Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Return to Nobu - South Beach

It had been years since I'd last been to Nobu, though, unlike Boris Becker, the reason for my extended absence was not the conception of a love child on the stairs between the bathrooms. For some time, Nobu had been a regular special-occasion venue for us; it was a big day when I graduated from celebrating birthdays at Benihana to celebrating at Nobu. But our last visit before returning a couple weeks ago - while it did not result in an unexpected pregnancy or a multi-million dollar divorce - was a frustrating and disappointing combination of lackluster and expensive.

It's entirely possible that our best meal at Nobu was the first one. I can no longer tell you when that was (the Miami restaurant, in the Shore Club hotel on South Beach, opened in 2001), but it was my first experience at the then-nascent Nobu empire, which now includes more than 25 restaurants in such far-flung destinations as Cape Town, South Africa and Dubai. The omakase menu then offered to first-time visitors featured a line-up that included many of Chef Nobu Matsuhisa's signature dishes: toro tartare, served in a pool of wasabi-infused soy sauce and crowned with a dollop of caviar; "new style" sashimi drizzled with hot oil; black cod given a three-day marinade in saikyo miso; beef toban yaki, cooked and served in a ceramic bowl. Many of these - along with a few others, like the tempura rock shrimp in creamy spicy sauce - have moved on to ubiquity, and versions can be found on menus the world over. As a result it's easy to forget the role Chef Matsuhisa played in popularizing them, and that his restaurants still may offer their Platonic ideals.

Some time later, the line-up I was served on that first visit became the aptly named "Signature Menu," while an omakase "chef's choice" option was offered separately. However, my last omakase experience, linked to above, was so pedestrian that it had the perhaps unintended effect of convincing me that those signature items remained the best things that Nobu had to offer. And while those dishes are indeed quite good, it became tough to get excited about paying a small fortune to have the same half-dozen items over and over again. The sushi, while certainly better than decent, was very expensive. Nobu South Beach's peculiar setting did not make it any more alluring: a noisy room with aqua tiles running up the walls, tables virtually piled on top of each other, which has the feeling of dining in the bottom of a crowded swimming pool. The atmosphere, and also the level of service, were inconsistent with the price tag. And another thing: there was no sushi bar. It always struck me as a bizarre, almost heretical omission.

Despite these misgivings, I decided it was time to recalibrate my opinion on Nobu, to see what was the same and what had changed, and so we went back a couple weeks ago.

(continued ...)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Starving Artists Take Note

Here's a deal: Joey's in Wynwood is offering a $14 fixed menu "Artistic Duos" dinner Monday - Thursday (6pm-8pm), which includes a glass of wine, with a different option for each day of the week. The lineup, which they say is geared toward the artists, gallery owners and related riffraff that populate Wynwood features:

Chicken and Asparagus Risotto with a glass of Falanghina wine

Salmon and Ricotta Salata Salad with a glass of Pinot Grigio

Penne Bolognese, Radicchio and a glass classic Chianti

Spezzatino/Beef Stew over Polenta with a glass of Malbec

While you're there, you may want to try the pizza too, it had a good showing in our pizza crawl, particularly the "Joey" with the unlikely combination of tuna, spicy salame, gorgonzola, capers and spinach.

Joey's Wynwood
2506 NW 2nd Avenue
Miami, FL 33137

Joey's Wynwood on Urbanspoon

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Cobaya Experiment #6 - CobayaSteak at Bourbon Steak

Over the past few years, Miami has been the site of much culinary colonization. Several chefs with national reputations have set up outposts here; and as often as not, those outposts take the form of a steakhouse. Michael Mina's Bourbon Steak, Alfred Portale's Gotham Steak, Laurent Tourondel's BLT Steak ... It's a formula designed to capitalize on the name while minimizing the execution risk as they put others in charge of carrying the brand's flag in the far-flung colonies: given the inherently limited nature of a steakhouse menu, diners will expect quality, but not necessarily the same creativity or flourishes by which these big-name chefs garnered their reputation in the first place.

That's not to sell the steakhouses short. I've had some great meals at these places, and they have the capacity to serve as a springboard for younger kitchen talent (witness the nomination of Chef Sam Gorenstein of BLT Steak as a semifinalist for a James Beard Rising Star award this year). But the self-limiting format only gives so much wiggle room for the local chefs to show that they can do something other than grill a steak and cook potatoes.

That's in part what Cobaya is for: to give chefs a chance to showcase, or experiment with, things they may not be able to do in their "native habitat." When we met with Bourbon Steak's chef Gabriel Fenton and general manager John Riccardo, we told them that this was a no-holds-barred opportunity to cook whatever they wanted to make, and if there wasn't a single piece of steak on the menu, that was perfectly fine. And Chef Fenton - who spent several years as executive sous chef at Michael Mina's flagship restaurant in San Francisco - put together a beautiful meal in which a cow made only the briefest cameo appearance. We hardly noticed its absence.

The menu (you can see all my pictures from the dinner in this flickr set):

Michael Mina Cuvée Welcome & Gougeres

Michael's Classic American Caviar Parfait
House Smoked King Salmon, Dill Oil
Robert Weil Riesling Tradition, Rheingau, Germany 2008

Hawaiian Big Eye Sashimi
Aji Amarillo Chile, Cilantro, Lime, Chorizo
La Cana Albariño, Rias Baixas, Spain 2008

Hudson Valley Foie Gras Terrine
Strawberry, Grains of Paradise, Pistachio, Blue Basil
Royal Tokaji '5 Puttonyos,' Hungary, 2003

Line Caught Wild Alaskan Halibut
Baby Purple Artichokes, Meyer Lemon, Taggiasca Olive
Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel, Paso Robles 2007

Columbia River Sturgeon
Short Rib Ravioli, Spring Garlic
Jean Louis Chave Cotes du Rhone, Mon Coeur, Rhone Valley, France 2006

Local Peach Sorbet
Ginger Gelée, Lemon Balm

Milk Chocolate Panna Cotta
Candied Kumquats, Almond Biscotti
Jorge Ordoñez & Co. Moscatel Seleccion Especial, Malaga, Spain 2006

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

South Florida - Celebrity Chef Breeding Ground?

Earlier today, I learned that Chef Andrea Curto-Randazzo of Talula will be a contestant on the next season of Top Chef, which starts airing June 16. But she's not the only South Floridian with TV celebrity chef aspirations.

Also in the mix? Aria Kagan, who has been selected as a finalist in Food Network's "The Next Food Network Star." Who is Aria Kagan? When I got a blurb from a Food Network publicist, it didn't ring any bells (sadly, I'm terrible with names). But when I went to the website to check the biography, I had one of those "Hey! I know her!" moments; because Aria (who used to teach at Le Cordon Bleu in Miami and now runs a catering business) also used to work at Timo in Sunny Isles.

So now there's two local talents to root for on your TV this summer. Next Food Network Star begins airing on June 6 at 9pm.

Top Chef Andrea Curto-Randazzo!

For years, Andrea Curto-Randazzo has been one of my favorite local chefs. We've long been fixtures at the kitchen bar seats at Talula, the restaurant that she and husband Frank Randazzo opened in 2003, and I've often told anyone who will listen that I think they put out the best food to be found on South Beach. Chef Curto-Randazzo also helped kick off our Cobaya underground dinners with our first event, one that many of us still think was the best dinner we've done.

And, yes, I also happen to be a Top Chef fan as well.

So I am thrilled - just thrilled - to see that she is going to be a contestant on next season's Top Chef, and that the rest of the country will get a chance to see what she's capable of doing.

I will be watching and rooting for Andrea like a gibbering maniac. GO ANDREA!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Hot Kitchens, Hot Tempers

I was amused to read this story in the New York Times Diner's Journal, of a customer who was thrown out of the eponymous Marc Forgione restaurant by the chef for going into the kitchen and complaining about the chef's verbal abuse of his staff. The short version: dining party is seated; chef loudly and repeatedly berates waiter in kitchen; discomfited diner goes into kitchen to complain; chef takes umbrage at diner's uninvited entrance into kitchen; chef asks customer to leave restaurant. It's not so much that the story was in itself so amusing, but rather that something very similar happened to me several years ago.

We were having a breakfast at a restaurant that I'd prefer not to name - it's somewhat embarassing. OK, it was Jerry's Deli, and it was a long time ago, and it hadn't quite sunk to the depths of mediocrity that it now happily occupies. Frod Jr. and Little Miss F were with us, and were much younger - maybe 6 and 3, respectively. The restaurant was not terribly busy, but the food service was nonetheless unusually slow. Meanwhile, as we sat, we couldn't help but notice that a stream of pretty much uninterrupted yelling and cursing was coming out of the kitchen. Jerry's is a big, cavernous place, located in what was originally a cafeteria and which had housed a number of nightclubs before its current incarnation. And though we were seated a good twenty yards away from the entrance to the kitchen, there was absolutely no mistaking the noises that were coming out of there.

Now, I happen to be a fan of colorful and creative cursing. But this was not particularly creative, it was not getting the food out any faster, and it was providing an education to our children that we did not particularly desire at this particular point in their upbringing (needless to say, they had never heard me or Mrs. F say any such things - the fact that a 2-year old Frod Jr. used to shout "Dammit!" from the back seat of the car when we got stuck at a stoplight was purely spontaneous behavior). And so I asked our waitress if she could perhaps ask the chef to stifle the profanities a bit.[*]

The result was not unexpected. Either the chef lit into our poor server the same as he had been doing to his kitchen staff, or she was too terrified to even say anything, but the stream of high-decibel profanity continued, unabated. And we still didn't have any food. So after several more minutes, I went back into the kitchen, spotted the chef who was doing all the screaming, and said:
"Listen, everyone in the entire restaurant can hear you. And it really doesn't make a difference to me, but I've got young kids here, and my 6-year old son just asked me when his fucking french toast is going to be ready. Do you think you could tone it down?"
It got quiet after that. We weren't asked to leave. And Frod Jr. got his fucking french toast.

My take on the kerfuffle described in Diner's Journal? The diner was right to complain but did so for the wrong reason. Generally speaking, it's none of your business how a chef deals with his/her staff. However, if it's intruding on your dining experience, then it becomes your business. It's not your place as a diner to tell a chef how to run his team, but it's absolutely your right to complain if the commotion in the kitchen is distracting you from your meal. On the other hand, if Chef Forgione is serious about the "sanctity of the kitchen," then he better find a way to make sure that whatever happens in the kitchen doesn't make its way into the dining room.

Updated to add: Here's a little further detail from Marc Forgione, reported in GrubStreet.

[*]Asking someone else on the staff to intervene in the kitchen is a step the Diner's Journal author skipped, and one that might have avoided the breach of the kitchen ramparts which so offended Chef Forgione's sensibilities.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

What's Your Beef?

Several months ago, Miami New Times ran a feature story by Jackie Sayet, "Bogus Beef," on local restaurants' mislabeling of beef sourced from American or Australian producers as "Kobe beef." The article confirmed that many South Florida restaurants were blithely describing items on their menu as "Kobe beef" that in fact were not.

Genuine Kobe beef, which comes from a particular breed of cattle (Wagyu) raised in a particular prefecture of Japan (Hyogo), is among the most prized (and expensive) in the world. In recent years, producers in other parts of the world have sought to duplicate the product, and there are now farmers in the U.S. and Australia who raise Wagyu and cross-breeds. The product is often quite good, though not of the same quality as the genuine Japanese article, and carries significantly lower prices. Though there seems to be a good bit of confusion, this is really not a complicated issue: if the beef doesn't come from Kobe, Japan, you shouldn't call it Kobe beef. As the article details, that simple rule is supported by Florida's Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which said:
The use of the term Kobe beef on a menu or special board is a misrepresentation. ... Use of the terms Wagyu beef, American-style Kobe beef, Australian-style Kobe beef, and (country of origin) Kobe beef are acceptable, providing the operator can provide supporting invoices and product to match.[1]
It was a well-written and well-researched piece, and I'm happy to hear that it is in line for a Sunshine State Award from the South Florida Society of Professional Journalists.

When the matter was brought to several restaurateurs' attention during the writing of the article, many of them claimed to be unaware and pledged to make immediate changes on their menu to correct the mislabeling. There's just one problem: it appears that virtually none of them have actually done so.

(continued ...)

Joël Robuchon - Molecular Gastronomist and Revisionist Historian?

Of the chefs who are typically credited with the popularization of "molecular gastronomy," several may jump to mind: Heston Blumenthal, for sure, who was a participant in the first 1992 "International Workshop on Molecular and Physical Gastronomy" (Harold McGee, one of the other original participants, has written a great history of the event); Pierre Gagnaire, the only other chef participant in that original workshop, and a regular collaborator with scientist Hervé This since then; Ferran Adrià, who was doing his own pioneering work in experimental cooking at the same time and whose food is often given the "MG" label;[1] here in the U.S., Grant Achatz, Wylie Dufresne, Homaru Cantu.

And Joël Robuchon? Yes, if he is to be believed. In a recent interview in the New York Post, Robuchon is quoted as saying:
Too many chefs are attracted to molecular gastronomy. ... It's not the kind of cuisine that should be important, with all the additives. I know I was really the first one to make it famous, but I have complete control of what I'm doing. The danger is that those who don't have the knowledge and that control start using additives that are not acceptable.
Right now, I am doing the reverse of molecular gastronomy. I'm working with scientists to find ingredients and produce that are proven to be good for you. Turmeric is very good for you. White tea is better than green tea. One of the dishes I'm experimenting with is carrot purée with turmeric. Also white-tea gelee and sea urchin.
Robuchon is undoubtedly a great chef, duly recognized as "Chef of the Century" by Gault-Millau in 1989.[2] And yet there is no way around it: he has absolutely positively no clue what he's talking about here.

"I was really the first one to make it famous." WTF? Unless you consider the physics of incorporating a stick of butter into a pound of potatoes to be "molecular gastronomy" (and of course, it actually is, but I don't think that's what he means), then I don't think there's another soul in the food universe who would back up that claim. Indeed, a Google search of "Joel Robuchon molecular gastronomy" yields nothing at all until 2006 (nearly 15 years after the term was coined, and so late in the game that other chefs had made a point of disassociating themselves from the term "molecular gastronomy" as describing any particular style of cooking, much less their own), and even then, none of those references would remotely suggest he had anything to do with making it famous.[3]

"Additives"? What is an "additive"? Agar agar (a seaweed derivative)? Gelatin (derived from animal collagen?) Cornstarch? Flour? And is there really a significant risk that restaurant chefs are serving untested ingredients to unsuspecting diners, and waiting in the kitchen to see if they blow up like Violet Beuaregard? I suspect there's more danger for diners lurking in all that butter in the potato purée.

But even more absurd: "Right now, I am doing the reverse of molecular gastronomy. I'm working with scientists to find ingredients and produce that are proven to be good for you." Chef, I don't know how to break this to you any more gently: using science to understand your ingredients better is, um, the definition of molecular gastronomy.

"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

[1]Blumenthal and Adrià, among others, issued a statement years ago noting that "The fashionable term 'molecular gastronomy' was introduced relatively recently, in 1992, to name a particular academic workshop for scientists and chefs on the basic food chemistry of traditional dishes. That workshop did not influence our approach, and the term 'molecular gastronomy' does not describe our cooking, or indeed any style of cooking."
[2]He apparently actually shared this honor with Paul Bocuse and Fredy Girardet.
[3]Robuchon was, perhaps, an early adopter of sous vide cooking. But it turns out it was actually Marcel Vigneron who taught Robuchon everying he knew about "molecular gastronomy," as Vigneron claims in an interview mentioned here last week.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A Dining List for 2010

In case you were wondering where to eat tomorrow ... the James Beard Foundation restaurant and chef awards were announced tonight. First and foremost, a hearty congratulations to local product Michael Schwartz, who won Best Chef South for his work at Michael's Genuine Food & Drink. It is a well-deserved honor for one of Miami's real gems.

The rest of the winners:
  • Marea (New York City) - Best New Restaurant
  • Tom Colicchio (Craft, NY) - Outstanding Chef Award
  • Nicole Plue (Redd, Yountville CA) - Outstanding Pastry Chef Award
  • Daniel (New York) - Outstanding Restaurant Award
  • Keith McNally (Balthazar, Lucky Strike, Minetta Tavern, Morandi, Pastis, Pravda, Shiller's Liquor Bar, New York City) - Outstanding Restaurateur Award
  • Alinea (Chicago) - Outstanding Service Award
  • John and Doug Shafer (Shafer Vineyards) - Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional Award
  • Jean Georges (New York) - Outstanding Wine Service
  • Timothy Hollingsworth (French Laundry, Yountville CA) - Rising Star Chef of the Year
  • Koren Grieveson (Avec, Chicago) - Best Chef Great Lakes
  • Jeff Michaud (Osteria, Philadephia) - Best Chef Mid-Atlantic
  • Alexander Roberts (Restaurant Alma, Minneapolis) - Best Chef Midwest
  • Daniel Humm (Eleven Madison Park) - Best Chef New York City
  • Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier (Arrows, Ogunquit, ME) - Best Chef Northeast
  • Jason Wilson (Crush, Seattle) - Best Chef Northwest
  • David Kinch (Manresa, Los Gatos CA) - Best Chef Pacific
  • Michael Schwartz (Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, Miami) - Best Chef South
  • Sean Brock (McCrady's, Charleston SC) - Best Chef Southeast
  • Claude Le Tohic (Joël Robuchon, Las Vegas) - Best Chef Southwest
Not a bad "Where should I go for dinner?" list.

Monday, May 3, 2010

May Days

Much going on this month, here are several food-related events and specials coming up:

May 5 (Cinco de Mayo)

Mercadito in Midtown Miami (3252 NE 1st. Ave. Miami) will be mixing up a new drink in honor of Cinco de Mayo, the "Vato Loco," a tequila-based cocktail "so ridiculously hot and addictively delicious" that a signed waiver is required. They will also have a mariachi band and are unveiling a new outdoor bar for the occasion. Festivities start at 9pm.

Rosa Mexicano (900 S. Miami Ave. Miami) is also getting into the spirit and will be open till midnight, with live music and masks and beads for their guests (wait - is it Cinco de Mayo or Mardi Gras?)

Salsa Fiesta (2929 Biscayne Boulevard Miami) will be having live music, 2-for-1 margaritas and cervezas, free chips and salsa with any drink order, and 2-for-1 burritos all day long from 11am-11pm.

Sushi Maki (locations in Coral Gables, Brickell, South Miami and Palmetto Bay) is dubbing May 5 "Sushi de Mayo" and offering a $5 "Fiesta Menu," including "signature" sushi rolls, "chef bites" and sake cocktails and beers from 5pm-9pm.

May 9 (Mother's Day)

Altamare (1233 Lincoln Road Miami Beach) is adding a couple items to the menu on Sunday for mom: a Raw Taster with scallop ceviche, tuna tartare, Kumamoto oyster and sheepshead carpaccio, with a Borek Farms heirloom tomato sorbet; and for dessert, a pistachio creme brulée with lemon sorbet and lemon shortbread. Open for dinner 5pm-11pm.

Area 31 (270 Biscayne Blvd. Way Miami) in the Epic Hotel is doing a brunch buffet featuring all of the standards as well as some its local seafood specialties, including a raw bar and ceviche bar, and grilled swordfish with a Homestead tomato salad. $55pp ($22 for ages 6-15), 12-3pm.

BLT Steak (1440 Ocean Drive Miami Beach) has picked out some blackboard dinner specials especially for mom, including a "surf n turf" with tuna crudo, foie gras terrine, candied grapefruit and citrus gastrique, or a pan roasted local grouper with spicy fava bean puree, preserved Meyer lemon, honshimeji mushrooms and oyster sabayon. Open for dinner 5pm-11pm and also for brunch 11am-3pm.

Gibraltar in Grove Isle (4 Grove Isle Drive Miami) is doing a full-blown brunch buffet in the dining room or on the outdoor patio for $75pp ($35 for ages 5-12) from 11am-3pm.

The Grill on the Alley (19501 Biscayne Blvd. Aventura) is offering an a la carte brunch with most items between $8 and $14, and cocktails for $6, 11:30am-3pm.

Or you can take mom to the Meat Market (915 Lincoln Road Miami Beach) (that doesn't sound right) which will be offering an a la carte menu with items like a wagyu meatloaf en croute or coffee and ancho crusted ribeye with eggs, skillet potatoes and peppers. Plus unlimited mimosas or bellinis for an extra $15. 11am-4pm.

Mercadito, apparently sufficiently recovered from the "ridiculously hot and addictively delicious" Vato Loco, will be doing a "Mamacita's Day Brunch" from 11:30am-5pm for $28pp, including a cocktail ($20 for ages 5-12, excluding cocktail but including a non-alcoholic drink).

Neomi's in the Trump International Beach Resort (18001 Collins Ave. Sunny Isles Beach) is offering a Mothers' Day Brunch that includes, in addition to your usual suspects, a paella valenciana, a children's buffet, a "kiddie fondue" with chocolate covered strawberries and bananas (and, most likely, children), plus a complimentary family portrait ($60pp, $20 for ages 6-12, 11am-3pm).

The Setai (2001 Collins Ave. Miami Beach) will be serving up a Mother's Day jazz brunch, featuring items both Eastern and Western, as well as a Russian Standard Bloody Mary bar and endless Taittinger champagne, for $85pp 11:30am-3pm.

Talavera (2299 Ponce de Leon Blvd. Coral Gables) will be doing a brunch service for Mother's Day with items such as Huevos Divorciados (poached eggs over a hand-made tortilla with red and green salsas), Chilaquiles Verdes, and a Breakfast Huarache (corn masa topped with black beans, salsa verde, goat cheese, and eggs scrambled with chorizo). Prices from $8-$12.

Talula (210 23rd St. Miami Beach) will be offering its Grand Buffet Brunch, along with some chef's specials created especially for Mother's Day, from 10am-3pm Sunday.

Wish (801 Collins Ave. Miami Beach) wishes mom a happy mother's day with a special $55 menu or a la carte selections at dinner from 6pm-10:30pm.

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