Thursday, June 24, 2010

Shake Shack - South Beach

I'm clearly quite late to the Shake Shack party. Indeed, the hubbub started, well, hubbubbing more than half a year ago with the announcement that New York restaurateur extraordinaire Danny Meyer would be opening his first branch outside of NYC on Lincoln Road in South Beach. "It's the best!" "New Yorkers wait in line an hour for their burgers and shakes!" "It'll make you poop rainbows!" The official opening date was yesterday, June 22,[*] and already no less than 17 citizens of Yelpistan have checked in, plus more in Chowsylvania. Why on earth haven't I been there yet?

OK, OK. One ShackBurger, some Cheese Fries, and a "Shark Attack" Concrete, please.

Fortunately, when I got there around 7pm the line was only - well, one person deep. Like I said, everyone's already been there. But the tables all around were mostly full, and there was a steady flow of customers. I got my order after about 10 minutes, which I spent watching 15 or so people mill busily about the open kitchen.

All of Shake Shack's burgers are made with hormone- and antibiotic-free Angus beef. I'd be curious to know whether the Miami branch is getting its beef from NY butcher legend Pat LaFrieda like the NY ones do; doubt it. The "ShackBurger" ($4.75 for a single) features a modestly sized 4-oz. patty topped with American cheese, lettuce, tomato and "ShackSauce." If you don't opt for the "ShackBurger," the burger will come entirely unadorned, or with your choice of lettuce, tomato, pickle or onion. For better or worse, there will be no "Stairway to Heaven" burgers topped with foie gras and truffles or "Rock Lobster" burgers with lobster, watercress and tarragon remoulade here.

How was it? After all the hype, frankly, it would have been a disappointment if this burger didn't do a triple axel with a back flip to arrive on my plate, while simultaneously giving me a handjob under the table, and taste like I was eating the very flesh of Kamadhenu, the divine Hindu cow that can grant all wishes.

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Norman Conquest

Overall, it has been a pretty good year for additions to the Miami restaurant landsacape. The past several months have seen the openings of Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill, a star in the making; Sakaya Kitchen, a treasure for low-budget, interesting eats; plus Mandolin Aegean Bistro, AltaMare, Gibraltar, Q American Barbeque, Smoke'T, Mercadito, Morgans, The Forge, Water Club, Zuma, First and First Southern Baking Co., Sparky's Roadside BBQ, Chowdown Grill, the Shake Shack invasion ... it's a pretty impressive list.

I have a hunch it's going to get a lot more impressive in about another week, when Norman's 180, the new restaurant from Chef Norman Van Aken in the Westin Colonnade Hotel in Coral Gables, opens its doors. I've long been a big fan of Chef Van Aken's cooking. Though I never got down to Louie's Backyard in Key West when he was in its kitchen, I still have vivid memories of a meal I had at his first Miami restaurant, A Mano in the Betsy Ross Hotel on South Beach. I celebrated my 25th birthday there, and I can still tell you what I ate: a Flintstone-esque cowboy-style rib steak, and a dessert of bananas with rum and chiles.

From there he moved on to what became his flagship, Norman's in Coral Gables, where I had a number of other memorable dishes: his orange and saffron inflected conch chowder, with a coconut "cloud" floating on top; his "Down Island" french toast, topped with foie gras and tropical fruit caramel; salmon rolled in smoky lapsang souchong tea, in a dark "Mer Noir" sauce which was like a liquid mar y montana or surf and turf, layered with flavors of bacon, seafood liquor, red wine and meat stock. It's been three years since Norman's closed, and it's like I can still taste them.

This is what Chef Van Aken has always been so good at doing: creating dishes that tug at the memory, that tell a story. So I'm looking forward to finding out what new stories he will have to tell at Norman's 180. Though Van Aken is generally thought of as one of the godfathers of "New World Cuisine," I've always found that his culinary reach extended all over the map, while still having local roots. And though Norman's 180 is not setting out to be the high-end fine dining experience that Norman's was, a look at the preview menu suggests he still has a few more stories in him:

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Monday, June 21, 2010

TV Dinner

I've been watching a lot of food-related television programming lately. Truth is, I've always been a regular watcher of Top Chef, but this season has particular appeal, with local hero (and one of my favorite chefs) Andrea Curto-Randazzo, of Talula and the newly opened Water Club, on as a contestant. Let me be clear: I hate "reality TV." I like cooking shows. Though Top Chef may skew more towards the former than the latter, there's still enough real cooking going on to hold my interest, and though there are a good number of contestants each season who are clearly Starfleet Red Shirts, it has provided an opportunity to highlight some genuine talent as well.

The season premiere for Top Chef Season 7 was this past Wednesday, and though it didn't feature much of Andrea, she did move on to see another day. If, like me, you didn't get enough Andrea during the episode, you can find some more on YouTube, where she's uploaded a three-minute interview (wine glass in hand) she calls "I'm Just Sayin'."

In it, she gives fellow contestant Kenny Gilbert, a/k/a "Kenny G," yet another nickname, dubbing him "Twenty G" for having won the initial $20,000 Quickfire; considers giving some grief to another fellow contestant, Angelo Sosa, for being cocky, but decides better of it since it was so obvious to everyone; proceeds to give Padma Lakshi a lesson in "Miami 101" for not recognizing the "Miami" in her Elimination Challenge dish,[1] a chorizo-infused gnocchi with slow-roasted pork, calabaza, manchego and orange gremolata, suggesting that maybe instead she should have served a blackened mahi-mahi with mango salsa; and closes out by making me spurt my drink through my nose with a "Jam out with your clam out, rock out with your cock out" sign-off.

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Friday, June 18, 2010

goes around ... comes around - milkshake edition

Richard Blais, former Top Chef contestant and present proprietor of Flip Burger Boutique, with locations in Atlanta and Birmingham (no relation to the Flip Burger Bar just opened in North Miami - and just wait till he gets wind of that) is all up in arms that a burger joint in Denver is serving a milkshake that he thinks bears a more than passing resemblance to one served at Flip Burger. He's so upset his hair is standing on end!

The details: Flip Burger's menu features several liquid nitrogen-chilled shakes, including one with Nutella and burnt marshmallow. A place in Denver called H Burger (Blais didn't name it, though Eater quickly figured it out) lists on its cocktail menu a liquid nitrogen-chilled "Nutella Marshmallow" shake with vanilla vodka, hazelnut liquor, nutella, and vanilla ice cream topped with roasted marshmallows. Though Blais' column noted the similarities between the two - that is, Nutella and burnt marshmallows, liquid nitrogen, and a similar presentation ("right down to the pint glass and red straw," which, I've got to say, doesn't exactly sound as novel or unique as, say, the peacock used at Alinea) - he omitted that H Burger's, unlike Flip Burger's, is an alcoholic libation.

Anyhoo, Blais thinks H Burger is ripping off his steez: "On the street, you don't copy someone else's style." He's so mad "it makes me want to load up my smoking gun and do a mother fucking drive-thru drive by." Of course, Blais is smart enough to know, and acknowledges, that recipes can't be copyrighted or patented. He's also smart enough to know, and acknowledges, that he didn't invent either the ingredients or the techniques involved in his particular concoction:
I didn't invent liquid nitrogen, or its use in food preparation. Shit, chemistry teachers have been making LN2 ice cream in classrooms for 30 years, at least. I didn't create marshmallows. Or Nutella. Or milk shakes. Or straws and pint glasses for that matter.
So what's he all bent out of shape over? Perhaps it's a matter of credit or attribution. He says:
I have been so sensitive to the topic, that if I find a dish of mine is similar in spirit to one I've seen, I'll denote it a "remix." Maybe it's in my blood. I don't think Wylie Dufresne is going to find me on a corner and put a cap in my ass. But that's how I approach it. Inspiration is a funny thing. Sometimes you can't remember exactly how you got there or who helped, but I believe you know if you're completely ripping someone off.
All right. So Chef Blais thinks his milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, and damn right it's better than yours. But this all gave me a strange sense of deja vu. And then I remembered why. A couple years ago, I came across press blurbs about Blais' "creation" of something he called a "Popcornsicle," a ball of popcorn frozen with liquid nitrogen and served on a stick. The press blitz came complete with photos of the chef blowing liquid nitrogen smoke from his nose and mouth as he ate one. Well, other than the stick, Chef Blais' "creation" just happened to be identical to an item that was regularly served at José Andrés' minibar, where it's called "Dragon's Breath Popcorn," and where I'd just happened to have eaten a week earlier. And I said so. That prompted a discussion on Chowhound about the nature of "copying" when it comes to cooking. Back then I noted:

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

PODZILLA! Cobaya Dinner

The last Cobaya event at Bourbon Steak was a pretty posh affair: beautiful long wood table, glowing candles, fine china, elegant plating. This latest one? Not so much. Coming together somewhat at the last minute, this one put together Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog, and his gastroPod (a mobile 21st century kitchen built into a shiny vintage 1962 Airstream trailer), with Chefs Kurtis Jantz and Chad Galiano, the masterminds of the Paradigm dinner series who cooked up Cobaya Gras a few months ago. Was it a bit rough around the edges? Perhaps. Was it rather steamy eating outdoors, even with a breeze blowing in off Biscayne Bay? Well, I finally stopped sweating about an hour ago. Did we eat some great food? Yes, and that's really what it's all about.

Lining up at the gPod

Our venue for the evening was Harvey's by the Bay, a bare-bones, divey bar in the back of the Harvey Seeds American Legion Post off Biscayne Boulevard and 64th Street. It was a somewhat fitting location given our theme, which was to celebrate American (loosely speaking, anyway) street foods. Given the chefs' propensity to tweak and fluency with contemporary techniques, I knew we could also expect some interesting twists. Here's the menu for the evening:

The event even felt a bit like a genuine street food experience, as Chef Jeremiah served everyone from the gPod, and Chefs Kurtis and Chad (and Mike Marshall, the zen master of fried chicken) did their service either right off the grill, or from a covered otudoor bar in Harvey's spacious backyard looking out on Biscayne Bay. I forgot my camera and so you'll instead have to put up with a few goofy "Hipstamatic" pictures I took on my iPhone, though you'll find better pictures and more recaps at Tinkering With Dinner, or a chef's-eye view from Chef Chad at Chadzilla.

Updated: another recap with lots of pics here at Wokstar.

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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

CSA - Reflections on a Season

It's been more than a month since I picked up the last box for our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share through Bee Heaven Farm. I've always been amused at how South Florida's growing season fades away right as the rest of the country's season begins: it was literally about a week after our last delivery that the rest of the blogosphere started to bloom with discussions of CSA programs and farmer's markets. For us here in South Florida, it's mostly mangoes, lychees and avocados until the fall.

For those who are unfamiliar, Community Supported Agriculture is a way of shortening the chain between farmer and end-consumer. Before the growing season begins, farmers sell subscriptions to a share of their product for the season; then over the course of the season, the customers get their share - whatever happens to be harvested at that particular time - direct from the farms. The Bee Heaven Farm CSA that I subscribed to actually consolidates the products of several local farms, and delivers them to several drop-off points throughout Miami-Dade and Broward Counties.

The season was for twenty weeks total, and you have the option of subscribing to a "full share" or a "half share." For those interested in the nitty-gritty details, the price of a full share was $630, the price of a half-share $375. With an extra $40 added for using a Miami-Dade pick-up location, our total cost for a half-share amounted to a little more than $20/week. To get an idea of what that gets you, you can look at the newsletter archives, which listed each week what was in the box. That may seem a bit steep, but during the season, the CSA basically supplanted our grocery store vegetable-buying (for a family of four who, I will confess, were not cooking at home nearly every night of the week), other than for staples such as onions, carrots and celery (each of which would make occasional appearances in the box, too).

This was my first season trying a CSA, and I'll admit I did so with some trepidation. I'm an enthusiastic but infrequent cook, and the notion of plowing through an entire box of vegetables every week was somewhat daunting. In addition, one of the mixed blessings of CSA programs is that it is quite literally market-driven. Unlike going to the grocery store, or even a farmers' market, where you can go in with a fixed notion of what you want to make that night, what's in the box - and what you'll be cooking - is dictated entirely by what the farms have planted and what's ready for harvest that particular week.

Miami has, for the most part, struggled to really support genuine farmers' markets. Often what style themselves as "farmers' markets" are really nothing other than folks who buy and resell produce from wholesalers, along with an assortment of vendors selling flowers, candles, and various knick-knacks. You'll often be hard-pressed to find an actual farmer, or even sometimes any produce that has actually come from local farms. That may be changing some with Bee Heaven and others' participation in the Pinecrest Farmers Market this past spring, and the nascent Roots in the City market in Overtown. But even in places where farmers' markets are better supported, the "Where's the Farmer?" question still comes up, and it may well be that programs like CSAs are, in some places, anyway, a more efficient means of doing business than farmers' markets.

I can't claim that I managed to cook everything every week. I also can't claim that I enjoyed everything. Truth is, while I am almost entirely omnivorous, there are some things I don't get too excited about: green peppers, zucchini, and yellow squash are a few of the things on that short list. On the other hand, we love just about any form of greens, and there were many which made regular appearances in the box: swiss chard, dandelion greens, collards, calalloo, bok choy and more. I adored the little French breakfast radishes we got occasionally, even if they were primarily an excuse to break out some butter and good salt. We learned that our resident tropical fruit maven, Little Miss F, loved canistel; though even she never got truly excited over black sapote.

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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Zuma - Miami - First Look

The idea of a contemporary, upscale Japanese restaurant is not exactly a revolutionary one. Indeed, it's something Nobu Matsuhisa has been doing successfully for more than two decades, with many having followed in his wake. And yet Zuma, the newly opened restaurant featuring "contemporary Japanese cuisine" in the Epic Hotel, still feels like something of a breath of fresh air. If there are other restaurants like it, there are certainly none in downtown Miami. They officially opened last week and we paid our first visit Saturday evening.

Zuma comes to Miami by way of London, after having opened other satellite offices in Hong Kong, Istanbul and Dubai. The original outpost in London has earned a goodly amount of praise, including an appearance (at #66) in San Pellegrino's annual "World's Best Restaurants" list. It styles itself as a "sophisticated twist on the traditional Japanese izakaya." An izakaya is, traditionally, a drinking establishment comparable to the British pub which also serves food, typically in small portions often referred to as "Japanese tapas." Here, izakaya describes the menu much more accurately than it does the venue, which, unlike the typically humble Japanese drinking den, is lofty and ambitious.

Miami's Zuma, located in the lobby floor of the Epic, is a cavernous space done up in a modern style in many shades of beige. The room is open two, even three stories up in places, with square panels suspended from the ceiling to break up the expanse, and floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto the Miami River. There's a sizable bar lounge area in front, behind which are tables (mostly rounds, and well-spaced) as well as a robata station and then a sushi bar. It's a visually interesting space even if it does still retain a touch of "hotel restaurant" feel to it.

The menu features selections of sashimi, nigiri and maki, a variety of small plates, as well as several more substantial main-course-sized items. Food comes either from the sushi bar, the robata grill, or the kitchen, and dishes are brought out to the table continuously over the course of the meal, rather than as appetizer and then entrée. If Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill had not opened several months earlier, or if Zuma had not already adopted this format at its other restaurants, surely someone would be accusing one of copying from the other. Instead, we can attribute it to a case of parallel independent development.

Our table's order covered items from each of the different kitchen stations. We started with their house-made tofu ($8), served with traditional D.I.Y. condiments - wasabi, ginger, green onions, toasted sesame seeds, as well as a savory barley miso (apologies, incidentally for the lousy iPhone pics). If you think you don't like tofu, this version may well change your mind. It has all the luxurious, creamy richness of a good burrata, yet remains light and clean-tasting. The barley miso was delicious, though it may have been too powerful a companion for the tofu. If this was not quite as good as the house-made tofu I had at Aburiya Raku in Las Vegas, it was certainly close.

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