Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Mexico to Miami by Way of New York

Another New York import is on its way to Miami, but lo and behold it's not a steakhouse. Instead, it's Mercadito, from Chef Patricio Sandoval, which pitches itself as being inspired by the food of Mexican markets but with a modern flair. They currently have three locations in New York City which seem to get a decent amount of love on the Manhattan Chowhound board. Their fish tacos in particular oft are singled out for high praise.

I'm not sure what to make of the fact that their 5-page menu only has 2 pages of actual foodstuffs, the rest being a pretty impressive list of tequilas, cocktails, wine & beer, other than that you may be carrying me out of there. The food items look to have the same contemporary, vaguely upscale, geographically unplaceable quality of, say, Rosa Mexicano, another Mexico-to-Miami-by-way-of-New-York mini-chain. As compared to Rosa Mexicano, it seems that more of Mercadito's menu is focused on a lengthy selection of tacos and smaller plates, though I'm a bit disappointed to see that with nearly a dozen taco options to choose from there are still none of the more visceral taco stand staples like lengua, tripas, cabeza, etc. But then I can always find the Orale taco stand and get such things for about 1/3 of the price on the Mercadito menu.

Mercadito's Miami outpost is destined for Midtown Miami where they are taking out a 5,000 square foot space. Other tenants supposedly slated for Midtown Miami include Brasserie d'Azur (from the same folks who brought you Maison d'Azur), Sugarcane Lounge from the SushiSamba folks, The Cheese Course, and Primo Pizza. Projected opening is "Winter 2009." Some good Mexican would be a nice addition to Miami dining options, especially in the Midtown area, though it sure seems we've been hearing about all these places slated for Midtown Miami for quite some time.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Lessons Learned in the Test Kitchen

So after six hours in the kitchen for a Paradigm dinner service (as recounted in Part I and Part II of my running diary), what have I learned from my "Chef Fantasy Camp"?

Alls chefs are not sociopathic miscreants. Contrary to the reputation fostered by "bad-boy" chef tell-alls like Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential," the population of every kitchen is not the equivalent of a jailhouse with pots and pans. I know it's fun to imagine that every kitchen is like the crew of a pirate ship, and perhaps some are. But the kitchen at Neomi's is full of sincere, hardworking people who you'd be perfectly happy to take home to your mother. Maybe they were just on their best behavior for me.

Mise en place is where it's at. I know this is really basic and that just about any book about cooking will tell you the same thing. But there is simply no way any menu like this can be done, or indeed virtually any professional kitchen could function, without a lot of advance prep work. Seeing the process involved to put out one 11-course meal for ten diners makes the sheer logistics of places that do this all the time, with even more elaborate menus, all the more daunting. Even as a home cook, there's surely a lesson here too. We enjoy doing dinner parties, but it drives Mrs. F crazy that I seem to spend most of my time in the kitchen. The more prep that can be done in advance, the less time it takes to get the food out.

Plan, plan, plan, and then be ready to improvise. Shit happens. Hopefully nothing too monumental. Despite all the advance work, something invariably will go awry. As guests were arriving, Chef Windus was still hauling his anti-griddle from outlet to outlet trying to get it to work. As the ticking clock started to narrow down the window of opportunity, the chefs quickly switched gears and got the blood orange puree into some molds, onto some ice, and into the freezer, in enough time to set before it was time to be plated. You have to be constantly ready to adapt.

Inspiration can be like wild fermentation. Ideas travel fast these days, particularly when people are willing to let them do so. One of the components for the Paradigm menu was inspired by three words in a twitter post: "beer can cabbage." This is not the first time I've had a dish in Miami that was inspired by the eternally creative Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot of the blog Ideas in Food. Several months ago I had a dish at Talula that paired roasted bone marrow with pickled bananas, inspired by this post. I've noted previously how one of the things I find so interesting about much contemporary cooking is the "open source" nature of it. Where for much of culinary history, recipes and techniques were closely guarded secrets, today many chefs eagerly - almost as a badge of honor - share information about methods, ingredients, ideas and inspirations. This can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, those prone to simply mimicking will do so, which can lead to a disappointing and ironic sameness in a cuisine that should be a platform for creativity. On the other hand, those who see this information as tool and inspiration, rather than just something to be duplicated, can effectively use it as a springboard for their own ideas.

There is such a thing as "lefty" plating and "righty" plating. It just so happened that lefties (myself included) dominated the kitchen last Friday night, but not exclusively so. It was pretty amusing to see one chef start a plating element, and then to have another follow behind and have to twist himself into a convoluted pretzel to duplicate the brush of a sauce across the plate.

The waitstaff have a serious sweet tooth. Sometimes they need to be appeased. Especially after a long night of bringing out food for other people, a little something to boost the spirits and energy levels is a good idea. Keep your waitstaff happy.

In case you were wondering – if there is anything in the slightest way distinctive about your appearance, your clothes, your manner, your voice, or just about anything else – you can be pretty sure the waitstaff have come up with a nickname for you. I don’t want to know mine. You probably don’t want to know yours either.

I'm clearly not cut out to be a professional chef. For any youngster with TV-inspired visions of becoming a celebrity chef, or mid-life-crisis-aged amateur cook contemplating a career change - spend some time in a kitchen. It's hard work. My "fantasy camp" was a small - and preposterously comfy - sampler of what it's like to work in a professional kitchen: I was there barely more than 1/2 the day of a typical cook (in an earlier post I linked to a StarChefs survey showing that the average workday for most culinary professionals is 9-11 hours), I didn't spend hours chopping onions or dicing potatoes or trimming artichokes. I wasn't working over a hot sauté or grill station for hours turning out hundreds of covers. I was spared the thrill of tracking inventory, taking in deliveries, and cleaning up stations. And yet by 11pm I was beat. There's little doubt in my mind that you have to really and truly love what you do to last as a chef. While I share their passion, I don't know that I share their energy. It's a lot easier on the other side of those swinging doors between the kitchen and the dining room.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Pizza Poll Closed, Pizza Crawl III Approaching

My "Best Pizza in Miami" poll has closed, with Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza eking out a victory by the thinnest of slices, followed closely by Spris, and then PizzaVolante and Pizza Rustica in a tie for third. Not to dismiss the results of a gloriously democratic process, but the poll seems pretty much meaningless considering among other things: (1) those of us participating in the "Pizza Crawl" haven't even completed Round III of the crawl yet; and (2) some places started getting votes before they'd even opened!

PizzaVolante pizza, photo credit: Jacob Katel

My impression of the general consensus from Pizza Crawl I and Pizza Crawl II is that PizzaVolante took Round I, with Joey's in close contention, and that Racks Italian Bistro was the clear winner of Round II. I don't think there was any clear victor as between PizzaVolante and Racks.

Meanwhile, Round III resumes next week on July 2 for a tour of South Beach including Sosta, Piola and Spris. For more information join the "Miami Chowdown" Google group and follow the "Pizza Crawl Part III" thread. It's already a pretty big group so it may be a squeeze. Thanks to Trina of Miami Dish for playing organizer this time around.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

In the Test Kitchen at Paradigm (Part II) - Sunny Isles

In an earlier post, I had started to recap my experience in the kitchen of Neomi's for one of their "Paradigm" tasting menu dinners. Jacob Katel from Miami New Times now has his "Behind the Line" pictures up, and you can see all of my pix in this flickr set. Part I of the running diary left off about half-way through the dinner, which is where I'll pick up the action here.

cuban sandwich8:48 pm - as the guests are having the "refresh" course, plating starts for course VI, "cuban sandwich." It begins with a shmear of Wild Turkey honey mustard, and then a square of a fluffy "swiss miss" sponge is placed with one side near the center of the plate. A rectangle of thinly pressed bread is balanced upright, leaning on the sponge.

8:52 pm - Marianne, meanwhile, seems to be everywhere at once. She's expediting orders, she's cooking, she's plating, she's handing finished dishes to the room service guys ... nonstop. While Chefs K and Chad's attentions are focused mostly on Paradigm, she's making sure the rest of the kitchen keeps running while still helping out with most of the Paradigm dishes too.

8:57 pm - I saw the cubes of pickle-brined berkshire pork belly come out of the walk-in a couple hours ago; I don't know what's happened to them since, but they now look burnished and golden-brown and, well, downright sexy, if you go for such things. The pork goes opposite the cheese sponge and helps prop the bread up. The cheese is topped with a pickle "froth" (emulsified with soy lecithin is my guess) and then garnished with vibrant magenta bull's blood micro-greens. A sprinkle of guanciale powder (I'm guessing made by adding tapioca maltodextrin to rendered jowl bacon fat) goes over the cube of pork belly.

cuban sandwich
8:59 pm - the "cuban sandwiches" go out to the table and an extra one comes my way. I taste each of the components on their own, but that's not what this dish is really about. After all that work plating, the way to eat this is to mush it all together so the flavors can mingle. And when they do, it is indeed like a Cuban sandwich made with some really awesome pork. Steven's eyes light up when he finds out there's an extra plate for him too.

9:01 pm - it's right around now that Malka Espinel, Pastry Chef at Johnny V, shows up in the restaurant. It's like deja vu all over again as Chef Chad and Marianne start putting together a couple plates of each of the earlier courses for her and her guest to sample.


9:12 pm - a sheet pan of sliced hamachi comes out for the "tiradito," course VII. Chef Chris is putting some of his sweet potato polenta down on the plate, and Chef K follows behind him with three spirals on each plate of the vibrantly pink hamachi. Next each plate gets striped with some bright yellow aji amarillo vinaigrette, then I follow with a spinkle of toasted cancha corn on each piece of fish. Some glistening white coconut "pearls" go over the fish, and finally, a sprig of micro-cilantro.

tiradito9:18 pm - I try the tiradito. The fish is meaty, tender, and sweet, really nice hamachi. The fascinating thing about the dish is that it offers neither the acidity nor the salt that I'd typically expect of a tiradito. Rather, the extra components each seem to bring another dimension of sweetness, along with a touch of heat from the aji pepper sauce, which complements the natural sweetness of the fish. And the colors are sensational. The chefs probably won't appreciate the association, but in retrospect the pastel pink, yellow and orange make me think of Miami Vice. I could definitely see Crockett and Tubbs wearing these shades.

9:20 pm - someone notices the fried onion rings - which were supposed to be one of the components to the tiradito - still sitting on the pass behind the plating area. Doh. They make for a good snack for the kitchen. The batter uses Trisol, a product from Ferran and Albert Adria's "Texturas" line of products originated in the elBulli workshop (and Chef K poured some pisco into the mix to stick with the Peruvian tiradito theme too). The wheat starch, used in combination with regular flour, helps fried items stay crispy, and indeed these onion rings have great crunch. Even more interesting, they hold that crunch and don't get soggy or greasy for several minutes (as long as they lasted in the kitchen, anyway). Too bad they didn't make it out to the dining room.

corned skirt9:29 pm - my moment of truth is approaching. Course VIII is "corned skirt," skirt steak prepared in the manner of a corned beef, which also features (my) swiss orbs, nestled in a pumpernickel streusel, a ketchup caraway vinaigrette, "beer can cabbage," and kennebec potato chips. On his blog Chef Chad gives a good description of the inspiration and prep for the "beer can cabbage." All I can say is "mmm, chicken skin." He showed me one of the whole heads before service and it is indeed an awesome sight to behold.

9:37 pm - the corned skirts go out to the table and I sample. The skirt steak has a great texture, a fantastic crimson color, and is wonderfully juicy, but has soaked up too much salt from the brine. Chef Chad is already making mental notes for next time to adjust the brining time. The cabbage shows some promise but also, I think, needs some tweaking. It seems to have picked up some bitterness either from the beer or the smoking, and the texture falls undecidedly somewhere between tender and crisp. And my swiss cheese orbs? They're looking a little more spherical, and they hold up on the plate OK, but I find that the exterior membrane is too thin (like a pudding skin) and they're too loose and liquid inside. Needed more time in the alginate bath to form a thicker exterior. Perhaps I'm my own worst critic, but the pride of creation is quickly tempered by the frustration of knowing something could be better.

corned skirt

9:43 pm - we're starting the move into the sweet side of the menu, but gradually. One of the common threads of many contemporary cooking approaches is the breaking down of barriers between sweet and savory. For instance, it's one of the tenets of the "Synthesis of elBulli cuisine" (#13); it can also be seen in the menu at Alinea where subtle diagrams show where on the spectrum of savory to sweet each dish falls, or at Tailor in NYC where almost all the dishes have sweet and savory components. foie In Paradigm dinners I've had previously, there's been a "pre-dessert" that acts as a transition from savory to sweet, picking up elements of each. Here, Chef K has picked an interesting main ingredient for this transition - foie gras. Disks of a light, cold foie gras mousse are paired with several other components that further the interplay of sweet and savory - cherry relish, cherry drops (more spherification), a ribbon of banana, white chocolate, dried sherry vinegar chips, pistachio brittle, and dots of a bright green basil puree.

foie9:52 pm - the many pieces of the foie dish are assembled, even more than I've listed above. I taste, and this dish hits all the right spots. It really gets you thinking why foie is typically used to start a meal instead of to finish, particularly when it's often paired with a sweet wine like a Sauternes (which tends to throw off the palate early in a meal). So much about the foie is dessert-like: it's rich, it's creamy, it's even somewhat sweet. The other components all effectively play off this savory-sweet balancing act, but the real stand-out is the "cherry drop." Orbs of spherified cherry juice have been held - macerated, in effect - in cherry balsamic (a trick Chef K says he picked up from the Alinea cookbook, noticing that the recipes often called for spheres to be held in a flavored liquid). The orbs clearly pick up the vibrant flavor of the vinegar and give a sweet-sour burst that is the highlight of the dish for me.

yogurt10:05 pm - Pastry Chef Fabian's time has arrived, and he begins assembling the first dessert. I know from prior experience that even Chefs K and Chad rarely have much of a clue exactly what to expect from Chef Fabian until he starts plating. He is a man of talent and mystery and I'm always intrigued to see what he has in store. The first dessert, course X, is described as "yogurt, toffee foam, lime air, pineapple glass, raspberry textures, red pepper streusel." I see what's going down on the plate and am struggling to connnect all the dots. There's a translucent golden round, which he's topped with a red dab of something, then some pearly white yogurt spheres go over that, then a squirt of a toffee foam, then a spoonful of a lighter air (the lime, I assume), then a couple of barely-there tuiles with black sesame seeds. Then the assistant pastry chef Deborah comes around and is grating what I'd swear is a gigantic red beet over the top of it. The "beet" turns out to be a frozen raspberry dough which I think Chef Fabian says also has some almond paste in it.


10:28 pm - at some points during the course of the service, the plates are lined up just about ready to go and the kitchen is waiting for the diners to finish and the servers to clear; at other times, the waitstaff are gathered and waiting impatiently for the next course to make its way out as the chefs finish plating. But other than these between-course intervals, the waitstaff are not usually in the kitchen. I notice now, however, that the waitstaff seem to have come right back to the kitchen after the dessert was served. It would appear that all of the servers have serious sweet cravings going on, and are lurking anxiously around hoping for a taste. There's one extra plate but, seeing their eager expressions and having been eating all night, I offer mine up as well. It is gone in about 6.5 seconds. The waitstaff are happy.

10:31 pm - the extra round of dishes for Chef Malka Espinel, who's in the restaurant tonight, have nearly caught up, and Chef K is plating the foie pre-dessert. Those pretty foie disks, though, are now melting and barely make it intact from the sheet pan where they were held on to the plate. Chef K makes a quick adjustment - the foie disks are now foie smears. All is well.

brioche10:39 pm - plating starts for the last of eleven courses. First,a line of chocolate "soil," at one end of which is balanced a round caramelized brioche soaked with honey. A scatter of "vanilla evoo rocks," a quenelle of chantilly sorbet,a dab of coconut foam, a scatter of purple-green micro-greens, and the dish is complete.

10:47 pm - the final course goes out the door to the dining room. I have a taste of the brioche. It's great - simultaneously light in texture, but dense with sweet caramelized honey, like a really good brioche pain perdu. A fine close to a fine meal.


10:53 pm - I see a step ladder next to a fridge and take a seat on it. It's the first time I've sat down in more than five hours.

11:04 pm - the dinner is done. Chef K checks to see if there is still any Estrella Damm Inedit in the house. This is a beer which Ferran Adrià helped craft specifically to accompany food, and I was fortunate enough to try it several months ago when we visited Dos Palillos, the Barcelona restaurant of Adrià's former chef de cuisine Albert Raurich. One bottle (it comes in a big 750 ml) left. Chef gets several glasses and we all toast to a successful dinner. That beer really hits the spot right about now.

11:14 pm - the chefs go out to the dining room to visit with the guests, and drag me along with them. The diners look happy and satisfied. I am in no way responsible for this, but it's a good feeling nonetheless.

11:22 pm - I return to the kitchen, glug down another far less exotic beer with Chef K and Chad, and as they're summoned back out to the dining room to schmooze the guests, I peel out of my "chef's whites" and pack up my stuff. The kitchen is pretty quiet now, and has been turned over to the hotel's night shift. I've hardly done a thing all night, and still I'm beat. I've been on my feet for nearly six straight hours, my feet hurt, my back hurts, and I could really use a shower.

So what have I learned from my "chef fantasy camp"? Coming next post - Lessons Learned in the Test Kitchen.


Trump International Beach Resort
18001 Collins Avenue
Sunny Isles Beach, FL

Neomi's Grill on Urbanspoon

Monday, June 22, 2009

In the Test Kitchen at Paradigm (Part I) - Sunny Isles

paradigm menu

This is the first of a multi-part series of posts. Click here for Part II and for Lessons Learned in the Test Kitchen.

“Paradigm – the Test Kitchen” is a once-a-week “restaurant within a restaurant” in Neomi’s Grill at the Trump International Beach Resort in Sunny Isles, featuring multi-course tasting menus that explore some of the more contemporary concepts and techniques being batted about the culinary universe these days. I’ve been wanting to write about “Paradigm” since I started this blog, but had been lacking new material. I have been to a couple of these dinners already (as well as a pre-Paradigm birthday party dinner, which in retrospect turned out to be something of a dry run for the Paradigm format), but those were several months ago and I’d already given extensive recaps of them elsewhere.

Paradigm is an “interactive” dining experience – the chefs come out to explain several of the dishes, many involve tableside final prep (smoking guns, espuma garnishes, consommé poured at the table), and some even involve diner participation like the nuoc mom “noodles” extruded from a squirt bottle into a warm broth that we had at one dinner (modeled after Wylie Dufresne’s “instant noodles” at wd~50). As an amateur cook and curious diner, I’m always interested in seeing and learning how the food actually gets to the plate. Give me a choice between a seat at a bustling kitchen bar where you’re at risk of being jostled by waiters picking up orders at the pass, or a plush banquette with white tablecloths, and I’ll take the kitchen bar every time. I like to see, and smell, and hear, the transformation from raw ingredients to finished dish; I also just enjoy watching the rough ballet of a well-coordinated kitchen.

Neomi's Chef de Cuisine Chad Galiano and I tend to have the same online reading lists, and when Grant Achatz started a discussion about open kitchens and interactive dining, it prompted some thinking. The Achatz column, and a follow up, traced the evolution and implementation of a new idea at Alinea, where a big silicon “plate” is unfurled over the entire table and the chefs come out of the kitchen to do the final assembly of a dish on the gigantic “plate.” My initial reaction to the Achatz piece was that it was interesting, but more akin to the traditional tableside service than it was to a genuine open kitchen (though seeing the pictures piqued my curiosity further). While it sounds like fun, I’m not sure that it’s what some diners – myself at least – seek in the “open kitchen” experience. It may not be true of everyone – and it may defuse some of the “mystery” of the textural and other transformations that are among the hallmarks of much contemporary cooking – but some of us actually want to see the whole process, and see the kitchen actually at work instead of putting on a show.

We traded some emails, which led to the following proposal from Executive Chef Kurtis Jantz and Chef Chad: come in for a Paradigm dinner, but there would be no seat at the table for me. Instead, I would join them in the kitchen, watch (and possibly “help”) as dishes were being prepared, and they’d make an extra plate of each dish for me and I could eat it standing up in the kitchen. As an extra bonus, Chef Christopher Windus of BlueZoo in Orlando would be in as collaborating guest chef. Now this would be an interactive dining experience. Needless to say, this was an offer I accepted eagerly.

After spending 6+ hours in the Neomi’s Grill kitchen for a Paradigm dinner service this past Friday, I have much to tell. First off, let me again express my gratitude to Chefs K, Chad and Chris, as well as the entire staff at Neomi’s, for putting up with me as I got to experience my “chef’s fantasy camp.” Everyone was tremendously friendly and accommodating. I’ve been kicking around how best to share the experience, and eventually arrived at a multi-part approach; a “running diary” a la Bill Simmons’ NBA draft diaries, and then perhaps a list of “lessons learned.”

A complete set of my pictures from the evening can be found here on flickr.

5:30 pm – I get to the restaurant, ask for Chef Chad, and he comes out and brings me around back into the kitchen for a quick tour and introductions. The kitchen is a bit of a maze and I’m thinking I should be leaving a trail of bread crumbs. Chad introduces me to the rest of the folks – Pablo working sauté, Moe working pantry, Kenold working the grill, Marianne working everywhere. Pastry Chef Fabian di Paolo pops in and out. The kitchen is about 15 degrees warmer than the restaurant, and I almost immediately break into a sweat. This is one of my great talents - Mrs. F calls me "alpaca" because I'm a heavy sweater. Howie Kleinberg's got nothing on me.

5:33 pm – a look at tonight’s menu. Eleven courses total (a little more elaborate even than the typical Paradigm dinner). Chefs K, Chad and Chris have been brainstorming on the menu for most of the past week. There are handwritten notes here and there and drawings for what plates will be used for each course. I’ve had these meals before but never really thought about the logistics in any great detail. They are confounding. Eleven courses, each of which has on average about five components, makes for more than 50 moving pieces. Wow.

5:34 pm – Chef K is in his office (I’ve seen bigger broom closets) with one of the assistant chefs, Osnel. Chef K is going on vacation for a few days and is debriefing on everything that will need to happen in his absence.

5:36 pm – Chef Mike (nice to see him back in the kitchen) brings me a chef’s jacket and apron to wear. OK, I’ll admit it. I feel pretty cool wearing a chef’s jacket. I’m like a kid at Wannadoo City. And, yes, I'm a dork.

5:38 pm – Chef Chad is ready to put me to work. At a station he’s set up a squeeze bottle filled with Emmental cheese thinned down with milk to a loose fondue consistency, a couple bowls filled with what looks like water, a tablespoon, and a spoon that looks like a metal Chinese soup spoon but slotted, with holes in the bottom. I’ve got an idea of what’s coming – spherification! One of the bowls has had some sodium alginate (a product derived from seaweed) added, producing a reaction with the calcium in the cheese (a little extra is added) so that when a blob of the cheese goes into the alginate solution it forms a firmer skin or membrane around the outside, but remains liquid in the center. Presto – a liquid-filled cheese orb! And no sharp objects involved.

spherification 1015:39 pm – Chef Chad shows me the technique of squeezing some of the cheese into a tablespoon filled with the alginate solution, then unloading into the bowl, then, after a short time to let the membrane form, scooping it with the slotted spoon into the second water bowl to hold for service. And away we go – I’m spherifying! Actually reverse spherifying, if we want to be precise (“normal” spherification adds the sodium alginate to the flavored liquid, then puts it into a calcium chloride bath; “reverse” spherification has the calcium in the liquid and uses a sodium alginate bath). I announce to noone in particular that I am going to add “molecular gastronomer” to my business card.

5:42 pm – Chef Chad introduces me to Chef Chris Windus from BlueZoo. If Chef Chris weren’t wearing chef’s whites, I would have guessed that he was an NFL linebacker. He’s got a smirk on his face that seems to say, “Who let this joker into the kitchen?” Over the course of the evening, I’m somewhat relieved to see that this may just be an expression of perpetual bemusement. Or maybe I’m letting myself off too easy.

5:54 pm – I’m still spherifying. I can only do a few of these at a time as they seem to want to stick together. And I’m nervous. Whenever I’ve seen spheres, they’ve always looked so perfectly round. Mine? Not so much. Chef Chad comes by and looks at one, kindly says “It looks like a heart.” OK, not really what we’re shooting for but still it’s cute, right? But to me it just looks like it’s got a butt crack. I’m hoping these smooth out some as they soak.

Emmental orbs6:00 pm – I’ve got about 30-some-odd Emmental cheese spheres done now. There’s only 10 diners and only one of these is going on each plate for a particular dish, but I want to give them a high margin for error. Besides, it’s fun.

6:23 pm – Jacob Katel from New Times shows up. His food porn on Short Order often makes me drool. I’m astonished to see the tiny little camera he uses for his work.

6:30 pm – feels like the calm before the storm. Marianne is working on a pistachio brittle for one of the dishes. Marie, who usually works banquet garde manger, comes in and starts helping out. I later find out she's doing this off the clock just to learn. She also gives me the “Who let this joker into the kitchen?” look.

6:36 pm – maybe for some, being an Executive Chef is all just glory, appearances at food festivals and guest judging on Top Chef. If you read Eric Ripert’s “On the Line,” for instance, you don’t get the impression he’s actually stepping behind the line and cooking all that often any more. But there’s Chef K, chopping onions. Maybe he’s just putting on a show for me.

6:42 pm – so much of this meal is planned, and indeed many components are prepared well in advance of service, and yet you always have to be ready to improvise. Chef K is unhappy with how the batter for some onion rings is setting up. It worked fine yesterday, but today it’s just soaking up oil; has me try one – it’s greasy. Going to try adding more flour but may just start from scratch.

anti-griddle6:47 pm – I notice that Chef Chris has been wheeling around the Anti-Griddle (it’s like a griddle but with cold instead of heat, so that you can quickly freeze liquids on its surface) brought down with him from Orlando and plugging it into different outlets. About 30 seconds after he flips the power switch, it makes a sputtering sound. That’s not good.

6:53 pm – Chef Chad brings me one of Chef Chris’ liquid corn ravioli to try – straight out of a buttery sauté pan. It is fantastic. The pasta texture is silky but still has some substance to it, and the corn filling is oozy, salty, sweet and bursting with fresh corn flavor. One bite and I know where I’m eating next time I’m in Orlando.

6:58 pm – Chef Chris is still hauling the Anti-Griddle from outlet to outlet, trying to find one that will make it happy. So far, no such luck.

raza' chowda'7:04 pm – Chef Chad invites me to help with assembly of the first course, the “raza’ chowda.” This dish has all the components of a clam chowder, but they’re going to be assembled in a hollow glass tube; you slurp on one end, and get all the contents in your mouth at once. Diced razor clams, tiny mirepoix dice, and a gelatinized smoked tomato water have already been assembled in the tubes. I think five of us (Chris, Kurtis, Chad, Jacob and myself) crowd into the little walk-in cooler to help set these up, or to take pix. A little “cork” of potato is stamped out for one end of the tube from planks of potato cooked sous-vide at 83C. At the table, the chefs will add a bacon foam to the tube to complete the chowder flavors. I get one to try – the flavors are spot-on and the delivery method is really clever. You first get each component one-by-one, and then as you get all of them, the flavor combination perfectly duplicates a clam chowder.

7:08 pm – Steven, the food and beverage manager, comes into the kitchen to let everyone know the Paradigm guests have started to arrive. Someone who had been to an earlier Paradigm dinner bought out the whole table for tonight. They’re also expecting Malka Espinel, Pastry Chef at Johnny V in Fort Lauderdale, to be paying a visit later tonight.

7:11 pm – Chef Chris breaks out a Level Vodka bottle that is filled with a neon-pink liquid. What is this? Bubble-Yum bubble-gum infused vodka. Pours a sample for us. Lord – keep this away from my children. It tastes just like bubble gum. Unreal. For good measure, we also try a sample of the Wild Turkey American Honey bourbon. Yes, this could be dangerous stuff.

7:16 pm – Chef Chris is still moving his Anti-Griddle from outlet to outlet, but everyone is quickly sizing up Plan B. The Anti-Griddle was going to be used to make a frozen blood orange disk for a “refresh” intermezzo course; Chef K finds a silicon hemispheric mold sheet which he cuts in half and puts in a tray of ice with some kosher salt. The blood orange puree will be scooped into the molds, laid over the ice, and then put into the freezer to set up.

7:21 pm – several things are taken out of the walk-in to come to temperature, including Shropshire blue cheese “cheesecakes” for course II. I get to sample one – fluffy cheesecake texture, vivid blue cheese flavor. This is going to get paired with a riff on buffalo wings. I think it’s going to work.

7:32 pm - Steven advises that the guests have sat down for dinner. The show is on. Meanwhile, the kitchen hums with the constant background sounds of room service and dining room orders going out. While I came for Paradigm, there’s still a hotel to feed.

7:35 pm – the chefs go out to the table to meet-n-greet and do the tableside presentation for the “raza’ chowda’” in a tube.

food party7:37 pm – Chef Chad is starting the plating for the second dish, “food party episode 1”. He explains the inspiration much better than I’ll be able to do. Sounds like Pee-Wee’s Playhouse meets Tim & Eric Awesome Show meets Iron Chef. I think I need to watch this. There is one long table in the very front of the kitchen that is used for all the assembly and plating. Chef Chad starts by making circular patterns of carrot and celery on each of the plates. These are followed by the blue cheese-cake, then a chicken “wing” lollipop (actually thigh meat molded together using Activa a/k/a transglutaminase a/k/a “meat glue”) with a semi-crispy, hot-sauce infused batter, some julienned pickled carrots over the cheesecake, and finally, a hot sauce froth.

7:45 pm – servers return from the table after the tubular chowder experience. Some of the diners are a little squeamish about it, but after trying, they all seem to enjoy it.

7:57 pm – “food party episode 1” goes out the door to the table. I sample one in the kitchen. In prior experiences I’ve been underwhelmed by dishes using “meat glue,” but this chicken lollipop sells me on its virtues. The shredded thigh meat has the intense flavor of dark meat, is incredibly juicy, and has not been so pulverized as to be unrecognizable as chicken. I’d initially thought the hot sauce flavor was coming just from the sauce, but it’s in the batter too. The rest of the flavors are spot on. I especially like the vividness of the carrot and celery drizzles on the plate. They may look pretty, but they're not just decoration.

food party

8:03 pm – Chef Chris drops back to the sauté line to warm his liquid corn ravioli.

corn ravioli8:10 pm – plating starts for course III, liquid corn ravioli over a bed of corn and spaghetti squash, with a thin, square sheet of Laughing Bird shrimp (another Activa trick). I’m invited to help with plating the shrimp sheets. They’re each already individually portioned between squares of wax paper, and just require a little flip onto the plate. Most of mine comply with only minor mangling. Fortunately, Marie notices that the squares are each also covered with a transparent sheet of acetate, and we remove it before service.

8:14 pm – ravioli are out the door. I try the fully composed dish. The ravioli is just as delicious as the one I sampled earlier (though it was more fun to pop a whole one in my mouth straight from the pan); the corn and spaghetti squash hash it’s served over adds another nice sweet vegetable component. The Laughing Bird shrimp used for the sheet, with a little bit of chive in the mix, are absolutely delicious; I’m torn as to whether the presentation and textural transformation really add anything, but polish off the dish before I can decide.

corn ravioli

8:18 pm – course IV, “hogs headless cheese” sandwiches, are getting assembled. A clamshell-shaped steamed brioche bun (similar to the ones traditionally served with Peking duck) is topped with a slice of “hogs headless cheese” – so-called because it’s a pork “head cheese” made with trotters and shoulder but no head – then paired with a rhubarb sriracha (made in house, with a nice acidic tang from the rhubarb but needing of more heat, in my opinion, if it is to call itself a sriracha sauce), julienned pickled green peaches, and a garlic scape mayo.

headless cheese8:25 pm – headless cheese sandwiches go out to the table and I get to sample one. The components are mostly Southern, and yet the flavor composition reflects a distinctly Asian profile. In fact, this is clearly a banh mi with a Southern accent. The head cheese might have been a little too bland on its own and each of the other components a little too assertive, but together – fantastic. They've made an extra of each dish for Jason from New Times too. I've got a sense he's never seen food like this before, but in addition to being a good photographer, the guy's a good sport and a good eater too. He puts away everything with glee.

refresh8:42 pm – each Paradigm menu I’ve seen has a “refresh” course in the middle – a variation on the old-school tradition of an “intermezzo,” often a sorbet, to serve as a “palate cleanser.” This time around, they go old-school with the sorbet, but new school with the flavors. Deborah, Fabian's assistant pastry chef, makes an appearance. A small bamboo serving dish gets a bit of kumquat marmalade, and little globes of the blood orange sorbet (the Plan B as a result of the non-functioning anti-griddle) and a piquillo pepper sorbet studded with black caraway seeds. These go out to the table with a pair of little chopsticks. With the extra one made for me in the kitchen, I opt to just pick up the little dish and do the whole thing like a shot. I think this is the way to go. The flavors play off each other beautifully, doing a great balancing act between savory and sweet.

Coming up next ... six more courses - and do my Emmental orbs pass the test?

Trump International Beach Resort
18001 Collins Avenue
Sunny Isles Beach, FL

Neomi's Grill on Urbanspoon

Friday, June 19, 2009

Someone's in the Kitchen ...

I have written previously elsewhere about some fascinating meals I've had from Chefs Kurtis Jantz and Chad Galiano and their "Paradigm - The Test Kitchen" weekly dinners - some of the most adventurous and cutting-edge cooking that you can find in Miami. Prompted in part by some recent discussion about "interactive dinners" and the relationship between kitchen and dining room, they agreed this week to a very different approach - they're letting me into the kitchen to "help"[*] with tonight's Paradigm dinner. It should be an interesting and crowded kitchen, with Chris Windus from BlueZoo in Orlando also in as a collaborating guest chef.

Their food and beverage manager was smart enough to insist that I provide a waiver and release of liability before setting foot in the restaurant kitchen. Here is the one I suggested:


I fully understand and acknowledge that:

1. Kitchens involve sharp, pointy, hot, heavy, and/or greasy objects which may have inherent dangers, risks and hazards. If any fingers or other appendages are severed or otherwise damaged in the course of the evening, I will suck it up and deal.

2. Contemporary kitchens often use a variety of products and devices that some people consider unnatural, intimidating, foreign and even dangerous. I agree not to snort or otherwise ingest copious quantities of Activa transglutaminase, not to use the “smoking gun” for anything other than culinary purposes, and not to stick my tongue to the anti-griddle.

3. Kitchen staff often have a, let’s say, unique sense of humor which often involves practical jokes. I hereby assume the risk of: the “hot plate”; duck fat "ice cream"; "mayonnaise creme brulee"; drinks laced with mussels, worcestershire sauce, fish sauce, or Tabasco; and pockets surreptitiously stuffed with raw shrimp or liquid nitrogen (damn "molecular gastronomists"!), or even a whole salad.

4. I may be directed to "chop flour" or get "chicken lips", a "bucket of steam", a "left handed chicken stretcher", "cans of elbow grease", a "parsley curler," a "Kuemmelspaltmaschine,"
a "tomato ripener" or a "grape peeler". I will try not to be too gullible.

5. Some chefs are raging egomaniacs prone to yelling and throwing things or attempted infliction of psychic damage - apparently, especially if their name rhymes with Shmarlie Frotter. I agree that if subjected to such treatment, I will pay them back later when I retell the story to a national audience.

I hereby release Paradigm, and each of its present and former owners, principals, members, agents and employees from any and all liability for damage, losses or personal injury to myself resulting from my participation in such activities.

[*]Mrs. F reminds me that while it's nice of Chefs K and Chad to humor me, I should not begin to delude myself that my rudimentary kitchen skills will be in any way useful.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Does Transglutaminase Work on Shark Meat?

shark I do believe the phrase "molecular gastronomy" has officially jumped the shark. In what has to be one of the goofiest little bits of prose I've ever read, The Feedbag brings us this gem: Mystery Behind Meat Glue Revealed. The 150-word thriller explaining how "molecular gastronomers" use transglutaminase, a/k/a "meat glue," is cribbed pretty much directly from this equally goofy piece, "What is Meat Glue?", from the Tampa Bay Examiner's resident "Molecular Gastronomy Examiner."[*] The Feedbag piece even duplicates the misspelling of transglutaminase as "triglutaminase" as well as the ungrammatical explanation that it "[is] an enzymes [sic] that catalyzes covalent bonds between free amine groups and gamma-caroxminid [sic] groups of protein or peptide bond [sic] gluatamine [sic]." That super-scientific explanation - minus the misspellings - is lifted directly from (drum roll please) Wikipedia. The Examiner article also references a "trilutaminase" for variety, while Feedbag mixes it up by throwing in the obligatory "Frankensteinish ingredients" comment.

[Sigh.] I don't even know where to start, so I won't. I do enjoy reading Feedbag, but their coverage of "molecular gastronomy" certainly leaves something to be desired. On the other hand, it's probably helpful that we've reached the point that 90% of the time, you can safely assume that someone using the phrase "molecular gastronomy" has no idea what they're talking about.

[*]"Examiners" are freelance, apparently unedited, writers for the paper's website.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Chef Allen's - North Miami Beach

Chef Allen's[sorry, this restaurant has closed]

Allen Susser was one of the original pioneers of what has been variously called the "Mango Gang" or "Floribbean" or "New Florida" cuisine back in the late 1980's, along with such illustrious names as Norman Van Aken, Douglas Rodriguez, Mark Militello and Jonathan Eismann. While each of his compadres has had restaurants come and go over the years, Chef Susser is now running on a 23-year stretch at his original location in North Miami Beach (n/k/a Aventura), Chef Allen's - a truly remarkable feat given the failure rate of most restaurants.

It had probably been close to a decade since I'd last been to Chef Allen's, and I'll confess that I didn't miss it that much. What had seemed creative 20 years ago instead just seemed old-hat and uninspired on my last couple visits. The restaurant, its menu, and its clientele all seemed somewhat dusty and dated. A rather formal atmosphere seemed stilted and out-of-place. Perhaps hearing the refrain of "What a drag it is getting old," about a year ago Chef Susser gave Chef Allen's a major makeover. The dining room was updated and made both more contemporary and more casual, and the menu was given a major tweak to become a "Modern Seafood Bistro." I figured it was time for a repeat visit.

Chef Susser has not abandoned the mango entirely. Indeed, with South Florida in the middle of mango season, they could be found literally everywhere: each table in the restaurant had as its centerpiece a fresh mango. And, among many clever marketing gimmicks, Chef Susser offers a free dinner for two to anyone who brings in a wheelbarrow full of mangos to the restaurant. Given what a prolific season we're having, I suspect that there have been several folks who have taken advantage of that offer.

But the menu is not as reliant on the tropical fruits that were one of the calling cards of the original "Mango Gang." Picking up on a few prevalent local trends, Chef Allen's now offers an extended selection of smaller dishes, some of which are "snack"-size and others more customary appetizer portions, with mains focusing on locally sourced sustainable seafood and steaks cooked on a wood-burning grill. For us, the most interesting sounding items all resided in the "starters" section of the menu, so that's where we stayed, ordering six items (ranging in price from $4 to $11) to share plus a vegetable side.

Devils on horseback (bacon-wrapped dates, a/k/a the Official Snack of the Design District) were wrapped with nice meaty bacon, and stuffed with Manchego cheese instead of blue as we've seen elsewhere (much to Mrs. F's satisfaction, as she doesn't like blue cheeses), and also used a fatter, plumper date than we've had in other iterations. Saffron arroncini were a very pleasant surprise, little balls of saffron-inflected risotto given a crispy coating and fried. These were smaller than most arroncini I've had (I'd say tater-tot size) which gave a nice ratio of crispy exterior to creamy rice interior; the accompanying tomato jam I found to be a little too sweet.

Caesar salad was prepared tableside in the traditional manner, a nice nostalgic touch, and a really good caesar salad to boot. The dressing was redolent with garlic, lemon and anchovy all happily competing for attention, and an untraditional addition of toasted sesame seeds contributed nice texture and flavor.[*]

A tuna poke (a traditional Hawaiian dish of cubed raw tuna somewhat similar to a ceviche), marinated with tangerine segments, soy, ginger, and mint, and sprinkled with wasabi-spiked caviar, was something of a disappointment, the cubes of tuna a little chewy, and the flavor of the citrus somewhat overwhelming. This one flop was made up for by the shrimp & grits "brûlée", a delicious dish even if it is completely unlike any lowcountry shrimp 'n' grits. Instead, wild Florida shrimp are paired with some creamy Anson Mills grits, which are supplemented with Manchego cheese, cubes of tomato, bacon lardons, and shallots, piled into a ramekin and then run under the broiler until it's toasty and browned on top. I'd swear there were some unadvertised bits of lobster meat in the mix as well. This was a delicious dish which alone was worth the trip (and definitely worth the $10 price).

<><><><>Shrimp & Grits Brulee
Shrimp & Grits Brulee, photo credit: Jacob Katel

We also liked the Kyoto clam "hot pot," a generous portion for $10 of little, firm, meaty clams, steamed open in a broth of soy, sake, scallions and red peppers, with an unorthodox addition of sweet cooked bananas. Mrs. F liked everything about the dish but the bananas - they didn't offend my sensibilities, I'd even go so far as to say I liked them. If nothing else, I appreciate the boldness of the pairing. A side of a spinach fondue was too heavy on the cream and cheese, and too light on the spinach, to be considered a bona fide "vegetable side." Though it was good, it was perhaps overwhelmingly rich, though that didn't keep me from dunking bread even after all the spinach was gone.

Entrees mostly ranged from $20-30 but were a somewhat limited and - to us, at least - unexciting selection. While fish got an entire page of the menu, including a praise-worthy statement of commitment to sustainable fish and seafood, the offerings included only four fish options (snapper, yellowfin tuna, mahi mahi, and yellowtail), a fried calamari dish, a pasta dish featuring shrimp, and, perhaps most intriguing, a "surf & turf" with grilled shrimp and beef short ribs. The non-fish entrees also play it pretty close to the vest - skirt steak with chimichurri, filet with red wine demi-glace, burger, shortribs, pork chop, chicken paillard.

But that was OK, as our multitude of starters turned out to be plenty of food to make a meal, and is the way we often like to dine. And the price was certainly fair, with the food portion of our bill being under $60. Mrs. F vetoed dessert, which is too bad as I do have fond recollections of Chef Susser's "Kit Kats" dessert. The $25 corkage fee was money well spent, as the 2002 Hudelot-Noellat Chambolle-Musigny Les Charmes I brought was freaking awesome, if I may say so.

Aside from the recent menu overhaul, Chef Allen's does a good job of finding other ways to bring folks in. Throughout the summer they are offering free interactive cooking classes on Fridays from 6pm-7pm (conveniently before dinner time, you'll note), on Father's Day they're offering to let Dad cut his own steak to be grilled on their Lyonnaise wood-burning grill, and every Wednesday is "Wine Down Wednesday" with all bottles on the list offered at half price. You don't stick around for more than twenty years in the restaurant business without learning a few new tricks along the way, and it's reassuring to see that Chef Allen's keeps working on ways to keep things fresh.

Chef Allen's
19088 N.E. 29th Avenue
Aventura, FL 33180

Chef Allen's on Urbanspoon

[*]OK, Miami restaurant historians: years ago (10+) there was, briefly, a restaurant on Lincoln Road called Lure which had sushi and an odd but good Asian/Mediterranean menu. They made one of the best caesar salads I've ever had, with a tahini-based dressing and tempura-fried anchovies. The only online reference I can find to it is in this article from 1997. Any idea who was behind the place?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Best Of ... What, Exactly? - Updated

New Times Best of Miami In today's Short Order blog, Lee Klein of Miami New Times offers a baffling and seemingly self-defeating explanation of the NT's annual "Best of Miami"[*] listings. First, let me confess that I've never put much weight in this list, and really just stopped reading it entirely when a couple years ago they gave the "Best Restaurant Wine List" award to Maroosh, a perfectly serviceable Middle-Eastern restaurant whose wine list is - really, no exaggeration - less exceptional than many convenience stores I've been to. Seriously. Unless of course you consider a horizontal collection of the ubiquitous, mass-production Kendall-Jackson "Vintner's Reserve" to be impressive (they have the Chardonnay, the Zinfandel, the Cabernet Sauvignon AND the Merlot!). This was such an insult both to the several local restaurants that make an effort to put out interesting, fairly priced wine lists, and the diners who genuinely give a crap about such things, that I just stopped reading "Best of Miami." I didn't even look at the thing last year.

Besides, I'm just not a big believer in the whole "best" concept. Maybe I'm just incapable of making decisions or lacking in strong opinions (unlikely), but I find most matters, food or otherwise, to be too nuanced to declare such absolute superlatives. Best Spanish? I love Michelle Bernstein's contemporary take on tapas at Sra. Martinez, but I also like the more straight-ahead versions at Xixon; I also love the callos and ensalada rusa at Copas y Tapas, and the bacalaitos at Taberna Giralda, to say nothing of the more formal dinner fare at Ideas. Is one the "best"? I couldn't say; depends what I'm in the mood for any particular day. Dim sum? Tropical is the most consistent, but I had better chicken feet at Mr. Chu's on South Beach (before it closed - here's hoping they reinstate dim sum at the new Coral Gables location). These kinds of lists draw in readers (and, thusly, advertisers), but I don't think they usually mean all that much.

But the New Times' preemptive defense, hoping to avoid the "catcalls of derision," just gives me more reasons to disregard the latest list:
We do try to choose what we think is the best in each category, but with the same set of unofficial caveats that Oscar voters abide by. For instance, we are just as hesitant to name the same winner for the same item two years in a row. Do our readers need to read that Garcia's makes a great fish sandwich year after year after year? We think not.
So, if readers are looking for, say, the best fish sandwich, they should only rely on New Times every other year? This is the "Best of Miami - Unless You Were the Best Last Year"? How do I know whether this is the year that really has the "best," or this is the year that you decided to list someone else just for the sake of variety?

Plus nowadays every publication and online food site has their own set of bests -- do we really need to read that Garcia's makes a great fish sandwich 20 times a year?
No. Agreed. Completely. But then - and maybe I've lost my train of thought here - what exactly is the point of this "Best of Miami" thing anyway?

On the other hand, you can't put together a credible overview without giving nods to those establishments that everybody knows are deserving. So we mix it up -- best actor this year, best supporting the next. And we are also extremely unlikely to give more than one nod to any restaurant in any one year -- so if your favorite steak house didn't win Best Steak House, it may be because it won Best Restaurant In South Beach. Or vice versa.
So if, again, let's say I'm looking for the best fish sandwich in Miami, and it happens to be one of those years that the place that actually has the best fish sandwich in Miami isn't being listed for "Best Fish Sandwich in Miami" (because that would be so boring), I should instead look in, say, the category for "Best Restaurant that has Park Benches In Back Looking Out on a Somewhat Dingy But Still Slightly Charming in its Own Way Part of the Miami River"? Very helpful. And once again, if "everybody knows" what restaurants are deserving of awards, then what, exactly, is the point of publishing the list?

This is for those bloggers -- and I'm talking to you, Chowhounders -- who annually blather on about how our more questionable picks just have to be attributed to an attempt to please advertisers. Let me say, once and for all, that this is simply not the case, and never has been -- both in terms of our Best Of issue, and all other writing. Period.[**]
Just for the record, I have never said that. And in fact, the numbers tend to bear it out - sort of. You can take a look at the 2008 Best of Miami listings, and only a small fraction of the award-recipients are advertisers, and there are certainly a lot more advertisers than awards. On the other hand, I suspect - and this may tie into the now-acknowledged "let's mix it up regardless of who's really the best" philosophy - many current advertisers have been recipients of prior awards, and vice versa. I am not a subscriber to the "advertiser conspiracy" theory; however, it shouldn't give anyone much comfort that some picks are so outright bizarre that the most natural explanation that occurs to some readers is that they must be paid for.

But I do think New Times' own explanation for its "best of" decision-tree is reason enough to doubt its reliability, independent of the unsubstantiated rumors of advertiser influence. If the purpose is really to just pick the "best" in any category, it shouldn't remotely matter whether the same place was named previously. Spreading the wealth around, just for the heck of it, does little to assist diners and undermines whatever credibility the publication might otherwise have.

It seems that the implicit message is "It's all just entertainment, don't take it too seriously, we're just trying to sell a newspaper here after all." (Of course, being a free paper, what they're really selling is advertising.) And I understand that. But sadly, the "Best of" Primer presents a very compelling argument for why anyone who really cares about finding the best food in Miami may well find New Times' "Best of Miami" largely useless in that endeavor.

Update: I posted a paraphased version of this as a comment on the Short Order post, and Lee Klein gave a pretty lengthy, earnest response. It hasn't changed my mind on much, but it does provide some further explanation. As some have already noted in comments here, there's nothing wrong with provoking a healthy debate over food.

[*]Image at top via Miami New Times.

[**]I don't think anyone's bothered to mention the New Times "Best of Miami" list on Chowhound for more than two years, so "annually" would seem to be a stretch. But nonetheless, it's nice to know that Lee Klein is reading Chowhound for reasons other than just picking up ideas on what restaurant to visit next - "Gustavo the hairdresser"? Really?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Miami Pizza Crawl - Part II Recap

The second round of the "Miami Pizza Crawl" re-convened this past Sunday evening, exploring the offerings of the northerly pizzaiolos of Miami-Dade County -- Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza, Pizza Fusion, and Racks Italian Bistro. Readers of Chowhound may recall that the genesis of the Pizza Crawl came about as a result of me giving Miami Danny (a/k/a Danny Brody of the Daily Cocaine blog) a small raft of shit (more like a dinghy, maybe) over him declaring Racks' pizza the best in South Florida after they had been open approximately 24 hours. While giving Danny some grief is usually its own reward, this particular instance had the added bonus of leading to the idea of a "pizza showdown" among the many new pizzamakers cropping up around Miami. We had a big turnout last night with 28 people (including all of Family Frod for the first two rounds) and it was a fun group. Many thanks to Paula of Mango & Lime for playing coordinator for this round. You can see her recap and pictures here.

Here's the menu for the evening's festivities (given the size of the group it wasn't easy to get a taste of everything, and so I'm mostly going to recite what made impressions either favorable or not rather than try to do the usual granular recap):

Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza
"Paul & Young Ron" (with meatballs, sausage, hot peppers & ricotta)
Fresh Mozzarella, Sliced Tomato & Basil
Eggplant Marino
White Pizza
Meatball & Ricotta
Philly Cheesesteak

Pizza Fusion
Organic Pepperoni
Bruschetta (with fresh chopped tomatoes, red onion, basil, balsamic vinegar & roasted garlic)
Four Cheese & Sundried Tomato
Organic Eggplant & Fresh Mozzarella
Farmers Market (with roasted artichokes, red onion, zucchini & eggplant)
Founders' Pie (with chicken, kalamata olives, red onion & mozzarella)

Secchi (with sopressata, provolone, fiore di latte & goat cheese)
Sweet Sausage (with meatballs, onion, ricotta & grana padano)
Spinach (with prosciutto, smoked mozzarella & reggiano)
Portabello (with truffle oil, gorgonzola & speck)

I've had Anthony's pizza before, and am a fan of their crispy "well done" style. They use coal-burning ovens that they crank to 800 degrees, which cook the pies in 4 minutes. I know some people don't like getting their crust with black bits around the edges, but I don't mind it. I was disappointed, though, that the broccoli rabe and sausage pizza was "86'd" for the night and wasn't part of our tasting. Having said all that, I found most of the pies we got at Anthony's last night to be curiously underdone (by their typical standards, anyway). Maybe it was because some of them were too loaded down with toppings (the "Paul & Young Ron" in particular I thought was overloaded), but I found them surprisingly soggy. My favorite of the group was probably the plain jane pie with fresh tomato and mozzarella - perhaps because the topppings didn't dominate the crust which was still firm and crisp. I also enjoyed the flavor of the "Eggplant Marino" (supposedly Dan Marino's favorite) with thinly sliced rounds of eggplant sprinkled with parmesan, though again I thought there was too much topping to crust. All still good, but not as good as I've had there previously.

It was interesting to me to see that Anthony's was absolutely packed, with a full house and people waiting outside for tables, early on a Sunday evening despite continuing periodic downpours. Somehow one server tended to our entire table of 25 or so (a few stragglers got seated separately) and did so efficiently and with a smile. Bless her.

Next, Pizza Fusion. Pizza Fusion is a chain which started in Deerfield Beach, Florida and now has about 20 locations in Florida and elsewhere, with more in the pipeline. They have a strong focus on using organic ingredients - their sauce and their dough are supposedly all-organic, as are many of the toppings. Their large pies came in a 9"x18" rectangular shape - although they are offered with a regular white dough crust as well as a multigrain crust, we missed out on sampling the latter. While I appreciate the chain's dedication to organic ingredients, I was less appreciative of their pizzas. The crust was overwhelmed by the flavor and texture of the cornmeal on the bottom, and the toppings were, well - nebbish. The sauce was too sweet, the pepperoni didn't taste like much - particularly compared to the robust flavors of the Pizzavolante "Cacciatorini" - and none of the other vegetable toppings really stood out. This was not bad pizza by any means, it was perfectly fine - just not anything I'd go out of my way for, though I'd happily eat it in lieu of many other strip-mall options. Frod Jr. and Little Miss F are big fans of the organic Boylan's sodas, and I also appreciated the all-organic beer and wine list.

They were likewise very accomodating of our big, unwieldy group, and the restaurant has a nice look, going for the modern industrial loft feel with unfinished concrete walls, reclaimed wood tables and the like. I really am genuinely impressed by Pizza Fusion's commitment to environmental responsibility and there's much more info on it here, including things like countertops made from recycled detergent bottles, dual-flush toilets in the bathrooms, using recycled paper for their printed materials, and giving discounts to customers who recycle their pizza boxes.

We closed out the evening at Racks, and after suffering some attrition among the ranks, only sampled four of their pies. It was enough to make an impression, and the impression was pretty favorable. Racks also uses coal-burning ovens, cranked up hot enough to cook the dough and warm the toppings before they all turn to mush. They also go for the rectangular shape on their pies, though these were probably a bit smaller than what we got at Pizza Fusion, and probably smaller than the equivalent pie at Anthony's as well (though comparing the surface area of the rectangular Racks pie to the round Anthony's pie involves math skills I have long since forgotten; maybe Frod Jr. can help). The one pizza in particular that everyone seemed to lurch for as it came out was the one topped with spinach, prosciutto and smoked mozzarella, the smoky mozzarella making a nice complement to the thinly sliced prosciutto. But the sweet sausage pizza was also very good, incorporating several elements without completely messing up the toppings-to-crust ratio.

I somehow missed out on trying the Secchi, which sounded good. I was not as impressed by the portobello pizza as some, which I thought was too heavy on the cheese and also on the truffle oil (a note which is too easily overdone and generally overplayed, methinks). On a related note, I was somewhat baffled by a "special" pizza offering of a truffle pie for $34 (nearly 3 times as much as anything else on the menu). The baffling part is not so much the price (fresh truffles are expensive) as the calendar - it's June! Truffle season is typically October to March. I should have asked exactly what they were using, but it basically had to either be summer truffles (which are rather less fragrant, and dramatically less expensive, than winter truffles), or jarred truffles, but neither should command that kind of price tag. By comparison, Timo in Sunny Isles regularly lists a "black and white" pizza wich uses preserved black truffles for $17.

I also would have preferred a crispier crust to the more springy, doughy texture the Racks pizzas had on the outside crust. But - despite all the grief I gave Danny - this was very good pizza. Best pizza in South Florida? I'm not going there yet. But I enjoyed it.

Another nice discovery at Racks - Amarcord Birra Artigianale, an Italian craft beer that comes in four different styles which include a lager, a "double" pale ale, a "double" red ale and a "double" brown ale. I had the red ale which was smooth, intense, even chewy. I believe our waiter said that Racks is the only place in Miami that offers the beer, and if you let them know in advance you can even get a case to pick up from the Racks market.

While I'm not yet committing to any favorites overall, I will say that Racks certainly had the best showing of the evening. And once again, it was a pleasure to get together with the expanding population of pizza crawlers. I hope everyone had a good time.

Update: More on Pizza Crawl Part II here at NBCMiami.com (including video!) and Miami Dish. And if you're interested in participating in the next crawl join the Miami Chowdown Google Group.

Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza
17901 Biscayne Boulevard
Aventura, FL 33160

Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza on Urbanspoon

Pizza Fusion
14815 Biscayne Boulevard
North Miami Beach, FL 33160

Pizza Fusion on Urbanspoon

Racks Italian Bistro
3933 N.E. 163rd Street
North Miami Beach, FL 33160

Racks Italian Bistro on Urbanspoon