Sunday, August 30, 2009

Hakkasan - Miami Beach

image via
Alan Yau, the pioneer of the Wagamama chain of noodle shops, opened the original Hakkasan in London in 2001. In many ways, it was a more contemporary take on the strategy coined by Michael Chow of Mr. Chow in the late 1960's and 70's: make Chinese food upscale, sexy and maybe a bit more accessible to Westerners. It worked phenomenally well, and has been a continuing success: Hakkasan London received a Michelin star in 2003, and is listed in the Pellegrino "World's 50 Best Restaurants." We were there a few years ago, and it's easy to see why it's popular. It's a slick-looking place, all black lacquer and silk, dimly but dramatically lit, carved up by wooden screens into intimate little spaces like a really elegant opium den; and the food was high quality, prepared well, and somewhat adventurous without being too intimidating. A good, fun place, though I have my doubts it really belongs on a list of the world's 50 best restaurants.

The Miami Hakkasan, the first U.S. outpost of the brand (Yau actually sold much of his stake in Hakkasan in 2008 but continues to be involved), opened in the Fontainebleau hotel in April of this year, riding the wave of foreign invaders who had plotted their strategies before the bottom fell out of the economy (Gotham Steak and Scarpetta, both also in the Fontainebleau; Mr. Chow and his evil twin Philippe; BLT Steak, Eos ...). The entrance to the Miami restaurant is not nearly as dramatic as its London cousin, which is sort of hidden away on a side street and takes you down into a mysterious basement space. Instead, you have to wind your way down a long but nondescript hallway nearly into the bowels of the hotel, then up an elevator to the fourth floor. But once you get there, the look and feel of the place effectively duplicate the cool vibe of the London original.

The menu likewise is pretty similar, if slightly shorter, than the London version. The most notable difference is that with the Miami Hakkasan only being open for dinner, it does not include the extensive dim sum menu available in London at lunchtime. That, my friends, is a serious bummer. But there are still a few dim sum offerings on the dinner menu, including a dim sum platter (featuring 2 each of 4 different dumplings) and grilled Shanghai dumplings. We tried both, as well as a duck salad, crispy Szechuan shredded beef, jasmine tea smoked chicken, Singapore noodles, stir-fried gai lan with salted fish and chili, and spring onion fried rice.

There is an obvious discipline and precision to the cooking here. When the lid of the steamer basket was removed from the dim sum platter, the dumplings looked like little jewels on display - shrimp har gow, green-skinned chive and shrimp dumplings, vegetable dumplings, and scallop dumplings topped with a sprinkle of golden tobiko each positively glistened. The fillings were fresh and steaming hot, and the dumpling skins were among the finest I've had, translucently thin and slippery but still sturdy enough not to fall apart upon being picked up. The "grilled Shanghai dumplings" were potstickers, not xiao long bao (soup dumplings), and were possibly the greatest bargain on the menu at $8 for an order of 6 (particularly compared to the $24 for the 8-piece dim sum platter). These were again expertly prepared, crispy on the bottom, steamy and soft on top, though I prefer a pork filling to the blander chicken they offer (there is also a vegetable option). A ginger-spiked black vinegar sauce helped perk these up some.

The crispy duck salad is listed among the appetizers (and seems pricy there at $22) but the portion we received could easily have served as a main course. My guess is that this is the duck meat left over once the skin is harvested for Peking duck, shredded and crisped briefly in a wok, and tossed with some greens, pea shoots and pine nuts. It was definitely my kind of salad, with about a 3:1 ratio of meat to greens.

The jasmine tea-smoked chicken had dark soy-lacquered skin and tender, delicately smoke-infused flesh; it was chopped in Chinese-style chunks but also nicely taken off the bone. The crispy "Szechuan" shredded rib eye was beautiful to look at but a disappointment to eat. The plate bore an artfully assembled tangle of strips of beef (more in the candied style of an orange beef than any Szechuan dish I've had), along with batons of mango and big slivers of red onion. But it had an awful lot more of the latter two than of the beef, and tasted much more of sweet than of any spice. The best part was probably the sticky cashews garnishing it, which had been rolled in sesame seeds (Little Miss F quickly snagged most of these).

The timidity of the Szechuan beef was all the more surprising because the gai lan (Chinese broccoli) dish we had clearly shows the kitchen does not shy from bold flavors. The gai lan, their stems slivered so they bent in a graceful tangle like the beef dish, were stir-fried with dry chiles, slivered garlic and thin crispy shards of aggressively salted dried fish. This was salt with an exclamation point, almost inedibly so, but clearly intentional and presumably a variation on a traditional recipe. The Singapore vermicelli were more moist and less curry-spiced than most versions I've had, but still quite good, speckled with green onion, slivers of red pepper, stir-fried scrambled egg, and a few shrimp here and there. The spring onion fried rice was unexceptional but provided nice ballast for the rest of the meal.

Desserts were unremarkable other than for their cost ($11). Little Miss F had a passionfruit-topped cheesecake which was paired with a bracingly sour passionfruit sorbet; Frod Jr. (predictably) had a warm chocolate cake which was indistinguishable from any other rendition.

Service was quite attentive and knowledgeable, with something of a team approach and everyone seeming to know the menu well. The only negative here was that, after having been seated at 6:30 p.m., it became fairly obvious towards the end of our meal that they were really pushing to turn the table by 8:00 p.m. I don't think I've ever been asked (seriously, with no "cute" mocking tone) "You don't want dessert, do you?" Truth was, I would have been perfectly happy to have gone and tried the gelato place in the Fontainebleau instead of ordering dessert; I think the kids did so just to spite the waiters who were trying to give us the bum's rush.

Overall I really enjoyed the food at Hakkasan (excepting the Szechuan beef and the desserts), but the price-to-value ratio is maddeningly inconsistent here. The grilled Shanghai dumplings are perfectly reasonable at $8 for an order of 6, and seem like a fantastic bargain compared to the 8-piece dim sum platter that costs three times as much. The duck salad would have been an expensive appetizer for $22, but was really a main course portion (and fairly priced for what you got). Meanwhile, the jasmine tea-smoked chicken for $19 may have been three times as much meat as the miserly strands of beef bedecked among the onions and mangoes in the $36 Szechuan beef. Sampling from their cocktail menu (at $14 a pop) will also quickly dispel any hope of coming away without serious financial damage, though a quick glance at the wine list suggested that there were actually many interesting options in a reasonable price range.
Which reminds me of one other interesting little touch. Our kids ordered lemonades, and what they got was a really unexpected surprise. Little Miss F's eyes lit up after her first sip and she exclaimed, "This tastes like key lime pie!" And indeed it did. A closer inspection revealed what looked to be freshly scraped vanilla seeds floating near the top of the drink. That is one fancy lemonade.
Clearly, Hakkasan is not the place to go for cheap dim sum or cheap anything, for that matter. But I remain convinced that if you order carefully and watch what you drink, you can actually have a very good meal and not break the bank. Even if you're not so careful, you'll probably enjoy it right up to the moment that the bill arrives.

4401 Collins Avenue
Miami Beach, FL 31340

Hakkasan on Urbanspoon

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Fifth Floor - San Francisco

Fifth FloorFor a place that's been able to maintain a high reputation for several years, Fifth Floor sure has had a revolving door in the kitchen. It was opened by George Morrone, but he left for other projects and Laurent Gras (now garnering oohs and ahhs at L2O in Chicago) took over around 2002. He left a couple years later, and was replaced by Melissa Perello, who earned the restaurant a Michelin star during her tenure and was nominated for a James Beard Foundation Best Rising Chef award. Then in 2007 she left, to be replaced briefly by former line cooks Charlie Kleinman and Jake Des Voignes (who managed to successfully maintain that Michelin star). Last year Laurent Manrique (until recently also the chef at the Michelin two-starred Aqua, which he's also left after problems with ownership) briefly took over, but now he's gone. Shortly before we arrived in San Francisco, the baton was passed to Jennie Lorenzo, who had worked with Laurent Gras when he was running Fifth Floor, and whose resume also includes stints at Blackbird in Chicago, time with Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay in London, and a trip to the Far East at the Michelin two-star Ryugin.

That's a lot of turnover at the top, and frankly, Fifth Floor was not on our eating agenda for this San Francisco trip. But we happened to be staying at the Hotel Palomar, wherein Fifth Floor resides, and when we learned that they were promoting a 50% discount on the entire wine list, assembled by the highly regarded and aptly named Master Sommelier Emily Wines (who also did the wine list for Miami's Area 31, another Kimpton hotel), we quickly changed our plans.

When we made our dinner reservation they put us in the lounge area rather than the dining room, which I suppose was just as well, given that we had the kids with us. The lounge area adopts a very clubby, manly theme, with lots of wood and leather. There is one long communal table (which nobody was using), a couple other tables (including a large round one that we commandeered), and several low-rise two-tops scattered about. A quick peek into the dining room gave mostly an impression of beigeness; it looked like an elegant, somewhat generic hotel restaurant. A drawback to being in the lounge area was that service was somewhat sporadic - out of sight, out of mind, and with none of the waitstaff regularly passing through the lounge area, there were times we were somewhat neglected.

The menu is fairly short - no more than 10 appetizers and about the same number of entrees - but was supplemented by a bar menu of mostly simpler fare, which is where we often find things for the kids. The restaurant menu is geographically unplaceable, subtly drawing influences from all over (some Italy with a tortellini, some Japan with a tuna "zuke," some North Africa with a "b'stilla" sauce for foie gras...) but doesn't come off as silly for doing so. Collectively, we had starters of a crab "cappuccino," summer squash tortellini, and a caesar salad, followed by a stuffed quail, and a steak frites and a club sandwich off the bar menu. Things started off a little shaky but got better from there.

The tortellini starter brought three vividly green belly-buttons of stuffed pasta. They were filled with a tiny dice of summer squash, along with a tomato "marmalade" that was not sweet enough to merit the moniker, yet didn't bring much else in the way of flavor contrast either. The "garlic + bread sauce" the tortellini were placed upon had formed an unappealing skin on its murky brown surface, and its flavor didn't do much to enhance the somewhat bland squash filling. The crab "cappuccino" was much more successful, a big coffee cup of a creamy broth redolent with dungeness crab, picked up by a hit of ginger, and topped with a truffle foam duplicating the milky froth of the namesake. The only peculiar note to this one were strands of greenery lurking in the soup (wilted baby spinach?), not off from a flavor perspective but just an unexpected texture given the "cappuccino" descriptor. A caesar salad bore a pungent whiff of fishiness (and this from someone who is a big anchovy fan).

The quail, on the other hand, was pure bliss. The bird was perfectly roasted, the legs separately from the rest of the body, which had been boned out and stuffed with a slightly chunky and very flavorful forcemeat. It was served over a bed of a succotash of fresh corn, peas and piquillo peppers along with a scatter of pea tendrils, and then a Madeira sauce was poured tableside (the tableside finish possibly being either an allusion to or a remnant from the Manrique tenure, but either way a nice touch if somewhat incongruous while eating in the more casual lounge). Every single component of this was good on its own, and even better together.

The steak off the bar menu was also nice, a thin cut (the same as the rib-eye "paillard" on the regular menu?) which I suspect was cooked sous-vide and then finished with a quick sear, as it bore that method's typical red-to-the-edges coloration. It came with some gloriously crispy fries which had been given a drizzle of a bright green herb oil. One oddity was that the bar menu steak came at no notable discount from the one on the regular menu, a more composed and elaborate dish with persillade tater tots (tots!), cipollini onion, smoked sour cream and a cabernet reduction. I didn't try the club sandwich but noticed that between my wife and daughter it disappeared quietly and surreptitiously.

The real standout of the dinner, particularly with the 50% discount, was the wine - a 2003 Frederic Magnien Vosne-Romanee Les Suchots. What a treat it is to be able to get such a nice wine, with some bottle age on it, for about $85.

We closed out with one dessert, a warm chocolate pudding cake. Frod Jr. finds it almost impossible to resist the gravitational pull of a warm chocolate cake, but this one came with some unusual accompaniments - a lime cream, a coconut foam, and popcorn ice cream. It sounded pretty unlikely, but it all worked out just fine. Presented in a big old-fashioned glass, any sign of chocolate was initially completely concealed by a big white cloud of coconut foam. As we dug in, it all came together in surprisingly pleasing fashion, and Frod Jr. and I both particularly enjoyed the popcorn ice cream.

Though we experienced some missteps, the 1/2 off wine deal alone would seem enough to make Fifth Floor worth a visit. And if the rest of the menu can reach the level of the quail dish and the dessert we had, then San Franciscans ought to hope that Jennie Lorenzo sticks around a while.

Fifth Floor
12 4th Street
San Francisco, CA 94103

Fifth Floor on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Bruni's a Big Tipper

My favorite bit of advice from Frank Bruni in "Good Tips at the End of His Meals":
Scratch off the appetizers and entrees that are most like dishes you’ve seen in many other restaurants, because they represent this one at its most dutiful, conservative and profit-minded. The chef’s heart isn’t in them.
Scratch off the dishes that look the most aggressively fanciful. The chef’s vanity — possibly too much of it — spawned these.
Then scratch off anything that mentions truffle oil.
Choose among the remaining dishes.

More Bruni parting advice in the Diner's Journal.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Miami's Best Pizza - Reader's Poll Results Are In

The post-Pizza Crawl results are in for the Miami's Best Pizza reader's poll. With more than 150 votes cast, the winner is ...

[drum roll please]

photo credit: Jacob Katel


If you had been along with us for Round I of the Crawl, this would probably not have been your first guess. But the readers have spoken, and there you have it. The final results:

1. Andiamo - 36 votes (23%)
2. Sosta Pizzeria - 29 votes (18%)
3. Piola - 27 votes (17%)
4. Joey's - 21 votes (13%)
5. Casale - 15 votes (9%)
6. PizzaVolante - 10 votes (6%)
7. Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza - 6 votes (3%)
8. Fratelli la Bufala - 4 votes (2%)
9. Racks Bistro - 2 votes (1%)
10. Spris - 2 votes (1%)
11. Pizza Fusion - 1 vote (0%)

Congratulations to the winner, and thanks to everyone for participating. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.

Monday, August 24, 2009

San Francisco Dim Sum - Yank Sing, Great Eastern

Our trips to Northern California always seem to start the same way. The non-stop flight from Miami gets us into San Francisco around noon, and after six hours in the air we are ready to stretch our legs and fill our bellies. While the order of those priorities sometimes varies, the former always involves a walk across town (typically starting from the hotel in SOMA or near Union Square, winding our way through Chinatown, then North Beach, and finally out to the Fisherman's Wharf to fulfill our obligations as tourists); and the latter invariably involves dim sum.

This time around, we elected to start with the belly-filling dim sum portion of the agenda, particularly since our hotel was only a few blocks away from Yank Sing. The commonly held wisdom among SF locals these days seems to be that the best dim sum is found in the farther reaches of the Bay Area: the Richmond District in San Francisco, and even further afield in Millbae and San Mateo. But for in-city eats, Yank Sing still has a well-earned reputation that we've confirmed on several prior visits; plus, it was geographically desirable.

The original Stevenson Street location is somewhat hidden in plain sight one block south of Market Street, and with its floor-to-ceiling glass windows and white tablecloths, it is one of the more polished-looking dim sum venues I've visited. Service is push-cart style, and tea is brought in stylish glass infusion pots. We selected a fairly customary lineup of items: xiao long bao (pork soup dumplings), har gow (shrimp dumplings), shiu mai (pork & shrimp dumplings), baked char siu bao (bbq pork buns), potstickers, turnip cake, fried shrimp, spring rolls, and custard tarts. We also added on four pieces of Peking duck, a nice item to be able to get as dim sum, with big slivers of crispy skin with a little meat attached, to be stuffed into little steamed buns along with some hoisin sauce and shredded scallion.

The xiao long bao are something of a house specialty and are indeed a fine example. The dumplings have a smooth, thin, just slightly elastic shell, within which lurks a filling of minced pork bathing in a mouth-filling gulp of rich broth (they are made by including cold, gelatinized broth in the filling, which warms back to a soup when the dumplings are steamed). Yank Sing's recommended eating method is to gently place the dumpling in a soup spoon (without breaking the wrapper), and ladle over some ginger-infused vinegar - from there you're on your own. I bite off a bit from the top of the dumpling, slurp a bit of broth, then eat the rest in one gushing mouthful.

XLB have made occasional appearances in Miami (briefly at Jumbo, in the North Miami Beach location now housing Hong Kong Noodles; at Mr. Chu's, a dim sum place on South Beach which has now moved to Coral Gables as Chu's Taiwanese Kitchen, though I don't believe they have dim sum service any longer; I have heard the newly opened Philippe on South Beach will be offering them, though I haven't yet been to confirm) but they are pretty hard to find here. That's too bad, as when done well I think they are one of the crowning achievements of dim sum cookery. Frod Jr. and Little Miss F certainly thought so, too. We ended up having to order two rounds (6 dumplings apiece) and I still only got two XLB total.

The rest of the dim sum was all good, high quality, and pleasing, though there was nothing that really floored me. Despite advertising that they offer over 100 selections, the choices available during our visit seemed much less broad, and focused primarily on traditional, middle-of-the-road items. I saw no chicken feet, no tripe, nor anything else particularly exotic. In Yank Sing's defense, I think the Rincon Center location may have a broader selection, and on a return visit on the back end of our trip (return visits are highly irregular on the same trip for us, but the kids insisted on another XLB experience) we did try a few more unusual items, including a bright yellow steamed dumpling (colored with egg yolk?) stuffed with minced vegetables, and a tofu item topped with an assertively-flavored dice of onion, ginger and chiles.

The carts are many and are regularly moving throughout the restaurant, and special items also get circulated frequently (the Peking duck, lettuce cups, big pieces of baked sea bass). Servers are generally very friendly, including one who diligently hunted down some fresh XLB for us on our second visit when we didn't see any circulating. The high volume helps keep everything fresh and hot, which is always a plus.

I was somewhat floored by the bill after our first visit, which came out to well over $100 for about 11 items - easily the most I have ever paid for dim sum for 4 people. On our return visit I got a look at a pricelist and at least began to understand how it got so high. Even the cheapest items go for around $4-5 an item, and many, like the xiao long bao, are around $10 or even higher. The Peking duck goes for a whopping $5 a piece. Whether or not the dim sum is worth this kind of premium (easily 2x what I'm accustomed to seeing at many other places) is certainly open to debate.

And while I'm not one of those people who seem to believe (particularly when it comes to "ethnic" food) that the dirtier the place, the better the food (I'm not sure what distinguishes House of Nanking other than its grimy windows) - there is something that seems to me just a little too sanitized about Yank Sing. It's not so much the clean restaurant and the white tablecloths - it's the absence of any offal or even for that matter any meat on the bone that seems sort of odd. The food is good, and the xiao long bao are exceptional; but I miss some of the variety that often makes a dim sum meal so pleasing.

Yank Sing
49 Stevenson Street
San Francisco, CA 94105

Yank Sing on Urbanspoon

Great Eastern menuThe following day, we ended up again retracing steps from one of our prior visits to San Francisco, and went to Great Eastern for lunch. Great Eastern is a big, bustling place in the heart of Chinatown, with two floors filled with tables, and the back of the restaurant occupied by several tanks holding live seafood - dungeness crabs, spot prawns, ling cod, geoduck clams, and other delicacies. They offer checklist-style dim sum service at lunchtime, and also a lengthy menu that runs the gamut - a cornucopia of seafood items, unsurprisingly, but also Chinese BBQ, cold platter items, all sorts of soups, clay pot dishes, and plenty else to boot (goose chitterlings, goose web, sea cucumber, etc.).

We had a cold platter with thinly sliced beef shank, duck tongues, and jellyfish. The beef shank was nice, with a slightly gelatinous texture, and a rich flavor not completely overwhelmed by soy and five-spice. The jellyfish I'm also growing quite fond of, its long, slightly bouncy strands reminding me both in appearance and texture of a thick cellophane noodle, dressed with sesame oil and a touch of vinegar. The duck tongues, however, have yet to demonstrate their allure to me - somewhat firm, not too flavorful, and with a bit of cartilage running up the middle that was a tad too hard to comfortably chew up. After a few tries I figured out how to scrape the meat off the strip of cartilage, but it still hardly seemed worth the effort. These seem like they'd be better in a warm preparation, or perhaps confited.

The dim sum we ordered was generally pretty pedestrian and unexciting (the kids scorned the xiao long bao here as decidedly inferior to those at Yank Sing, though they still finished them); a "house special" dim sum item of "pasta" roll with spicy XO sauce was at least something I'd never seen before. The somewhat thick rice pasta sheets I've often seen wrapped, crepe-like, around roast pork or other fillings were here rolled and then sliced crosswise (like cinnamon buns) and dressed with a chunky chile-garlic sauce and also some shredded meat.

The real standout at Great Eastern - as I could have predicted - was the seafood. Our table was right next to those tanks, and from the moment we sat down I couldn't take my eyes off the spot prawns dancing above our heads. Our server said the minimum order was 1 pound (for $35) which he recommended we get steamed. Done. This order brought at least 8 beautiful prawns, split in half cross-wise and dressed with a colorful and flavorful confetti of garlic, ginger, chiles and cilantro. They were beautifully fresh and sweet.

I've only begun to scratch the surface of San Francisco's dim sum and Chinese options, but it is these kinds of experiences that always make me skeptical of any claim that a particular place is the "best" dim sum in town (or any other food genre for that matter). Yank Sing may have the best xiao long bao in town but I'm dubious they could run the table for every other variety of dim sum too. The fresh seafood at Great Eastern was excellent but the rest of the stuff was fairly pedestrian. I suspect that with enough exploration, you could find plenty of "bests" for different individual items. Maybe next visit we should squeeze in a field trip to Millbrae.

Great Eastern
649 Jackson Street
San Francisco, CA 94133

Great Eastern on Urbanspoon

Friday, August 21, 2009

Only Two Days Left in Miami Pizza Poll

Until yesterday, Casale and Pizzavolante had been running neck and neck comfortably ahead of the rest of the pack, but now there's been a late surge from Piola and Andiamo and it's all close to even. There's only two days remaining to cast your vote for the Best Pizza in Miami over on the right hand column. (Sorry, there's no category for "No Miami pizza can possibly compare to any New York pizza, even one scraped up off the sidewalk after three days festering in the sun").

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Kingdom - Manliest Restaurant in America?

[sorry, this restaurant has closed]

I'm not quite sure what to make of it, but I'm comfortable enough with my manhood to admit that on more than one occasion, folks that have emailed me through the blog or responded to chowhound posts have assumed (erroneously) that I'm female. But I didn't volunteer that fact to the folks at when they asked for my suggestion of a Miami candidate for their "Manliest Restaurant in America" contest.

After finishing a beer or three, scratching myself, and doing a little tribal drumming, my recommendation was Kingdom, the bar and burger joint on Biscayne Boulevard and 67th Street. The burgers are great, the beer is cold and reasonably priced, the TVs are always tuned to whatever sporting event is in season, and your choices are to sit at the dark dank bar, or to sit outside on the sidewalk along Biscayne Boulevard, where if you're there at the right hour you'll still see folks working the oldest profession. The burgers start at 1/2 pound and work their way up to the 2 pound "Doomsday Burger," with the testosterone-driven dare that if you finish one along with an order of fries and rings in 15 minutes, it's free. And there's a great big concrete lion out front.

Que es mas macho than that? (My alternate choice, by the way, was Las Vacas Gordas). The voting is proceeding in regional brackets, so if you want to support Kingdom, here's where to cast your vote on the "Manliest Restaurant in America."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Phony Bagelmania Has Bitten the Dust

I know it seems odd that after a week in northern California I should be talking about bagels. A case of recency trumping primacy (there are many good things to eat in San Francisco - the bagels are not among them).

After returning home to South Florida, I was intrigued to read on the Florida Chowhound board of a new bagel place opening up in Delray Beach called "The Original Brooklyn Water Bagel Co." The pitch is that they claim to have found a way to duplicate, through "purification and modification," the supposedly magical effects of the New York public water supply on bagel-preparation.[*]

Opinions among the chowhounds seem decidedly mixed, with some pronouncing them the "Best bagels in S. Fl.," while others declared them "really nothing special." As is somewhat typical, many of the posters (particularly the cheerleaders) are first-time posters, miraculously roused to action by the appearance of a new bagel place.

Anyhoo ... I happened to be up in Palm Beach this morning, and Brooklyn Water Bagel was only a brief detour on my drive back to Miami. I stopped in and they do indeed have lots of fancy metal tanks on display which create the Brooklyn holy water. Other than that, it's a modified fast-food setup where you order at the counter, pour your own coffee or soft drink, and get a card which plugs into a little device on your table to tell them where to deliver your order.

I had requested a lox eggs & onions with a toasted poppy seed bagel, but alas, their toaster was behaving over-aggressively and had been put on time out for the morning. Considering they just opened a week ago, I was not going to hold this against them; besides, it gave me a better opportunity to sample their bagel au naturel, and they assured me the bagels were still warm from the oven. There was another mild snafu a few minutes later when, instead of getting a LEO with a bagel on the side, I instead got a LEO stuffed within said bagel (which was a different but very similarly described menu item). I can deal with that in stride too. It's all about the bagel anyway, right?

As for that bagel. I was underwhelmed. It had a nicely crusty exterior, but otherwise it struck me as too fluffy and risen, and too dry. In fact, for a bagel fresh out of the oven, it felt oddly stale. I can't imagine driving all the way from Miami to Delray even for an authentic Brooklyn bagel, but this one certainly wouldn't be worth the schlep.

But maybe I'd just forgotten what a good bagel tasted like - an easy thing to do amidst all the imposters these days. So as I continued driving south, I recalled another small detour along the way - Sage Deli in Hallandale. Lacking Brooklyn Water Bagel's fast-food franchise aspirations, Sage is an old-school Jewish deli that bakes its own bagels on premises, and also offers the full gamut of the usuals - several different smoked fish, corned beef and pastrami, deli salads, knishes, blintzes, etc. They also had what I recalled to be some of the best bagels in South Florida, though it had been some time since I'd had one. I grabbed a quick sesame bagel (toasted with a working toaster!) topped with scallion cream cheese at the counter, and was reminded what a good bagel should be. Crusty on the outside, but still chewy and even a bit dense on the inside - substantial, serious and not in any way fluffy. It's not a New York bagel, but it's as close as I've gotten here in South Florida - even without any Brooklyn water.

The Original Brooklyn Water Bagel Co.
14451 S. Military Trail
Delray Beach, FL 33484

Sage Deli
800 E. Hallandale Beach Blvd.
Hallandale, FL 33009

Sage Bagel on Urbanspoon

[*]Having been open a week, Brooklyn Water Bagel's website already optimistically has a link for "Franchise Info" though it's a dead link.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Going to California ...

... with no aching in my heart. Actually gone last week and came back, late last night, which explains the dearth of posts here of late. But fear not, I'm working up my reports from the other coast. A preview of what's to come: Yank Sing, Great Eastern, Fifth Floor, Zuni Cafe, Incanto, Citronelle Carmel, Manresa, Bistro Laurent, Artisan, Le Colonial.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Experiment #1

Talula Cobaya menu The first run of the "Cobaya - Gourmet Guinea Pigs" dinner was earlier this week at Talula with a menu crafted by Chef Andrea Curto-Randazzo and her sous chef Kyle Foster. There was a preview of the menu here the evening before the dinner, and now there's some feedback in the comments there from some of the other guinea pigs.

Before recapping the meal, some general thoughts. The goal here is a very simple one - to get talented chefs to cook great, interesting meals for an audience of adventurous, open-minded diners. That may happen inside a restaurant, it may happen outside of one. It may be a multi-course tasting menu, it may be a family-style whole hog dinner (here's hoping). For those who question the "underground" street cred of this mission, those questions are perfectly legitimate. My answer is, "I don't care." We're not limiting ourselves to meals cooked in abandoned warehouses in secret locations disclosed the day before the dinner; we're also not limiting ourselves to white tablecloths and silverware changed between every course. I'm very open-minded that way: all that matters to me is if the food is good, and I think there's enough similar-minded folks to make that game plan sustainable.

In any event, here are my thoughts on the first Cobaya experiment (the restaurant was very generous on corkage and so several of us brought bottles, wine pairings are noted below where I can recall).

diver scallop crudo - a couple thin slices of cold, sweet sea scallop, topped with a Blue Moon Beer sorbet, some micro-greens tossed with some pickled ginger, and a sprinkle of mint sea salt, all presented on a big scallop shell like Venus on the Half-Shell. I enjoyed the texture of the sorbet against the scallop, though I thought the sorbet was too sweet which overwhelmed the beer flavor; the minted salt did a nice job of perking up the flavors.

Had a Hubert Slovakian sparkling wine with this, which I thought was a perfectly nice bubbly though not a great pairing.

foie gras - the foie was perfectly seared, with a very fine cross-hatch across the surface. A great set of accompaniments, too - a sort of hash of Homestead lychees, toasted almond slivers, and house smoked bacon (Talula does a lot of in-house charcuterie and the results are outstanding), and a drizzle of a root beer gastrique that provided a tantalizing sweet-spicy component. You can also find this root beer gastrique on the Talula regular menu where it accompanies a seared scallop app.

Poured a Bodegas Gutierrez Casta Diva Cosecha Miel (2003) with this, a sweet muscatel from Alicante which showed some nice citrus, honey and spice.

quail - rubbed with ancho chile and roasted, served with a raisin-cocoa nib jus and a puddle of buttered popcorn puree. The quail was perfectly roasted and it was reassuring to see that this group wasn't remotely self-conscious about getting down to business and using their hands to pick up and gnaw on those little leg bones. The raisin-cocoa nib component did a neat job of mirroring the notes of the ancho chile, though it was curious that the flavors more fully revealed themselves on their own (particularly the cocoa) rather than when had in combination with the quail. The popcorn puree was also a nice complement, though the flavor -surprisingly to me - was not dramatically distinguishable from just a simple corn puree.

Paired with a Finca Sandoval (2004), a syrah-based blend from Manchuela that had nice dark fruit and some smoky, chocolatey notes.

tripe risotto - one of my favorites of the night among several very good dishes. Talula always does great risottos but this was a real knockout. Creamy rice and lots of slippery, velvety braised tripe, smoky spicy house-smoked tasso, along with some textural and flavor contrast from some softened but not melted green apple dice and red cabbage, and walnuts. Just an absolutely beautiful dish. I could have happily had another bowl after dessert.

Had with a Poggio San Polo Brunello (1997) which was beautiful, both elegant and robust, but still felt really young and could have used some more aeration. Lesson for next time.

spinalis - another of the favorites of the night. The spinalis is, as I understand it, basically the cap of the ribeye, the strip of meat outside the fat layer of a typical rib-eye steak, taken cross-wise off the top of the cut. It is a fantastic cut of meat, with deep meaty flavor, and a great combination of texture and tenderness. It was accompanied with a summer stone fruit panzanella (slices of nectarine (?) and plum (?) tossed with cubes of toasted bread), "blackberry wine" and a toss of crispy fried shallots. The unconventional pairing of the fruit with the beef nicely lightened up the dish some.

This was possibly one of the best semi-fortuitous wine pairings of the night (when I saw the description it was screaming for a zin for me), a C.G. di Arie "Southern Exposures" Shenandoah Valley Zinfandel (2006), a really nice zin with plenty of berry fruit but still good balance and even elegance.

cheeses - a couple artisan cheeses from Carr Valley, the menu listed a River Bend sheeps' milk cheese and a Bessie's Blend goat & cow's milk cheese, though some of us at the table believe we actually got a Mobay (Carr Valley's take on the French Morbier) instead. The pairing with a house-made mostarda (cherries in a syrup pungent with mustard seed and horseradish) and truffle honey was intriguing, but ... I prefer Talula's cooking to Carr Valley's cheeses.

panna cotta - a beautiful creamy-white panna cotta speckled on top with vanilla beans, with a hint of fresh tarragon and a scatter of strawberries macerated in a white balsamic syrup. This was a nice light dessert, with an excellent texture. Jay Rayner got some titters on Top Chef for noting that a proper panna cotta should wobble like a woman's breasts, and that's an apt description. Sadly, there are so many fake ones on South Beach, it would be hard to tell (panna cottas, that is).

This made for an unexpectedly brilliant pairing with another of the Hubert Slovakian bubblies, this one with just enough of a hint of sweetness to complement the dessert. Unfortunately I can't tell you the particular label on this, only that it was one of those serendipitous moments.

It was a great meal, and a great group of people with whom to share it. The real pleasure of this, from my perspective, is having the opportunity to tell a great chef, "Cook me what you want to make." More such experiences will be coming.[*]

[*]Chef Curto-Randazzo has given hints that she may start doing a "Cobaya Happy Hour" and offer some more adventurous tapas-style items at more affordable prices. When there's more information I"ll be happy to pass it along.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Old Spice

Miami Spice I know it feels like it was only yesterday we were talking about "Spring Spice," but the seemingly never-ending seasonal parade of "Spice" specials has finally come full-circle to the original summer Miami Spice program, with a multitude of restaurants committing to the 3-course, $22 lunch, $35 dinner regime for August and September.

I gave my fairly obvious Miami Spice "strategy" in the earlier post - "look for interesting food, and look for places where the Spice menu actually offers a meaningful discount off the regular menu prices." Implicit in that strategy is "avoid the ubiquitous Spice trifecta of farmed salmon, skirt steak and chicken paillard if at all possible." And, as always, keep in mind that restaurants frequently change their Spice menus, so don't kvatch because you saw something different online. This is important if for no other reason than the sanity of the line cooks who grow weary of cranking out the same dish over and over and over again. So without further ado, here's what looks interesting to me:

Area 31 - great idea of a "sustainable dinner" with 4 (!) courses - key west pink shrimp; ricotta gnocchi with tuna bolognese; striped bass with English peas, watermelon radish and long pepper; and key lime curd.

Asia de Cuba - similar to sister restaurant China Grill, I like that they offer several different choices and have adapted the "Spice" concept to their family style servings. Seems a better deal if you go with more than 2 people.

BLT Steak - assuming they're still serving the warm chicken liver mousse and popovers with the Spice menu, worth it for that reason alone.

Bourbon Steak - duck rillette, "American Kobe" Rib Eye ($10 upcharge), and doughnut tiramisu? Sure, even if I'm a little sore that the upcharge seems a bit contrary to the spirit of the thing.

Eos - lunch only, but bonus points for playing the bone marrow card as an accompaniment to a grilled flatiron steak; plus unlimited glasses of Boutari wine (not conducive to afternoon productivity).

Gotham Steak - mostly just because I haven't tried it yet, but there are probably worse meals to be had than a corn soup with lump crab, braised veal cheeks, and cherry clafoutis.

Hakkasan - again mostly because I haven't been there yet, though entree choices of stir-fry black pepper beef or steamed red snapper don't exactly inspire. Early reports suggest they're not exactly encouraging people to take advantage of the Spice menu at the restaurant either.

Michy's - pork belly, nectarines, basil & star anise; grilled short rib w green tomato slaw and gremolata; and Michy's bread pudding? Yes please. A couple other interesting items I've not seen from her before, too - a chilled beet soup (borscht is coming back, baby!) and a yellowtail braised in Malaysian curry with mango, sticky rice and hearts of palm stew.

Neomi's - "taco truck" app - kogi tacos with korean bbq pork & kimchee, or fish tacos with yellowtail and the customary accoutrements; and I've tasted a preview of the "taste of lobster" entree - it is definitely worth tasting.

Palme d'Or - wild mushroom cassolette with creamy spinach & poached quail egg sure sounds good; so does Maine lobster bisque with lobster ravioli & saffron cappucino; braised short ribs with potato gratin, baby carrot & black truffle sauce sounds a bit heavy for summer, but somehow so much more appealing than a grilled striped bass filet.

Petite Rouge - since this place is already pretty reasonably priced, this may breach my "don't do Spice if it's not a bargain" rule, but nonetheless, you can't go wrong with escargot, bavette a la bordelaise, and tarte tatin.

Restaurant at the Setai - always intriguing-sounding food and the Spice is a real bargain compared to their regular menu prices; though the Spice menu they've posted for the summer looks awfully similar to the menu they did in the Spring.

Scarpetta - will I feel like less of a shithead for ordering a $23 bowl of spaghetti pomodoro if it's part of a $35 3-course menu?

How are your Spice experiences this summer?

[OK, I'm kicking myself for not immediately thinking of the opportunity to link to this]

Monday, August 3, 2009

Pizza Crawl Part IV - il fin

They say all good things must come to an end, and "Pizza Crawl" finally did so earlier this week - just in time for the Miami Herald to get on the pizza bandwagon. Another troupe of pizza fans came along for the final edition, which made its two last stops in South Beach at Fratelli la Bufala and the newly opened Casale.

Fratelli la Bufala

I had always been curious about Fratelli la Bufala, which came to South Beach with an authentic Italian pedigree. The brand was supposedly started by the sons of a family of Italian buffalo mozzarella producers who thus dubbed themselves the "Fratelli la Bufala" and has nearly 100 locations, mostly in Italy but also including such far-flung outposts as Hannover, Strasbourg, Istanbul and Dubai.

The full contingent of pizza-tasters had not yet come on board when we arrived at Fratelli, so we limited our tasting to only four pies. When we first started the pizza crawl, we had the idea of sampling a "control group" margherita from each restaurant; that idea was quickly abandoned as the group sought to identify the best "signature" offering from each place (a couple additional unofficial rules instead came into play: one was that if a pizza included the name of the restaurant, it had to be ordered; and another was that if a combination sounded completely unlikely - i.e., the "Joey's Pizza" with tuna, salami, gorgonzola, capers and spinach - we ought to order it just to see if it could actually work). While I lobbied to try a traditional margherita at Fratelli, I was boisterously voted down and instead we tried:

La Reale - tomato sauce, bufala mozzarella, bufala smoked mozzarella, bufala ricotta & prosciutto crudo
Diavola - tomato sauce, spicy salame, mozzarella, basil & crushed red pepper
Vesuviana - fresh cherry tomatoes, smoked bufala mozzarella, bufala mozzarella, green olives & anchovies
Sausage & Broccoli Rabe - a special, double-crusted pizza, explained further below.

Across the board, I found the basics at Fratelli were done right - the crust was thin but not cracker-crisp, with some nice bubbles and just a hint of charred bits; the cheese was high quality; the sauce struck a nice balance between acidic and sweet. Yet while they were all good, there was nothing about any of the pies we tried at Fratelli that made you sit up and say "This is a great pizza!"

Though I like the sausage and broccoli rabe combo, I was suspicious of the special we ordered, which was described as being a pizza topped with another pizza crust on top to create a stuffed effect (though not crimped and sealed like a calzone). This sounded too much like some Frankenstein-ish Pizza Hut creation dreamed up for the sake of creating a new product line, but it turned out to be fine, though I still could have easily lived without the extra crust. I am not usually a fan of the multi-cheese approach adopted by the Reale, as I find it's usually overkill, but this one was OK, even if the multitude of cheeses made this pie a bit soggier than the others. The Diavola had a nice assertive spiciness from the salame and crushed pepper, but the one that showed the most promise for me was the Vesuviana, which sported ripe juicy cherry tomatoes, a nice element of intrigue from the smoked buffalo mozzarella, and some high quality anchovies.

Despite missing a "wow" effect, Fratelli la Bufala put out some good pizzas. It is surely the only place in town where pretty much all the pies are topped with high quality mozzarella di bufala, though their prices still remain mostly in the same neighborhood as other pizzerias (mostly in the range of $11-15).

Fratelli la Bufala
437 Washington Avenue
Miami Beach, FL 33139

Fratelli la Bufala on Urbanspoon


[Sorry, this place has closed]

Casale is a sister restaurant to Sardinia, which opened nearly three years ago and has a well-executed focus on the cuisine of its namesake region of Italy. I had heard Casale described as a pizzeria, but it is more ambitious than that. In addition to nearly twenty pizza choices, there is a mozzarella and burrata bar with a number of options for accompaniments, more than a half dozen crudos, several antipasti and salads, and a pretty sizable selection of sandwiches and a few other items as well. It is also a much larger space than I had anticipated, indeed it's a sprawling space with still more seating in an indoor/outdoor upstairs area too.

Since this was the final round of Pizza Crawl and we were only visiting two establishments for the night, we ended up sampling a pretty broad array of Casale's pizza options:

Pugliese - rapini & wild boar sausage
Funghetto - wild mushrooms, taleggio & sage
Smeraldina - braised fennel & bottarga
Catalana - chorizo, manchego, tomato & olives
Atomica - spinach, artichokes, guanciale & quail eggs
Sag Harbor - mussels, clams, baby octopus & shrimp
Buongustaio - baby zucchini, parma prosciutto & burrata
Sagaponack - potatoes, anchovies & ricotta
Super Margherita - prosciutto, bufala mozzarella & arugula

I thought that the crust at Casale was among the best that we've sampled, thin but with a bit of chew, nicely blistered and bubbled and crisp around the edges, if occasionally veering a little too far into blackened and charred territory (an assumed risk when you're dealing with a hot oven). The toppings were often very vividly flavored - the braised fennel on the Smeraldina was silky in texture and bright in flavor, the mushrooms on the Funghetto were rich and meaty with a nice resinously woodsy note from the fresh sage leaves. A few in particular I thought were complete and unqualified successes - the Catalana (an unorthodox but effective use of Spanish ingredients), the Atomica (the spinach jazzed up with the salty guanciale and the use of quail eggs a great way of distributing their yolky goodness across the entire pizza) and the Super Margherita hit all the right spots for me.

On more than one occasion, though, the promise of the menu didn't quite come through on the plate, because the flavor of a key component was missing in action. The Smeraldina was missing the funky whiff of bottarga, making it a one-note fennel composition. The Pugliese appeared almost completely devoid of broccoli rabe. Others just didn't quite click - the potatoes in the Sagaponack were mushy, the Sag Harbor a vast improvement over the seafood pizza we had at Spris but still not quite right.

Despite these miscues, though, Casale's basic execution is fundamentally sound, and the menu is more adventurous than many of the other places we visited. While other pizzerias may boast a lengthier list of pizzas, many are just minor variations on the same theme, whereas Casale's are for the most part each very distinctly different and often more ambitious.

1800 Bay Road
Miami Beach, FL 33139

Casale on Urbanspoon

So after 53 pies at 11 different locations, what conclusions can be drawn? I have a few:

(1) Good pizza isn't easy to do right. Some places where I've had good experiences previously had poor execution on our Pizza Crawl visits. When you're working with extremely high cooking temperatures and short cooking times, the difference between soggy, perfect, and burnt can be a matter of seconds.

(2) You can't make a truly great pizza without great ingredients. The places that stood out to me the most - Pizzavolante, Racks, and Casale - are using high quality ingredients, and it shows in the finished product.

(3) Pizza is a great cheap meal. At most of the places we went, the pies averaged between $10-15. Most were of a size that you could probably split one between two people. Throw in a beer or a cheap glass of wine, and how many other options are there for getting something that's hand-made with artisanal ingredients for under $10 a person?

(4) Miami may not be a pizza mecca, but it doesn't suck either. No doubt all the New Yorkers will chime in about how nothing you get here in Miami can compare to any pizza you can get on any street corner in New York. Whatever. I'm just happy to see some local restaurants taking pizza a little more seriously and for the most part succeeding in their efforts.

And with the Pizza Crawl officially concluded, I am going to reopen the "best pizza" poll with all the places that we've visited. Take a look over on the right-hand column and cast your vote.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Steingartening at Night

I started reading Jeffrey Steingarten's "The Man Who Ate Everything" recently. I picked it up on the recommendation of Chef Norman Van Aken, who gave a "reading list" as a preview of his new restaurant in Coral Gables, due to open (fingers crossed, everyone) this fall. I had read Steingarten's pieces here and there in Vogue and found his writing wildly inconsistent. Sometimes it seems he'd really nailed a subject with insight and wit, other times like the piece was a first draft thrown together at deadline. I enjoyed him early on as a judge on Iron Chef America but think he's now limited himself by being the self-appointed panel curmudgeon. The book, a collection of essays mostly written in the late 1980s and early 1990s, has been much more consistent, showing a willingness to really dive in and research subjects and also a great comedic touch.

I just came across his latest piece in Vogue, "Favorite L.A. Restaurants." Perhaps not surprisingly, given the above comments, there are points where I think he's right on target and others where I'm left scratching my head.

I won't blame him for the preposterous sub-title to the story, which was presumably written by someone else: "Vogue's inimitable food critic Jeffrey Steingarten discovers five hidden gems." Can you think of any L.A. restaurants that have been more talked-up than José Andrés' Bazaar, Jon Shook & Vinny Dotolo's Animal, and Mozza, the pizzeria from the power trifecta of Nancy Silverton, Joe Bastianich, and Mario Batali? "Hidden gems"? Anyway, the piece sparked a couple random thoughts:

In speaking of Bazaar, there was this, on a subject that's been kicked around some here:

Many of Andrés’s dishes are what seems these days to be called “molecular gastronomy,” or sometimes just “molecular.” (This is a foolish, misleading way of referring to the very modern methods of creating novel dishes by using technical and scientific tricks to surprise and amuse the diner, enhance the flavor and texture, and in the ideal, provoke thought. But the term continues to increase in popularity, and for now, there’s no fighting it.) Molecular gastronomy was named in 1992, but the concept was discussed at least five years earlier and practiced independently by Spanish chef Ferran Andrìa (José Andrés’s mentor) and has penetrated mainstream cooking in small and mainly insignificant ways. Andrés’s dishes are technically creative and unusual, and they (nearly) always taste extremely good. That’s why his food is important and worthy of our attention.
I tend to agree with the "foolish, misleading" part; I may have to reluctantly concede the "there's no fighting it" part; I'm not sure I would have given credit to Ferran Andrìa [sic] over Herve This; I'd like to think further about the "small and mainly insignificant ways" comment; and I whole-heartedly agree that food is important and worthy of attention if it tastes extremely good.

On the other hand, I continue to be baffled by the repeated fawning over Animal as if its meat-centric menu is an equivalent revelation to Niels Bohr's discovery of the structure of the atom. It all sounds good, but as I've noted previously, I just don't see how this is so different from much of what's being served at any number of other places around the country - including Miami (which of course means there must be a dozen places like it in New York as well). Except for a couple inspired signature dishes (the foie gras "loco moco," the bacon chocolate crunch bar), this looks like any number of other restaurant menus I've perused. It certainly seems over the top to say "I doubt there's another one like it." Steingarten gushes, "I must learn to replicate the homely crispy hominy served with a wedge of lime; maybe I’ll find it in Jon and Vinny’s popular cookbook, Two Dudes, One Pan." Or he could just ask Michael Schwartz for it.

Of course, no food column is complete these days without mentioning a pizzeria, and this one follows suit, paying homage to Mozza, the L.A. legend. In fairness, Steingarten is no Johnny Come Lately to the pizza thing, having written about his quest for the perfect pizza several years ago (note: this is definitely worth a click-through).

Speaking of which ... coming next, Pizza Crawl Part IV - the final crawl.