Thursday, February 24, 2011

Where to Eat for South Beach Wine & Food Festival

It's time! Time for the culinary clusterfuck that is the South Beach Wine and Food Festival, as chefs, pseudo-celebrity-chefs, and their stalkers invade Miami for four days of food festivities. I'm not completely knocking the thing: there are in fact some great chefs coming to town, some of the events provide an opportunity for the local talent to show off, and, well, I can't speak from personal experience because I haven't actually been to a SoBe Fest event in several years. So I'll just have to leave the celebrity chef gossip over the next week to others, and hope everyone that's going enjoys it.

In the meantime, if while you're here you want more of a taste of what Miami has to offer, and haven't had your fill at the Burger Bash or the Bubble Q, a few ideas:

The Alt.SobeFest

(WARNING: horn self-tooting alert!) If you're looking for an alternative to the glam and glitz of the SoBe Fest, welcome to the underground. On Saturday February 26, Alex Talbot, who with his wife Aki Kamozawa make up the creative culinary team that is Ideas in Food, is in town and will be doing a dinner for the Cobaya Gourmet Guinea Pigs. Details here, and though all seats have been filled, waitlist requests are still being taken.
Even if you can't make the dinner, there will be an "open house" style brunch (no reservations needed, a la carte prices) with Alex cooking on Miami's favorite Airstream trailer, the gastroPod, on Sunday February 27 from 12:30-4:00pm at The Stage in the Design District, 170 NE 38th Street.

South Beach Underbelly

You know from Joe's Stone Crab. You know from Prime 112. Wouldn't you like to see a little more of South Beach than the big-name places?

A good place to start is Pubbelly (my thoughts here), a recently opened restaurant sort of off the main drag on 20th Street near Purdy Avenue. It styles itself an "Asian-inspired gastropub," but I see a lot more Spanish tapas bar than English gastropub in it. Not surprisingly given the name, pork belly plays a major role, whether it's paired with a miso butterscotch and bok choy, or in a "McBelly" sandwich with kimchi, BBQ sauce and pickles, or in a kimchi fried rice served in a hot stone bowl. The menu changes regularly, but other items to look for include the duck and pumpkin dumplings in a orange soy brown butter, croquetas, and possibly the best pan con tomate I've had in Miami.

Another even more off-the-beaten-path place to consider is Indomania (my thoughts here), just north of South Beach proper on 26th Street. This Dutch-Indonesian restaurant is cozy, comfortable and friendly, and ordering the rijsttafel will bring you nearly 20 different dishes to try for under $30 per person.

And if you're still peckish after all the SoBe Fest afterparties, you can do worse for late night eats than to find your way to The Alibi. Tucked into the back of a dive bar called "Lost Weekend" on Española Way and open till 5am, the Alibi does an authentic Philly cheese steak, a solid fried shrimp po'boy, crisp hand-cut fries with a choice of seasoning (I like the "ranch dust"), and house-made pickles.

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Friday, February 18, 2011

Michael's Genuine Food - The Book

I thought I'd written everything I could possibly have to say about Michael's Genuine Food & Drink when I devoted nearly 5,000 words to describing my many experiences dining there. But now I've got some new material: Michael's written a book. It's called Michael's Genuine Food, and the subtitle - "Down-to-Earth Cooking for People Who Love to Eat" - nails the underlying theme of both Michael's Genuine the restaurant, and Michael's Genuine the cookbook.

A word that appears multiple times in the book is "unfussy," and it's the perfect adjective for Chef Schwartz's food. When Michael's Genuine opened nearly four years ago (wow, time flies), it was on the front end, locally, of the now nearly ubiquitous farm-to-table trend. From the beginning, MGF&D was about sourcing great ingredients, as close to home as you could, and treating them simply and with respect. In the introduction, Chef Schwartz gives a great description of his style as "an East coast version of California cuisine."[1]

But that's certainly not to say, as some suggest of ingredient-driven cooking, that it's more "shopping" than "cooking." Moreover, "unfussy" doesn't remotely mean the same thing as "plain." Aside from picking the right ingredients, you have to know how to prepare them to bring out their best qualities, and you have to know what to do with them to create a dish that's satisfying and interesting. The cookbook, co-written with Joann Cianciulli,[2] does a great job of showing how that's done. It also is possibly the first book I've read that truly captures the peculiarly upside-down nature of seasonal eating in South Florida, where the farmers markets and CSA seasons run from November to April, and tomatoes are at their peak in the dead of winter.

You'll find many (but not all) of the mainstays from the restaurant menu, as well as a number of items you may never have seen before even if you're a restaurant regular. There's also a short selection of desserts from Michael's outstanding pastry chef Hedy Goldsmith (who, rumor has it, will be coming out with her own book) and some drinks, both alcoholic and not.

If you'd like to actually sample some of the goods, this Saturday evening, Books & Books in Coral Gables is hosting a "Down-to-Earth Potluck Dinner" featuring a Q&A session with Chef Michael and several of the dishes from the book - prepared not by the chef, but by friends and family he's recruited to show off his recipes, including yours truly and Little Miss F. The details: Saturday, February 19, 2011, starting at 7:00 p.m. at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Avenue, Coral Gables.

Meanwhile, here's a recap of my experiences with the cookbook so far:

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

CobayIdeas in Food

You will periodically see reports here from our Cobaya Gourmet Guinea Pigs dinners. The "mission statement" of the Cobaya group is a simple one: "to get talented chefs to cook great, interesting, creative meals for an audience of adventurous, open-minded diners." I usually don't draw much attention to Cobaya over here at FFT, but I think we've got a particularly exciting one in store at the end of this month. Normally the chef, the menu, and the location of the Cobaya events are kept under wraps, but in a break from the usual routine, we're lifting the cloak a bit and letting you know who will be our chef for the evening.

If you're an avid follower of contemporary cooking discussions, you will probably already be familiar with Aki Kamozawa and Alex Talbot, the couple behind Ideas in Food. Ideas in Food is a culinary consulting business, it's a blog, and it's now a book as well: Ideas in Food: Great Recipes and Why They Work. Alex and Aki are relentlessly creative and their ideas are a frequent source of inspiration to other chefs. A quick browse of the blog will give a good idea of some of the things they're up to. Just in the past week, for example, a series of ideas on using a whole fish: crispy roulade of black bass with potato-ricotta gnocchi glazed in oxtail butter with avocado mosaic seasoned with yuzu and cayenne; linguine with black bass head in XO sauce; bone-in bass loin with smoked citron marmalade, potato oil and ribeye jus; bass collar with pickled watermelon rind and coffee cured watermelon sauce; bass belly cured with surryano ham ... dang. Their recently released book has also gotten national attention, including in the NY Times, and has some great practical tips and recipe ideas for home cooks and professionals alike.

Alex will be in Miami and cooking a Cobaya dinner, with some assistance from the gastroPod, on Saturday, February 26, 2011. And we're pretty excited. More details, including how to request seats (still might be a couple left), can be found here: experiment #10 - CobayIdeas in Food - 2/26.

If you're intrigued, please keep in mind some important points that are part of the disclaimer for every Cobaya event: There is no "menu". There are no choices. You'll be eating what the chef chooses to make for the night. If you have food related allergies, strict dietary requirements, religious restrictions; are salt sensitive, vegetarian, pescatarian, or vegan; don't like your meat cooked medium rare, or are pregnant: this meal is probably not for you. Do not expect white-glove service. Don't ask for your sauce on the side. Just come and enjoy.

Monday, February 14, 2011

In Defense of "Foodies"

I know, I know. Not exactly a title I ever expected to write. I hate the infantilistic word "foodie," am often less than enamored by those who self-identify as such, and don't particularly relish having it applied to me either. And yet, a recent, bilious polemic in the Atlantic monthly, "The Moral Crusade Against Foodies," has done the unthinkable: it has inspired me to come to the foodies' defense.

Though subtitled "Gluttony Dressed Up as Foodie-ism is Still Gluttony," and using as its platform several recent food-related publications (Anthony Bourdain's "Medium Raw," Gabrielle Hamilton's upcoming "Blood, Bones & Butter," Kim Severson's "Spoon Fed," the "Best Food Writing" compilations[1]), as well as older works like Michael Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma" and Jeffrey Steingarten's "The Man Who Ate Everything," the piece seems less about gluttony, and more an outraged indictment of the very notion of writing about food at all. It's clear where this is going from the very start: "We have all dined with him in restaurants: the host who insists on calling his special friend out of the kitchen for some awkward small talk." In other words: if you actually know a chef, you must be a douchebag. It's all downhill from there.

B.R. Myers is unhappy when people pay too much attention to their food; he's unhappy when they eat mindlessly; he's unhappy when food writers care about sustainability and animal living conditions; he's unhappy when they don't; most of all, he's unhappy when people actually care enough to write about food.[2] Which of course might make you wonder why he chose to write about food books at all. In Myers' moral universe, it appears that any interest in food as a subject of writing whatsoever equates to gluttony, making it ever so easy to indict the entire genre. The proclaimed "moral crusade" is undoubtedly the right reference: Myers pursues his task with all the grimly self-satisfied smugness of a soldier doing battle against the infidels.

In doing so, his diatribe suffers from any number of logical fallacies, but the most egregious is the repeated over-generalization from specific examples, even when the evidence against such generalizations is staring him in the face. To him, "foodies" are one monolithic tribe, such that the voice of any one speaks for the whole. Chefs, food writers, and eaters all get tarred with the same broad brush as being members of a "unique community" of "so-called foodies." It takes him little time to conclude that "In values, sense of humor, even childhood experience, its members are as similar to each other as they are different from everyone else." This is, of course, patently ridiculous. In what universe do the caustically snarky Anthony Bourdain or the deadpan Gabrielle Hamilton share the same sense of humor with the primly self-righteous Alice Waters or the wryly analytical Michael Pollan?[3] Prove to me that Alice Waters even has a sense of humor!

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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Where Should I Eat Now?

Just for the sake of something different, I've added a new little "gadget" to the blog. Up in the top right corner, there's a section called "Where Should I Eat Now?" What is it? Well, it hopefully is at least somewhat self-explanatory: it's some suggestions in answer to that perennial question. But it's also sort of a hodge-podge of at least a couple different ideas.

On one hand, the inspiration comes from a suggestion I read somewhere in the Twitterverse, that local/regional food bloggers ought to maintain a list of the best restaurants in their area, for easy access to traveling gastronauts. Of course, this isn't actually such a list. I always struggle when it comes to the superlatives, naming the "best" this or the "top" that. Often it's just a matter of what kind of mood you're in. Bourbon Steak may be the best steakhouse in town, but that's of little significance if you're craving sushi. So this is not so much a "best of Miami" list (for that you can hit up Miami Restaurant Power Rankings or the periodically updated "Eater 38") but more of a personal culinary mood ring.

Another inspiration comes from Carol Blymire's old French Laundry at Home blog (she's now moved on to the equally delightful Alinea at Home), where she also used to keep a running diary of what she was eating. Of course, I'm not actually doing that either. A little too much information, and besides, not every meal is one worth recommending to others. Sometimes this list will include the places I've just been to; other times it may be those I'm hankering to visit, or those that may have dropped off the radar for no good reason. Most often it'll be some combination of all of the above.

"Where Should I Eat Now?" will get updated every week, as long as I remember to do so. The hope is that it will provide some inspiration to you when that question comes up.