Monday, September 26, 2011

Chef Philip Ho - Sunny Isles

chef's special dumpling

People of South Florida, I have an important announcement. There is a new dim sum restaurant. In Sunny Isles. And it appears to be quite good.

This is not my usual style. I usually will give a place at least a couple of visits, and typically a couple of months after opening, before writing about it. But there is dim sum involved here, people. I love dim sum.

Dim sum options in Miami are fairly limited. Most often, we make the pilgrimage south to Tropical Chinese, which I prefer to some of the other more southerly options, Kon Chau and South Garden. Chu's Taiwan Kitchen in Coral Gables is in my weekday lunch rotation, and is also one of the few places in town that have xiao long bao, or soup dumplings. On the northern end of town we used to frequent Hong Kong Noodles, which was inconsistent, not exactly the cleanest place, and closed down a while ago; I could never get that excited over Sang's. And of course there is Hakkasan in the Fontainebleau on Miami Beach, which is excellent in quality, but expensive and limited in selection.

Enter Chef Philip Ho.

Chef Philip Ho

Thanks to a tip on the Chowhound board, I heard that a new dim sum place had opened up in Sunny Isles, in a location that was formerly occupied by one of those inexplicably ubiquitous Chinese buffet operations. It's a sizable place, probably capable of seating a hundred people, even though the room is still bisected between a dining room and the space that used to house the buffet.


They offer both pushcart service and a printed checklist style menu, the best of both worlds for partisans of the different dim sum service styles.

Chef Philip Ho menu

It was only Little Miss F and myself, so we didn't get to do a comprehensive sampling, but everything we tried was quite good and had me eager to make a return visit. We picked exclusively from the carts, which carried most, but not all, of the menu items.

(You can see all my pictures in this Chef Philip Ho flickr set).

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Saturday, September 24, 2011

CobayaJeremiah with Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog


Though our Cobaya - Gourmet Guinea Pigs events are sometimes called "underground" dinners, that's probably a bit of a misnomer, since we happily have some events in operating restaurants. But we really do strive for each of them to be an experiment. What we want, very simply, is for both chefs and diners to see it as an opportunity to try something new and different, to take chances.

Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog of the gastroPod has been one of our most steadfast supporters and facilitators since we started doing these dinners two years ago. He didn't cook our first dinner, but he did do the second one, and has lent a hand and sometimes even a kitchen to several others. So when Jeremiah came back from a trip to the MAD FoodCamp in Copenhagen and a stage at Noma[1] restaurant full of inspiration, we were glad to line up another dinner.

There were several firsts for this dinner: it was our first time trying staggered seatings, with rounds of about 8 diners being seated every half hour instead of one big communal table; it was our first time using this particular space, which had some temperature challenges;[2] and it was our first time with a tasting menu this ambitious, more than 15 courses all told. The idea was that the smaller seatings would let the cooks focus more on each plate as it went out instead of cranking out 35-45 plates at once.[3]

You can see all my pictures from the dinner in this CobayaJeremiah flickr set.

the dining room

The dinner started with a cocktail: the "Fernet Sour" mixed clarified Fernet Branca with clarified grapefruit juice, cooled with a blast of liquid nitrogen. Fernet is a profoundly, eye-crossingly bitter digestif, one of those concoctions of roots, twigs, spices and herbs that tastes like it must be either really good for you or poisonous. It is the epitome of an "acquired taste" - one that I sometimes enjoy after a heavy meal for its seeming purifying powers, but not one I've ever had to start a meal. Here, I suppose it could be seen as having the same kind of palate-cleansing effect as Heston Blumenthal's nitro-poached green tea and lime mousse at the Fat Duck. But I couldn't finish a full flute of it.

snack: pickles

There followed an extensive progression of various "snacks," starting with a pickle plate clearly inspired by the Noma aesthetic. Pink radishes were topped with paper-thin, faintly crisp shards of (Benton's?) ham. Pickled okra was coated in a light tempura batter and fried. And tiny beets were halved and pickled, served with a sphere of rosewater-infused yogurt spheres resting on a nest of noodle-like beet strands. I liked the bold flavors, the interplay of salty and sour, the variation in textures, and the communal presentation on a long plank.[4]

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Phuc Yea! - Pop-Up Downtown Miami

Phuc Yea! table

I usually try to give a restaurant at least a couple of visits and a couple of months before writing about it. But with Phuc Yea!, a Vietnamese pop-up restaurant slated to be open only a few months total, that may be too late for the information to be of much use. Phuc Yea! doesn't follow the rules of a normal restaurant, and so my review won't either.

Official opening night was last Thursday, and I was there. We had a great meal, basically eating our way through the entire menu and then back again. You should go and do the same.

I gave a bit of a preview last week and won't repeat what's said there. But a bit of nitty gritty before talking about the food. Phuc Yea! is operating out of the "Crown Bistro" space located within the Ingraham Building downtown, across from the Gusman Center. There is no signage outside on the building for either Phuc Yea! or Crown Bistro. You get to it via SE 2nd Avenue, where there is an entrance just north of the main entrance to the office building, which leads into a corridor with mostly vacant retail space and the restaurant at the end.

It is a typical downtown lunch spot - meaning, completely nondescript and lacking in personality. The Phuc Yea! crew (Aniece Meinhold, Cesar Zapata and Daniel Treiman) have "spruced it up" by adding some curtains apparently inspired by an anime featuring an innocent big-eyed young girl and an angry Viking spirit. It's not exactly Extreme Makeover: Home Edition material, though it has its own unique charm. But the whole point of a pop-up is the food, not the decor, and happily, their talents in the kitchen vastly exceed their interior decorating skills.

Phuc Yea! menu

(You can see the full set of pictures in this Phuc Yea! flickr set)

Our table was debating our choices among the first section of the menu (labeled simply "1 - một") until finally taking the easy route and ordering everything (except the pickles, which we knew would be coming as an accompaniment to one of the larger dishes later).

Oodles of Noodles

Of these, the dish that really stood out, that we were craving more of before we even finished - that we wound up getting at least two more orders of - was the bánh cuốn. I've often seen this translated as "pork rolling cake," though Phuc Yea! dubs it "Oodles of Noodles."

It features chewy rice flour crepes, rolled jelly-roll style, and in this iteration, topped with a cornucopia of ingredients: bits of roast pork, shreds of wood ear mushrooms, fresh bean sprouts, crispy fried shallots, nubs of salty pork terrine, a spray of fresh cilantro and mint, all anchored by a deceptively light-hued sauce rich with the potent umami blast of nước mắm, or Vietnamese fish sauce. Every bite makes a play to different taste receptors, hitting multiple notes at once, but ultimately achieving balance. It was a great dish.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Little Bird Told Me (Twitter for Restaurants)

A local restaurant recently used Twitter to do a very smart thing: it asked its followers how they thought the restaurant could more effectively use social media like Facebook and Twitter to better serve its customers. My response was perhaps a bit harsh:
More tweeting of daily specials, menu updates; less retweeting of every single tweet mentioning you, no matter how inane?
But it's a pretty accurate encapsulation of my thinking on what is a very worthwhile question to ask; worthwhile enough that I thought it was worth expanding upon.

Some qualifiers: I'm not a PR person. I make no claim to being a social media expert. In fact, I do my best to ignore and avoid stuff like Foursquare and really have never taken much of a shine to Facebook either for that matter. But I like Twitter.

So who am I to have anything to say here? I'm a diner. A diner who is on Twitter and reading your restaurant's Twitter feed. (In fact I've got a list with every Miami restaurant I know of that's on Twitter). For whatever it may be worth, I know what I like to see and don't like to see in a restaurant's twitter feed. So here are some "dos and don'ts" from one diner's perspective:

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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

My 7 Links

One of the consequences of the immediacy and constancy of social media is that content tends to get buried under the neverending avalanche of information. A blog post that is more than 24 hours old won't even be seen in many peoples' RSS readers. Some good writers have given up on their blogs entirely, finding it more convenient and effective to communicate their thoughts in 140-character Twitter bursts, the epitome of ephemera. What any of us were saying last month, let alone last year, often gets lost in the electronic ether.

I'm usually wary of anything that sounds like a chain letter, i.e. "Do this and then ask another five people to do it." But I'm a big fan of recycling, including recycling blog content. I was also honored to have been nominated by Doc Sconzo (one of the people who indirectly inspired me to start this blog) to participate in something called "My 7 Links" started by the Tripbase website, the idea of which is "to unite bloggers (from all sectors) in a joint endeavor to share lessons learned and create a bank of long but not forgotten blog posts that deserve to see the light of day again."

I enjoyed reading Doc's 7 links. Here are the results of my own dive into the archives:

Most Beautiful Post: When I first started this blog, I had very ambivalent feelings about food photography. I'm a writer, not a photographer. Aside from not having any photographic talent whatsoever, I also was concerned with the dissociative effect of taking pictures - that the obsession with getting the right shot can separate you from the experience of actually enjoying a meal. There's also the "douchebag taking pictures of his food" issue.

For better or worse, I've gotten over it. As much effort as I can put into describing food, much of the dining experience is often visual. So even if you can't taste the food over the internet, at least you can see it. And while I'm still a rank amateur photographer, I've tried at least to get to the point that my pictures will not embarass the people who created the food. I also recently upgraded my equipment, and have learned a bit more about how to operate it, and have been excited about the results.[1]

It still pales compared to the work of genuinely talented photographers like Doc, Ulterior Epicure, A Life Worth Eating, and ChuckEats, but I'm not entirely ashamed of the pictures I took on a recent trip to Portland at Le Pigeon:

foie gras profiteroles

Le Pigeon - Portland, Oregon - August 19, 2011

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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Genuine South Beach?

Down the block over at Miami Rankings, there's some concern over the recent announcement that Chef Michael Schwartz of Michael's Genuine Food & Drink will be taking over the restaurant (and all F&B) at South Beach's Raleigh Hotel. South Beach, with its fancy cars, glitzy hotels, and abundant breast implants, may seem a potentially less than "genuine" move. This, no less, right on the heels of the news that Schwartz is also taking over Jonathan Eismann's recently closed PizzaVolante spot in the Design District to open Harry's Pizzeria (named for the chef's son, who is still a bit too young to be working a regular shift on the pizza oven).

I understand the concern. And I have no particular love for South Beach myself. But I think some of the worry is misplaced.

The success of Michael's Genuine since it opened in 2007 was and remains a significant development in Miami restaurant history in a number of respects. Along with Michy's on Biscayne Boulevard, MGF&D marked a shift of the center of Miami's restaurant universe away from South Beach and over to less colonized areas of the mainland. It was (and is) dedicated, perhaps more than any other local restaurant, to the "farm to table" ethos, before every restaurant started throwing "organic," "sustainable," "local" and "artisan" (occasionally even "artesian") into every menu description. It was (and is) geared as much, if not moreso, to locals than to tourists, with a menu that changes regularly and always seems to have a couple new items, even for regulars. It was (and is) a place that's popular because it is comfortable rather than scene-y, and both the food and the atmosphere achieve an "upscale casual" vibe that is the way more people want to dine these days.

But it's not necessarily the only trick in Chef Schwartz's bag either. When he opened a second Michael's Genuine in Grand Cayman, I think the goal was simply to duplicate what he'd already done here in Miami at an off-shore outpost. I don't think that's what he'll do at the Raleigh, separated from the mothership only by a 15-minute drive across Biscayne Bay.

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Monday, September 5, 2011

Phuc Me? Phuc You!

Several weeks ago, I was disappointed to hear that Aniece Meinhold and Cesar Zapata had packed their bags and left Blue Piano. I'd only gotten in once to the pocket-sized wine bar and music lounge just north of the Design District, but was very pleasantly surprised by the well-selected wines and the creative and tasty tapas-style bites while Aniece was running the bar and Cesar was in the kitchen.

Silver lining and whatnot, Aniece and Cesar, along with Daniel Treiman (chef and occasional Short Order and Eater Miami contributor) are now teaming up to do Phuc Yea!, a modern Vietnamese pop-up restaurant that will have a 3-month run in downtown Miami.

Launch date is this Thursday September 8, after which they will be up and running Tuesday - Saturday from 5:30pm - 10:30pm until November. Phuc Yea! will be setting up camp in the Crown Bistro, located inside the Ingraham Building in downtown Miami (19 SE 2nd Avenue).

Some preview menu highlights include mini banh mi sandwiches with roast pork and house-made cha lua; thit bo kho, a Vietnamese beef jerky they've redubbed "Viet Cowboy Snack;" banh cuon (a/k/a rolling cake, a rice crepe wrapped around pork); caramelized pork riblets; "Nam Style Charcuterie;" and a few larger plates of char siu style pork, confit duck or fried snapper served with rice and a "table salad" of lettuces, greens, herbs and pickles. You can see the whole Week 1 menu here.

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Saturday, September 3, 2011

Ned Ludd - Portland, Oregon


There are times when you are just utterly charmed by a restaurant. It may not be the most breathtaking food, it may not be the most ostentatious decoration, it may not be the most obsequious service, but sometimes a place captures a bit of magic that seems to make every piece of a meal fit together perfectly. That was our experience with Ned Ludd.

Ned Ludd the man was a late 18th century weaver who, in a fit of unexplained rage, destroyed two knitting machines. Decades later, this little incident acquired something of a mystical aura as he became the mascot to the Luddites, a group of rebellious textile workers who vainly opposed the developments of the Industrial Revolution, opposition that was often expressed by breaking the machines that were taking away their jobs.

Ned Ludd

Ned Ludd the restaurant is not quite so revolutionary, but the name is definitely a signal. The food here is very down to earth, the preparation methods simple, primarily using a wood-burning oven that was left behind by an earlier tenant. The decorations are similarly rustic: weathered wood furnishings and surfaces and rough exposed beams are softened up by decorative twisting vines and branches, old-timey cut-glass light fixtures and candle-holders. It felt to me like a farmhouse from a Peter Greenaway film. Outside, bins of fruitwood (the fuel for that oven) form a perimeter around a few park benches that serve as an outdoor seating area.

The menu is divided into "forebits," "kaltbits," "warmbits" and "plats," indicating starters, salads, slightly more substantial cooked dishes, and heartier entrées. We cobbled together an order for the table that included something from each, focusing primarily on an abundance of tempting-sounding vegetable based dishes.


First to hit the table were these warm pita-like flatbreads, hot from the oven, toasty and browned on the edges, and given a generous bath of good olive oil. The distinctly assertive note of caraway seed was an unexpected and welcome jolt of flavor.

cherries, duck bacon, walnuts, lettuces

I'm not usually one to get excited over salads, but the salads at Ned Ludd were gorgeous. Tender soft lettuces were paired here with translucent pink slices of duck bacon, lightly pickled cherries, and meaty walnuts, dressed in a simple but pitch-perfect vinaigrette. Hearty flavors, delicate textures, and great balance to the components.

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