Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Marcel Vigneron: Molecular Gastronomist and Time Traveler?

In an interview with LA Weekly, Marcel "Wolverine" Vigneron, contestant on Top Chef Season 2 and now, apparently, chef at an L.A. restaurant called Bar210, claims to have taught himself spherification sometime in or before 2001:

MV: ... I taught myself spherification in a garage in New York while I was getting my associates degree. I called elBulli before I'd even been there and got on the line and asked them for a sample packet of chemicals. And they mailed me the chemicals.

SI: You can do that? You can get those through the mail?

MV: Yeah, no problem. This was totally pre-9/11. They sent me little gram bags of each one, all labeled. So I was doing research online and found Ferran's recipe for apple caviar and bought a little digital gram scale and was trying to make it. I remember me and my friends we made coffee caviar, and we were like blown away. We were like, Oh this is the coolest thing.
Which is pretty remarkable, considering that spherification wasn't introduced as a technique at elBulli until 2003. In any event, forgive me if I'm not too impressed: if you ask me, any idiot with the right supplies and a recipe can pull off spherification.

Monday, April 26, 2010

"Cobaya in the Night Kitchen" at Sakaya Kitchen

"Did you ever hear of Micky, how he heard a racket in the night and shouted and fell through the dark..."

Forty guinea pigs were making a racket in the night at Sakaya Kitchen this past Saturday for our latest Cobaya dinner. There were a few reasons we decided to do a midnight dinner. First, we just wanted to do something different. Second, Sakaya's chef, Richard Hales, is working pretty much non-stop during regular hours, with Sakaya being open 11am - 10pm 7 days a week. Third, Sakaya may eventually be rolling out a late night service, so this was something of a dry run. Those who notice the posting schedule here know I'm usually up then anway, but I'm apparently not the only night owl: I was thrilled - and once again, grateful and humbled - that when a post went up on the Cobaya board which basically said nothing more than: "Midnight. Saturday April 24. $55," 60+ people said "Yes!"

We weren't able to accomodate all who wanted to come, but we did have our largest dinner yet. After a little game of musical chairs - we had to split one long communal table in two to squeeze everyone in - we sat down to seven courses at CobSakaya Kitchen.

I've seen all sorts of different menu formats, but this was the first one that had both footnotes[a] and relationship advice ("Dessert!?...Go home and have sex like the old days instead of blogging about food..."). I won't share with you how that dessert suggestion worked out, but I'll happily tell you about the rest of the meal. If you can't read that scratchy picture above, here is the menu:

"Cobaya in the Night Kitchen @Sak[1]aya Kitchen"
 April 24, 2010 Midnight

What you may already know...

Papa's Shrimp & Pork Filipino Egg Rolls, Fuji Vinegar

Pork Butt, House Cured & Roasted Boston Butt, House Pickle, Ssamjang Sweet Chili

Some new stuff for Cobaya...

Garlic'd Laughing Bird Shrimp, Chive Flower Soba Noodles

Bucket of Korean Fried Sweetbreads & Spicy Frog Legs, Local Baby Cucumber Blossom

"Chim Quay" Quail, Pig Skin "Tsitsaron," Chinese Broccoli

"Nuoc Mau" Pork Belly, Roasted Local Baby Carrots, Crispy Bone Marrow, Coconut Rice

Dessert!?...Go home and have sex like the old days instead of blogging about food...

Blue Point Oyster[2]


Wife Hales' Chocolate Chocolate Cookie Bag

[1]Cobaya Kitchen
[2]An aphrodisiac is a substance that increases sexual desire

(continued ...)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

D. Rodriguez - South Beach

It was with some dismay that I realized recently that it was more than twenty years ago that I first experienced Chef Douglas Rodriguez's cooking, when he was at a little place called Wet Paint Café that was one of the first signs of life on Lincoln Road in the late 1980's.[1]

Since then, Chef Rodriguez has gone through a number of other projects. First was Yuca,[2] where he was one of the pioneers of bringing contemporary, upscale flare to classic Latin American flavors, along with other kitchen luminaries such as Norman Van Aken and Cindy Hutson. After about five years, he packed his bags and headed for the bright lights of New York City, where he opened Patria, followed by a couple other restaurants, and further expansion to Philadelphia (Alma de Cuba).

But Chef Rodriguez eventually made his way back home to Miami. Around 2003 he opened Ola in a refurbished standalone 2-story building on Biscayne Boulevard in what is now called the "Upper East Side."[3] I loved that space, but Ola was not long for the Boulevard,and within a couple years had made its way back across Biscayne Bay to South Beach, first at the Savoy Hotel and then to its current spot in the Sanctuary hotel. It seems the expansion bug has bitten again, as Chef Rodriguez recently opened a new restaurant, D. Rodriguez, in the Astor Hotel on South Beach, and an Ola Cuban is in the works for Gulfstream Village in Hallandale.

Where Ola's menu looks all over Latin America and the Caribbean for inspiration, D. Rodriguez stays more closely to a Cuban theme. For me, this is something of a mixed bag. Candidly, I don't find Cuban cuisine to be the most exciting of those that our southerly neighbors have to offer. It's good, it's satisfying, but rarely is it transcendent. Could Chef Rodriguez make it so?

(continued ...)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Sam Sifton Reviews the "Double Down"

With all the fuss made over New York Times critic Sam Sifton sampling the latest fast food monstrosity, KFC's "Double Down" (he previewed his intentions last Friday, leading Eater to set up spies at every Manhattan KFC to catch him in the act), I was sorely disappointed that the result was a mere Diner's Journal entry, rather than a full-fledged review in true Sifton-speak. So I wrote my own.

The men in the navy blazers, with their silk rep ties and their Jansport knapsacks, don't come here often. In fact, they never come here at all, and have to look up the address on their Blackberries. The food-obsessed will debate the finer points of the various other fried chicken offerings of Gotham, from Blue Ribbon or Locanda Verde, the two different styles of oil-bathed hen at Momofuku Noodle Bar, or the Korean fried chicken at Bon Chon that I think Jonathan Gold would really like if he came here. Not KFC.

But know this: a new dish is being served at KFC, and it's the "Double Down." KFC once was known as Kentucky Fried Chicken, just like KRS-One once used to be known as Lawrence Parker. You can still get your bucket of Original Recipe or your Extra Crispy here, or even the newer-fangled Colonel's Strips. But if you want to simultaneously provide free publicity for some appalling new fast food product, while still lording your own superiority, it is the "Double Down" you should order.

The sandwich contains no bread save for the breading on the chicken, which is fried and comes in two bread-like slabs. Between these a KFC worker places a slice of white American-style cheese, a piece of crisp-fired bacon, and a splat of "Colonel's sauce," a kind of mayonnaise. The sandwich, KFC says in its advertising materials, "is so meaty, there's no room for a bun." It's Festivus for fat kids.

You may have your Double Down in the restaurant, with its open kitchen, white subway tiled walls, and festive balloons, but this time of year it is better to do like the men in the baseball hats do, and bring your sandwich outside to eat among the tulips, on a seat on Broadway just north of Greeley Square. Keep it in the bag, so as to discourage the hordes of cannibalistic pigeons who may otherwise descend, to say nothing of the geek paparazzi lurking in the bushes.

The sandwich? The chicken is watery within its soft casing of "crust," the cheese familiar to anyone who has eaten food prepared by the United States government, the bacon chemical in its smokiness, the mayonnaise sauce tangy, salty, and sweet, all at once. It offers exactly the same sensation as a menage a trois with a couple of toothless carnies - a bolt of greasiness and disgust combined. To drink? You will want the Pepsi, which was, as Pepsi is, more sweet than Coke, more syrupy.

Restaurants are culture as sure as monster truck rallies or reality TV shows. This one says: "You are going to be sick shortly after eating this - even worse than after you ate the entire pig's foot at the Breslin." The "Double Down," as the New York expression goes, is "blech."

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Forge - Miami Beach

Our last steakhouse experience was a disappointment, though I sort of anticipated that going in. I had higher hopes for our visit to the newly reopened The Forge. For decades, The Forge had been one of the bastions of a particularly Miami style of high dining: luxurious, decadent, and over the top, where the food could be quite good, but was not necessarily the prime focus. Indeed, in its later days, The Forge was probably equally popular for its Wednesday night "disco dinners" as for the steaks. Nonetheless, I'd always had good meals there, and the restaurant, with its rococo decorations and encyclopedia-sized wine list, had its unique charms.

The place has quite a history: supposedly, it was originally an actual blacksmiths' shop, and in the 1930's was turned into a restaurant and casino. It was purchased in the late 1960's by the Malnick family, who were responsible for an opulent renovation that made the place a landmark for the next several decades. The restaurant survived a fire in 1991 and extensive damage from Hurricane Andrew in 1992; but after a 40-year run, The Forge closed its doors in July of last year, supposedly to do a major renovation. Frankly, most who heard that were dubious. "Closed for renovations" actually means "closed for good" about 90% of the time, and those odds seemed even more stacked against The Forge, whose extravagant, big-ticket style seemed particularly out of step with the declining local and national economy.

But The Forge proved all the skeptics wrong when it reopened its doors this month, showing off a thorough redecoration of the space, and also bringing in a new chef (Dewey LoSasso, formerly the chef-owner of now-closed locals' favorite North One Ten) to run the kitchen. Both the renovation and the chef have breathed new life into an old classic.

The entranceway, previously gated, has been opened up, making for a dramatic catwalk into the restaurant, with sconces which could have been lifted from a Tim Burton set along the walls. The main dining room has been brightened up considerably with new blond-stained wood paneling on the walls and new tables and chairs throughout (some in gigantic Alice in Wonderland proportions). A wall of glass beads separates a second dining room, and around the corner is a glassed-in private dining room as well as the "Library," an intimate little room with a gas-lit fireplace and stained glass all around. It's perhaps just a tad less ostentatious than the original pre-renovation Forge, but it will certainly never be described as minimalist.[*]

Chef LoSasso's menu is similarly ornate. Fans of North One Ten will recognize some of Dewey's signature dishes, like his smoked salmon croquettes with "damn hot guava sauce," but it seems the surroundings - and, obviously some encouragement from the owners - have inspired the chef to explore any number of flights of fancy. Indeed, while the Forge still serves several steaks, it would be misleading to call it a steakhouse now. The menu is too far-reaching to fit into that narrow pigeonhole.

(continued ...)

Monday, April 5, 2010

III Forks - Hallandale

Many people think that food bloggers are nothing more than frustrated, wannabe restaurant reviewers - that we all secretly (or perhaps not so secretly) pine to be the big-shot newspaper critic doling out stars every week. Speaking for myself, anyway, nothing could be further from the truth. First and foremost, I don't think I could support Family Frod in the manner to which they've become accustomed on a professional journalist's pay grade. But more importantly, this is recreation for me, an outlet. I eat where I want, I write what I want, and I do all of it when I want (and don't do it if I don't want to). The prospect of being obligated to go to particular restaurants and writing about them, on deadline, seems absolutely dreadful.

As a result, you don't see a ton of negative reviews here. I tend to have a pretty good sense of when I'm not going to like a restaurant, and can usually avoid those where I'm likely to be disappointed. Likewise, if a place is merely mediocre, there's often not much of interest to be said about it.

But sometimes my sense of foreboding is not enough to save me from a bad meal. Sometimes, even if you're not a professional critic, you can't choose where you eat. I recently had one of those times, when friends made a reservation at the newly opened III Forks in the Village at Gulfstream Park complex.

If you haven't been down that way lately, you will be astounded at what's gone up on the massive plot of land that houses the Gulfstream horse track. In addition to the newly renovated track and adjoining casino, there is a Vegas-scale shopping complex with several restaurants. Aside from III Forks, there is a new Douglas Rodriguez restaurant opening soon (Ola Cuban), a Texas de Brazil, and maybe ten other big restaurants in the development (most still not yet open). The magnitude of it is pretty staggering. And the track itself is really just beautiful. We recently brought the kids to watch a couple races, and it was a great way to spend a sunny afternoon.

Anyway, as I almost always do, I checked out the online menu for III Forks before our visit. I immediately started whining to Mrs. F that it was the most soul-crushingly boring menu I'd seen in years, and desparately tried to find ways to alter our plans. But sometimes there's no polite way to do so. So, into the abyss ...

(continued ...)

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Ferran Adria to Open Burger Joint in South Beach

Chef Ferran Adria shook the foundations of the culinary world when he announced in January that his acclaimed restaurant, El Bulli, would be closing for two years after the 2012 season, followed shortly thereafter by the announcement that it would be closing permanently. El Bulli is widely regarded as among the top restaurants in the world, and is legendary for its cutting edge experimentation, regularly pushing the boundaries of the food universe.

The announcements regarding El Bulli were followed by much confusion and speculation as to Adria's future. Chef Adria subsequently explained that El Bulli was not so much closing permanently as it was reinventing itself as something more akin to a culinary foundation, though the nature and mission of that new incarnation remained unclear.

Inside sources have now clarified what to expect next: Chef Adria will be opening the first elBulliBurger in South Beach in the Spring of 2014. It would not be Chef Adria's first foray into fast food: his fascination with the hamburger has been well-known for years, and he's already opened a series of fast-food restaurants in Spain called "Fast Good."

According to Craig "Cootereli" MacShane, a line cook at a local restaurant who did a 1-week stage at El Bulli three years ago, "He's bored with the endless experimentation at El Bulli. I mean, how many different ways can you spherify an olive? Ferran actually told me a  couple years ago that he wanted to open a steakhouse in South Beach, but El Bulli was taking up too much of his time. Then last year he wanted to open a pizza place." Adria's fascination with pizza has also been the subject of much media speculation.

Says MacShane, "Now he's decided that what South Beach really needs is a burger place." After El Bulli closes in 2012, Adria will be applying his vast knowledge of molecular gastronomy to create the perfect hamburger. There's a good chance that his burger creation will be previewed at the 2013 South Beach Wine & Food Festival Burger Bash before the South Beach elBulliBurger officially opens for business.

Grossest Restaurants in South Florida

Not really the grossest restaurants, rather the highest grossing in terms of revenue. The annual report by Restaurants & Institutions of the top 100 revenue-producing independent restaurants in the United States in 2009 is out, and there are a few South Florida names on the list. You can see the full list here.

Joe's Stone Crab is in the same #3 spot as it was in last year, and it would seem the recession really hasn't touched it: 2009 sales of $26,272,000 compare pretty favorably to last year's $28,827,328, and the number of meals served (roughly 320,000) and average check size ($65-68) have both held steady.

Also holding firm is Myles Chefetz's cash cow, Prime 112. P112 is on the list at #14 for 2009, with $18,889,430 in revenue and average ticket of $115, again almost exactly even with last year's figures.

Meanwhile, DeVito South Beach is still on the list, but barely. DeVito, which made its first appearance on the list last year at #19, with $17,800,000 in revenue, dropped to #98 this year with $10,000,000. Of course, many of these figures appear to be based on estimates by R&I rather than information reported by the restaurants, so who knows what they really mean.

In the aggregate, the top 100 restaurants on the list saw a roughly 10% drop in revenue, and even the restaurant in the top spot on the list the past couple years - Tao in Las Vegas - was off by about 13%. There are some other interesting insights at R&I, including some anecdotal takes on the "new normal" and the prospects of restaurant business picking up this year, and on the success stories of 2009.

What does it all mean for South Florida restaurants? I'm not so sure, but possibly not all that much. In large part, I think the mega-restaurants on this list operate in something of a parallel universe to the rest of the restaurant world (though it's interesting that P112 is one of the smallest restaurants on the list with only 120 seats), though I am somewhat surprised that places like Joe's and P112 didn't show at least some impact from the recessionary climate. I suspect smaller operations are much more susceptible to the ebbs and flows of the economy and the heft of the wallets of their customers, and it was easy to see that last year, pretty much all restaurants locally were feeling the slowdown.

It seems, though, that things are picking up. It's purely anecdotal based on my own observations, but restaurants feel busier, reservations (particularly on weekends) have been somewhat harder to come by, startups like Sugarcane have found traction quickly, and stalwarts like Talula seem to be bouncing back. I've been out lately on some Mondays and Tuesdays (typically slow restaurant nights) and was surprised to see places bustling.

So perhaps the time is ripe for the pretty lengthy list of restaurants that are just opening or getting ready soon: Mercadito, The Forge, Zuma, DB Bistro Moderne, Norman's 180, plus many others I'm sure I'm overlooking.