this can quickly become a pretty expensive meal. Our 5-course cheese plate was $32 (!!!). The wine list likewise, while featuring many of the "out-of-favor" regions that usually yield great bargains, had very few bargain-priced wines.

But the food was generally excellent, the menu has much of interest, and the chef is passionate and talented. Definitely something to look forward to for my next jaunt to Florida's other coast.

IM Tapas
965 4th Avenue North
Naples, FL 34102
I M Tapas on Urbanspoon

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Le Banyan - North Beach

[Sorry, this place has closed]

The Ocean Terrace area of North Beach is like a little miniature version of South Beach's Ocean Drive. Running between 73rd and 76th Streets just east of Collins Avenue, there are a few charming little Art Deco hotels (along with a couple larger condo buildings) facing right out onto the ocean. Other than beachgoers, however, there are generally not an awful lot of people around here. Despite that, another brave restaurateur* is attempting to have a go of it here - Le Banyan, a Thai restaurant in a lovely location on the corner of Ocean Terrace and 73rd Street.

There's seating inside in the classic Art Deco lobby, as well as nice rattan tables and lounge-y chairs outside where you can dine under umbrellas. We were there early on a Saturday evening and the weather was perfect for sitting outdoors. The menu is a somewhat abbreviated grab-bag of Thai dishes - appetizers include crab and vegetable variations on spring rolls, chicken satay, shrimp dumplings, spicy shrimp salad, along with a few other items, and about 10 choices of entrees along with a number of rice and noodle dishes.

It was just me, Frod Jr. and Little Miss F, and happily (for reasons I'll explain further below) they had a "children's menu" for $15 which included vegetable spring rolls, chicken satay, pan-fried noodles with vegetables, and either ice cream or banana spring rolls for dessert. Done and done (though Frod Jr. needed some convincing that he should stick with the kids' menu, as he eyed the steamed salmon wrapped in banana leaf). We asked if we could substitute one of the other desserts for the kids and pay the difference (I believe it was a coconut panna cotta with water chestnuts that intrigued Little Miss F) and after much consultation we got a vaguely positive response. I had the spicy shrimp salad to start, followed by a steamed fish with lime and chile.

The spicy shrimp salad was very brightly flavored though not particularly spicy - lemongrass playing the most prominent role, along with fresh mint, cilantro, toasted rice powder and chile, in roughly that order, and served on a few leaves of tender Boston lettuce. While very tasty, this was a skimpy portion that even Michelle Bernstein would have been ashamed to serve for $12. The fish was a very nice presentation, a snapper done skin-on and tail intact, with a very interesting fileting technique. It was completely deboned but both filets were still attached to the tail, with one stretched out across the plate and the other wrapped in a spiral around a stalk of lemongrass. It was served in another boldly flavored sauce tart with lime juice and enlivened with a hint of fresh chile. The kids both liked their kids' plates - I wasn't even offered a bite of their spring rolls, but got to try the satay which was more assertively flavored than many I've had locally (bright with yellow turmeric).

When dessert time came around we learned they were out of the item Little Miss F had wanted, and she got a "chocolate nem" instead, which turned out to be little chocolate-filled spring rolls with dabs of condensed milk with chopped peanuts for dipping, along with a scoop of chocolate ice cream. Frod Jr. was very happy with the banana spring rolls on the menu, which were crispy outside, gooey and sweet inside, and served over some melted chocolate for dipping. Instead of substituting, they brought out an extra kids' dessert so I got some banana spring rolls too. This gesture turned out to be less generous than it appeared when instead of just charging a markup for Little Miss F's substitution (which was maybe $2-3 difference), they simply charged us full freight for the extra dessert (which was about $11).

While the food was all pretty good, the prices were completely out of whack. Appetizers were in the $10-12 range that can be had for $5-8 at places like Tamarind Thai or Siam Bayshore around the corner. Entrees were mostly in the $25-35 range, which is just absurd for Thai food. Again, this compares to prices around $13-20 at either of the other neighborhood places I usually frequent. Desserts which go for $5 at the other places are $9-12 at Le Banyan. It's a nice view, but it can't justify those kind of markups, especially when I can't say that the food is markedly better than the other options.

Which is a shame, because if the prices weren't so exorbitant, this would be a really pleasant place to spend an evening. But just because Ocean Terrace looks like South Beach doesn't mean the prices ought to.

Le Banyan
7300 Ocean Terrace
Miami Beach, FL 33141
Le Banyan on Urbanspoon

*The last one that I recall was Baraboo, a circus-themed place, more than five years ago.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Pacific Time - Miami Design District

[Sorry, this place has closed]

We used to go to Pacific Time when it was on Lincoln Road, but I have to say that it was never really a favorite. I'm not sure if I'm putting this in a way anyone else will understand, but the food was too "squeaky" for me - too health-conscious, not even enough fat to carry flavors or truly satisfy. By way of example - instead of bringing out bread while you were waiting for food to arrive, they would bring zucchini and yellow squash lightly pickled in a kim chee style sauce. I always resented those zucchini.

There were certainly some dishes that were quite good - I recall the duck pancakes, and a whole yellowtail with ginger and julienned vegetables in a light hot and sour sauce - and at the time Chef Jonathan Eismann's focus on the East/West fusion thing was a new spin, even as the "Mango Gang" of Norman Van Aken, Allen Susser, Douglas Rodriquez, Mark Militello, Dewey LoSasso and others started looking more to the Caribbean for inspiration. And for years the restaurant thrived. But as time went on, prices began to climb steeper and steeper (probably in lockstep with Lincoln Road rents), and - perhaps out of fear of messing with a successful formula - the menu became increasingly set in stone. Six months could go by without a visit, and when I returned it always seemed like the same old stuff. Surely the tourists who were increasingly becoming the primary customer base would never know the difference, but for locals (this local, anyway) whose repeat business could potentially be that base instead - especially during the slow summers when Miami is left to Miamians - the menu had generally become too expensive and too stagnant.

In 2007 the Lincoln Road location closed, and about a year later Chef Eismann and Pacific Time* resurfaced in the Design District. Taking a hint from the then-recent successes of Michy's and Michael's Genuine, the menu focuses primarily on small plates, with a lengthy listing of about 15-20 "snacks" and small dishes, with a few entree-sized salads and maybe a half-dozen mains, along with another half-dozen or so vegetable side dishes. Many dishes continue Eismann's focus on Asian flavors, and in particular the balancing of salty sour sweet and bitter, but the menu also shows more flexibility and range, equally willing to venture into Mediterranean territory as well. Overall, we enjoy the new incarnation of Pacific Time much more than the original.

Over the year or so that PT2.0 has been open, about 60-70% of the menu has remained relatively constant, while a number of new dishes float in and out from time to time. Prices for the small dishes (where I've focused most of my attention) were originally mostly in the $8-15 range, but seem to have crept up and hover more to the upper side of that range and beyond these days. I've generally found, depending on the particular choices, that 2 small dishes is just shy of a satisfying meal while 3 is often a bit too much.

Items I've liked include:
  • grilled asparagus paired with an egg "milanese" (poached and then coated in bread crumbs and fried), prosciutto and good olive oil;
  • tempura soft-shell crab with a Chinese black bean vinaigrette and a toss of baby frisee;
  • sweetbreads done "Buffalo-style" with a crispy coating, served with a neon-orange hot sauce and a blue cheese dipping sauce (though PT's neighbor MGF&D had beaten it to the punch on this idea, having already done some great Buffalo frog legs);
  • a tuna tartare done in a presentation similar to Nobu with a pool of a soy-based sauce underneath, the tuna given a bright clean burst of flavor with some crushed cucumber, and some perfectly crisp greaseless gaufrette potatoes for scooping;
  • a light little dish of soft creamy goat cheese wrapped with sweet grilled eggplant, topped with some microgreens and a nicely tart and fruity reduction;
  • Indonesian beef salad, slices of beef seared rare and topped with a spicy and sweet sauce, sprinkled with peanuts, and served over a bed of braised greens;
  • quail done a couple different ways. On a few occasions I've had it with roasted peaches and a nice flavorful pan sauce, but on my most recent visit there was a new variation (described below) that was devastatingly good;
  • farro with caramelized onions and melted stracchino cheese, done as a veggie side;
  • white beans with goat cheese and thyme, another veggie side, and also sometimes paired with a very nice short rib dish (the short rib meat pulled from the bone and shredded, then re-formed into a cube which is crisped on the edges).
I've been less thrilled by some other dishes. The salmon yaki in the small plates, sauced with both a tamarind bbq sauce and a sake vinaigrette, struck me as overly acidic, as did a salad of cuttlefish tossed with mango, mint, and greens. I've liked, but not loved, the crab dumplings served in a sweet corn and leek soup (silky dumpling skin, but the crab filling was too dense and firm); mussels steamed with sake, tomato and tarragon (too "squeaky"); a beef carpaccio for which tiny dabs of wasabi, mustard and chile sauce didn't do enough to perk up the flavors.

Frod Jr. and Little Miss F are big fans of the hot and sour shrimp from the "snacks", and also love a simply grilled West coast salmon (on the bar menu, but if you ask nicely they'll serve it wherever you sit) served with some of the most awesome fries I have had anywhere, hit with an unadvertised dose of truffle oil. PT2.0 has experimented with an idea that is near and dear to Family Frod's hearts, a kids' tasting menu, which is still being tweaked.

On our most recent visit a week or so ago, there were several things I'd not seen before. The most exotic was probably the "pacu ribs." Pacu is apparently a Brazilian freshwater fish (related to the piranha!) which, through some clever butchering, can be portioned out into servings that look just like baby-back ribs. The "ribs" (which actually each contain three skinny ribcage bones) yield white flesh that easily pulls off the bone and has the rich, meaty, oily, texture of salmon or tuna belly, served here glazed with a tart bbq-style sauce. I didn't love these so much that I'd order them every visit, but I can sure say I've never seen them anywhere else. Also good was a gigantic (Madagascar?) prawn, served with a nice ume (Japanese pickled plum) sauce.

But the pièce de résistance of the night was a variation on PT's quail dish. This bird had the breast boned out except for the wings, and was stuffed with a luxurious mix of shredded duck confit, dried apricots, cherries, and almonds, and dosed subtly with a hint of vanilla oil and a whiff of hazelnut liquor. As if that were not enough, the legs were fried in a tempura batter and paired with a nice, subtle but not wimpy sour orange sauce. It could be said that this was a bit over the top. That might be true. And I don't care.

For dessert, there is a very good "chocolate bomb," a version of the ubiquitous flourless chocolate cake, and an excellent baked alaska which cleverly pairs a torched meringue blanket with an almost-frozen key lime tart. I've also enjoyed a dessert with peaches, a lavender-infused sauce and cinnamon crisps.

The wine list usually has some interesting choices and is for the most part pretty fairly priced, a refreshing change of pace. There's also a good beer selection, including the very good, semi-local (Jupiter, FL) Monk in the Trunk Belgian-style amber ale.

Supposedly coming very soon from Chef Eismann - a pizza parlor and mozzarella bar, Pizzavolante, right around the corner from Pacific Time on Miami Avenue between 39th and 40th Streets.

Pacific Time
35 N.E. 40th Street
Miami, FL 33137

*Though this website is updated with the new address in the Design District, the sample menu is still the old menu from the Lincoln Road days and not very reflective of the current restaurant. Go figure. [Edited to add: the website has now been updated]
Pacific Time on Urbanspoon