Saturday, July 30, 2011

Spiceonomics v.2011 (Part II)

With Miami Spice season starting on Monday, we've likewise begun our annual tradition here of looking for the most interesting, best value Spice menus local restaurants have put together. A few days ago we did South Beach. Here we'll do the Mainland.

Perhaps the most interesting Spice news to some is that Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, probably the most popular restaurant in town, is back on the list. I'd initially thought Michael's had never done Miami Spice. Chef Schwartz thought they'd skipped the past two years. Turns out it was actually three years, even though they did a Spice-like summer special in 2008 despite not being an official participant. Anyway, they're back, and there will be much rejoicing.

Remember the rules: don't seek out a Spice menu at a restaurant where a regular dinner costs the same thing; and don't settle for boring food. And again, I'm not listing complete menus here, just those choices that sounded most interesting to me (click the name of each restaurant and you'll go through to their Spice page, including the full menu).

There are a couple restaurants that I would have expected to make this list but didn't: DB Bistro Moderne, and Palme d'Or. Both are exactly the kind of places that usually make great Spice values: high end, high class restaurants where it's normally impossible to get out for anywhere close to $50 per person. But both seem to have really skimped on their Spice menus. DB Bistro's appetizers - soupe du jour, mixed green salad, or ceviche - are like a culinary Ambien. And of the entrées, three out of four aren't even what many people would consider a true dinner main course: pasta (spinach farfalle with ricotta and pancetta), salad (frisée aux lardons with duck ragout), or a tarte flambée (basically an Alsatian pizza).

Palme d'Or may not be quite so lacking in value, but doesn't exactly seem drawn up to inspire much interest either: first course options are a "mix beet root carpaccio" with endive and goat cheese, or a  "braised beef terrine;" mains are lemon sole filet with leek confit or beef tenderloin with risotto. Very pedestrian, and not a very well-designed menu (if you're only offering two choices each for appetizers and entrées, does it make sense for one of the options in each category to be a beef dish?).

I have no doubt the food at both of these places will be well-executed, but neither is putting out a very compelling Miami Spice menu. One other menu I found amusing: Loulou Le Petit Bistro. They're pretty vague about what they're serving: appetizers are "soup of the day or appetizer of the day or organic mix green salad," entrées are an equally vague "catch of the day or special of the day or vegan lasagna." They've actually got a lot more to say about what they're not serving than what they are serving: "Loulou 'Le petit Bistro' will not serve Chilean Sea Bass, Shark, North Atlantic Swordfish, Marlin Sail Fish or Wild Bluefin Tuna in support of the Oceania Project NRDC and Seaweb's educational effort to speed the recovery of these endangered and threatened species." So maybe you can figure out what's on the Spice menu by process of elimination.

Without further ado...

(continued ...)

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Spiceonomics v.2011 (Part I)

It's that season again: Miami Spice season. For the next two months, diners go hunting for $35 dinner bargains, restaurateurs squeeze every bit of fat out of their food costs, line cooks go quietly crazy cranking out the same three items over and over again, and servers look forward to the generosity of their penny-pinching customers. Ah, what fun.

We've been over this before here, but to quickly reiterate my rules for navigating Miami Spice season: (1) there's no reason to bother with restaurants where a $35 menu is not a meaningful discount from their regular prices (though, of course, go to them if you like them; just don't do so because they're offering a Miami Spice menu); (2) the infamous chicken breast/farmed salmon/churrasco (or substitute short rib) "trifecta" is usually a tell; and (3) look for food that actually interests you. If a restaurant doesn't excite you the other 11 months of the year, it is unlikely there's going to be something really inspiring on their Spice menu.

As I've done the past couple years, here is a list of some places that look like they may be worth a visit based on the menus they've posted. Again, I'm not necessarily even listing all the choices on their menus, just putting together a meal I might eat. Note as well that I've not tried any of these yet, menus may change, there's still plenty of places you can get a good meal for $35 that don't do Miami Spice, and you might just have a more satisfying meal if you simply go to a nice restaurant and order what you like. Having said that, let's start with South Beach (the restaurant name links to their Miami Spice page so you can gander each restaurant's entire Spice menu if you wish):

(continued ...)

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Cobaya 17 - Dinner at Market 17, Fort Lauderdale

It's always interesting to me to see the different approaches chefs take to putting on one of our Cobaya dinners. Some treat the group as true guinea pigs (that is what it means, after all), trying out dishes that may or may not end up on a restaurant menu one day in order to gauge the group's reaction.[1] Others see it as an opportunity to do something different from their usual routine. When we approached Market 17 in Fort Lauderdale to put on a dinner, they clearly gave it some thought. The restaurant, opened less than a year ago, embodies the current farm-to-table ethos and the menu usually features ingredients from close to home. But for our dinner, Chef Daniel Ramos purposefully set out to expand his horizons, which eventually turned itself into a seven-course dinner where each course focused on a different continent. Our menu for the evening started in Asia, then wound its way though South America, Australia, Africa, Europe and North America before ending up in Antarctica (and yes, that was a challenge):


It was an ambitious plan, and I was impressed both by the thought that went into it and the results on the plate. (To see all my pictures from the dinner, go to this Cobaya 17 flickr set).


prawn with shrimp and pork dumpling, lemongrass prawn head broth, accompaniments of traditional ingredients
Charles Smith Kung Fu Girl Riesling, Washington State 2009

This starter featured shrimp in three different forms - a simple seared prawn, a dumpling filled with minced shrimp and pork, and a potent lemongrass-infused prawn head broth infused with a spicy/sour kick reminiscent of a Thai tom yum soup. It was presented with the broth in a separate decanter, and small bundles of accompaniments - fresh herbs, finely julienned radish, green onions, shiitake mushrooms, carrots, herb-inflected rice - to assemble D.I.Y. style immediately before eating. Bright, fresh flavors and a fun, interactive presentation. Riesling is a classic companion with Asian foods and the juicy, tangy Washington State "Kung Fu Girl" worked well here.

(continued ...)

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Local Craft Food and Drink - Coral Gables

Miami may only occasionally be a true culinary innovator, but lately it has proven at least to be an increasingly adept early adopter. Small plates, food trucks, contemporary Asian, locavorism, pork obsessiveness; all are trends that Miami quickly embraced. Yet some others seem to have largely passed Miami by. The gastropub is one of them.

The idea of the gastropub originated in London in the 1990's, when some enterprising souls set out to elevate the quality of the "pub grub" served in the city's traditional "public houses." With an approach that presaged both the current farm-to-table and high-end casual trends, the food was often local and seasonal, and brought "real" cooking to humble watering holes. Plus, of course, there was always beer. Good beer.

Though gastropubs are old news in England, they were rather slow in working their way across the pond. When Mario Batali opened the Spotted Pig in New York in 2004, importing April Bloomfield from England as chef, it was routinely touted as the city's first gastropub.[1] The concept was even slower to catch on in Miami. Though there were occasional attempts (i.e., Jake's in South Miami), they weren't done particularly well.[2]

That's all changed with The Local.

The Local

The Local (full name: The Local Craft Food & Drink, "The Local" being both a play on British shorthand for "the local pub" and the focus on locally sourced ingredients) opened a couple months ago in Coral Gables, in the spot on Giralda Avenue formerly occupied by Randazzo's.[3] The room has been turned around, with a large wooden bar (imported from a defunct Irish bar on South Beach) now having pride of place along the east wall, and the remainder of the space filled out with bar-height and regular tables for a total of about 50 diners.

(You can see all my pictures in this The Local flickr set).


Like any good gastropub, the initial focus here is on beer. The chalkboard lists nearly two dozen options on tap, both domestic and imported, in a wide range of styles. The draft offerings are supplemented with a selection of bottles, including large format items like the Brooklyn Brewery Local No. 1 golden ale, or seasonal items like the Cigar City Improvisacion "Oatmeal Rye India Brown Ale" made in nearby Tampa.

What to eat along with that beer? That's where Chef Alberto Cabrera comes in. Cabrera shouldn't be a stranger to Miami diners: he did time at Norman's, Baleen, and the critically lauded but sadly short-lived La Broche before taking the helm at the kitchen of the ambitious and equally ill-fated Karu & Y. Since then he's been something of a culinary mercenary, working brief stints as the chef at STK Steakhouse and Himmarshee Grill.[4] I hope he sticks around The Local longer.

jerky in a jar

A good place to either start a meal or just nosh something along with your beer is the "snacks" section of the menu, and in particular, the "jerky in a jar" ($7). The jerky is house-made and infused with soy and Thai chiles (alternately, Korean kochuchang on another night), served in a jar along with some fried garlic chips and a sprinkle of green onions. It's unabashedly chewy, intensely beefy, not overwhelmingly salty, a touch sweet, a little bit spicy, and all good.

(continued ...)

Monday, July 4, 2011

1500 Degrees - Miami Beach

1500 Degrees

It would have been easy to dismiss 1500°, which opened last October in the Eden Roc Hotel. Its combination of steakhouse and farm-to-table themes could easily seem a cynical effort to simultaneously play both the lowest common demoninator and the latest trendy fashion of restaurant buzzwords. Its chef, Paula DaSilva, was perhaps better known for a stint on the culinary torture porn that is the Gordon Ramsay-hosted Hell's Kitchen than for her work as chef de cuisine of Dean James Max's 3030 Ocean in Fort Lauderdale. And hotel restaurants on the Beach, with limited exceptions, have generally not been the most fertile dining grounds of late.

And yet ...

And yet, 3030 Ocean was a fine restaurant when DaSilva was running it. And yet, that "farm-to-table" routine may be more than just lip service, with a menu that features many local products and artisan producers like Benton's Hams.[1] Maybe I should quit being so cynical and just try it. So I did, a couple times over the past couple months.

The truth is, 1500° really isn't much of a steakhouse at all. Yes, the name is a reference to the temperature of the broiler they use to cook their meats. But beef actually makes up only a small portion of the menu. In fact, the five steak choices (which include a mammoth 34 oz. porterhouse for two) are matched by an equal number of non-bovine entrées, and are vastly outnumbered by various, mostly non-beefy appetizers in various forms, and a plethora of vegetable sides. Which is a good thing: the steaks are OK, but the other stuff is mostly much better.

(continued ...)

Friday, July 1, 2011

Let's Get Loaded

Looking for a way to extend the holiday weekend a little longer? This ought be cool. One night only, Thursday July 7, 8pm, $33 for 3 cocktails (and where it says "Very Special Guest Mixologist," I know of what is spoken here and it is true), and some fine bites from Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog. If you're interested, click above or here.

Speaking of Loaded ...