Sunday, December 25, 2011

Best Dishes of 2011

This time last year, I was still basking in the reflection of a trip to Spain that included two meals that will probably always be among my most memorable - Asador Etxebarri in the Basque Country, and el Bulli. Not surprisingly, my "Ten Best Bites of 2010" list had a distinctly Iberian tilt. We didn't venture out of the U.S. in 2011, but nonetheless ate well, at home in Miami, on the other side of the continent during a trip to Portland, Oregon, and during a too-brief sojourn to Chicago.[1] For much more worldly lists, I'd highly commend those assembled by Ulterior Epicure and Doc Sconz, who in one year could check off my dining wish list for the next decade or so.

It's always a fun task to compile these kinds of lists. The exceptionality of some dishes is immediately apparent, the experience of them firmly and indelibly imprinted on the memory. Others may need the perspective of time to truly appreciate, perhaps seeming simple at first but gaining depth and nuance upon further reflection, like the flavor development of a good braise.

I tried to hold myself to ten dishes last year but cheated, actually listing fourteen. With no editorial oversight here, I've expanded the list to 20 for 2011. A few curious patterns emerge, though I can't say whether it's mere coincidence or holds some deeper significance.

First: I hope it doesn't come off as self-horn-tooting that several of the dishes listed here (seven) were served at Cobaya dinners, a group I help organize. We've had the incredibly good fortune to work with many outstanding chefs in the past year, who have eagerly embraced our simple "mission statement:" "to get talented chefs to cook great, interesting meals for an audience of adventurous, open-minded diners." Our little experiment is now 2 1/2 years old, we had 10 events in 2011, and we continue to be both energized and humbled by the support from both chefs and diners.

Second: there sure is a lot of foie gras on this list; the ingredient is featured in four of the twenty dishes. At least that foie is somewhat balanced out by three predominantly vegetable dishes that also made the list. I have nothing against foie - clearly - but it's the latter that I think and hope is a real trend. The vegetable universe has been coming under increasing focus and attention from chefs worldwide, and with our uniquely upside down growing seasons here in South Florida there is plenty of material to work with.[2]

Third: the simplest of dishes can still be made outstanding. It's hard to imagine anything more humble and rustic than choucroute garnie or bollito misto; versions of both were among the best things I ate this past year. And once again, one of the very best bites I had all year was basically nothing more than fish, rice and seasoning. This is by no means a rejection of culinary "modernism" - only a recognition that there are many paths to pleasure.

Here, then, is my list for 2011, with excerpts of my earlier comments on each.

1. Quail with Tripe - Le Pigeon (my thoughts on Le Pigeon)


The most memorable dish of the evening (maybe - this is a close call with one of the desserts) was the quail, burnished golden-brown crispy skin encasing tender, mildly gamy meat, served over a tripe and pepper stew with some generous dollops of a (saffron-infused?) aioli. Who'd've thunk to combine quail and tripe? It was simply and unexpectedly perfect.

2. Salmon Nigiri - Naoe (my thoughts on Naoe)

salmon belly

Scottish salmon belly. Cool fish, fatty and rich. Faintly warm rice, perfectly cooked, delicately seasoned. A brush of soy sauce. Perfect.

[Note: I included the same exact item in last year's list. It's hard to pick among the great sushi I've had at Naoe - outstanding aji, aoyagi, Hokkaido uni, among others - but it's this bite of salmon, always the first nigiri served, that perhaps best encapsulates what I love about the place.]

3. Foie Gras Profiteroles - Le Pigeon (my thoughts on Le Pigeon)

foie gras profiteroles

The dessert that will raise eyebrows, and should not be missed, is the foie gras profiteroles. Another twist on a classic, these light, faintly crispy puffs (the choux pastry itself enhanced with foie, recipe here) are filled with a rich foie gras ice cream that perfectly balances sweet and savory, and then generously drizzled with a thin caramel, a sprinkle of coarse sea salt, and delicate chocolate shavings. Outrageously good, it was very possibly one of the best desserts I've had all year.

4. Beet Salad - Azul Cobaya dinner (my thoughts)


Chef Huff's beet salad was brilliant, one of the best dishes I've had all year. From three basic ingredients - beets, blue cheese, bread - he crafted a stunning assembly of shapes, textures and flavors which he said included about 32 individual components. There were roasted beets in various hues, pointing their tendrils into the air. There were rounds of thinly sliced raw candy cane beets providing a bit of earthy, vegetal snap. There was beet espuma encapsulated in thin cylinders of beets. There was garnet-hued dehydrated beet paper, thin enough for light to shine through. There were powders, purées and gels of blue cheese, feather light croutons, razor-thin squares of lacy brioche. It was a dish that inspired a lengthy pause at the table, as everyone was reluctant to undo this beautiful construction.

Sometimes when presentation is such a focal point, flavor can get lost along the way. Not so here. This dish really highlighted the flavors and textures of its star ingredient, and was as delightful to eat as it was to look at. A truly exceptional dish.

5. Carrots with Yogurt and Mint - Ned Ludd (my thoughts on Ned Ludd)

carrots, yogurt, mint

If you can't get excited over chard, you probably won't get excited over carrots either, but this was one of my favorite dishes of the trip. A variety of different-hued carrots - orange, golden, garnet-red - were roasted in the wood-burning oven till tender but not limp. The carrots weren't woody, but still had a firm, almost meaty texture to them, reinforced by the hint of woodsmoke. A dollop of yogurt added both a richness and a tangy contrast, further brightened by wide strips of fresh mint. This was nothing complicated, nothing fancy, but it was perfect.

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Monday, December 19, 2011

CobayAzul (a/k/a A.B.C. - Azul Bizarre Cobaya)


The basic idea behind Cobaya is a simple one: let chefs cook whatever they want, for diners who want to experience it. The execution of that idea can sometimes become very elaborate. It did at Azul earlier this week, where Chef Joel Huff and his crew assembled an eight-course dinner that was often as complex as it was flavorful.

Another of the ideas behind Cobaya is to highlight chefs who may not be getting the attention they deserve for doing interesting, creative, inspired work in Miami. This latest dinner was another good example. Azul is one of Miami's few "fine dining" spots, and some great talent has worked there - its first executive chef was Michelle Bernstein, who spent four years there before going off on her own, when the talented Clay Conley took over - but like many hotel restaurants, it's a place that's more popular for visitors than locals.

When Chef Huff took over Azul this year, we quickly put it on the list of places that we thought could fit with Cobaya. Huff helped open up José Andres' Bazaar in Los Angeles, his menu at Azul was a fascinating read, and his sous chef, Brad Kilgore, was posting some great things on his blog, "The Power of a Passion," about what was going on in the kitchen. We were able to set up a dinner, and as usual, gave the chef free reign to create the menu and format.

An additional twist was introduced when we were contacted by a producer for Andrew Zimmern's show, "Bizarre Foods." They were going to be in Miami for a week, and were interested in shooting one of our dinners. The Azul dinner happened to be during the time they were in town. I'll confess, I had very ambivalent feelings about this. Truth is, we don't market or publicize these events at all other than by emails, blog posts and twitter; we make no money from it (everything collected goes straight to the chefs, and the organizers pay for their own seats too); and the group is, purposefully, very self-selecting. There are only so many people who are willing to show up for a dinner knowing absolutely nothing other than how much it will cost. We like it that way.

But when we talked it over with the restaurant, they were excited, and we thought it a worthwhile opportunity to show a larger audience the potential range of dining experiences in Miami. Watching Anthony Bourdain's Miami episode of  "The Layover" sadly confirmed that even as experienced an eater as Bourdain can still have a viewpoint of Miami that's based almost entirely on Miami Vice (a 25-year old TV show) and Grand Theft Auto Vice City (a 10-year old video game that mimicked the look and feel of the 25-year old TV show). It's kind of like doing an episode on San Francisco that's informed exclusively by having watched Big Trouble in Little China.[1]

Though the lights and cameras were inevitably something of a distraction, Zimmern and the Bizarre Foods crew (and Zimmern's guest Lee Schrager) were overall very well-behaved party-crashers. Zimmern himself, both when doing his routines for the camera and off, was genuinely curious, interested and engaged, passionate in his discussions about food, and effusive in his appreciation. It will be interesting to see how it comes out on the screen.

Here, in the meantime, is my take on our meal. You can see all my pictures from the dinner in this CobayAzul flickr set.

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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

CSA Week 2-3 and its Uses

Uh oh. Only three weeks into the CSA season and I'm already a full week behind in posting. Not an auspicious start. This is no fault of Little River Market Garden, which has been supplying great stuff. Let's see what we can do to get caught up.

CSA Week 2 Share

The Week 2 share brought kale, pei tsai (the unnamed mystery green from Week 1), basil, passionfruit, chinese leeks, long beans, roselle (a/k/a Jamaican hibiscus), and green beans (in the bag).

The basil quickly went into a salsa verde (Italian style, not Mexican), which is good on just about anything and everything: with fish, chicken or beef, tossed with vegetables, dressing a salad, slathered inside a sandwich. The kale and pei tsai hung around the fridge until Week 3 (no picture) arrived with more greens (more kale, radish tops, kohlrabi tops). They all went into a gumbo z'herbes, about which, unfortunately, the less said the better. I was working from the Commander's Palace cookbook, which would seem a decent enough place to start, but wound up with an unappetizing stockpot of swamp bog. I think there was a roux failure somewhere along the way.

A couple experiments that fared better:

"Asian pesto"

The thinking process here went something like this: first, I saw the basil and thought "pesto." Then Mrs. F used up the basil in the salsa verde. Then I saw the long beans and thought of trennette with pesto, which often includes green beans. Then I looked at the Chinese leeks next to the long beans, and thought "Why not an Asian pesto?" The Chinese leeks (much like garlic chives) were chopped, then thrown into the food processor along with some peanuts and enough peanut oil to make a paste. This became a topping for a stir fry of chicken thighs and long beans, the chicken first marinated in soy, garlic, ginger and honey. The chicken, long beans and "pesto" were served over ramen to serve as the pasta element of the dish (I know, chicken has no particular relationship to an Italian pesto, but we had it in the fridge).

The long beans are a favorite of the whole family, including Mrs. F who typically hates green beans. And the "Asian pesto" here provided a nice flavor punch and texture, though the Chinese leeks are pretty pungent raw. We're considering repurposing the rest of the pesto as a dumpling stuffing, and bought some gyoza skins to try it out.

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Friday, December 2, 2011

Art Basel Dining Guide: Off the Beaten Path Part 2

Yesterday, we explored a couple of Miami's less-heralded destinations for those Art Baselites who lack the foresight to have made reservations in South Beach or the Design District / Midtown / Wynwood, and lack the patience to wait for a table at the no-reservations spots. We journeyed through Downtown, then made our way to North Beach and crawled up Collins Avenue. Today, we can pick up where we left off in North Beach and start trekking back toward the mainland, winding up on Miami's "Upper East Side."

Lou's Beer Garden - slip inside the gates of the New Hotel, an updated MiMo hotel in North Beach, walk to the back, and you'll find Lou's Beer Garden, a funky little hideaway around the hotel pool with an outstanding beer selection, better than decent food, and a wonderful, relaxed atmosphere. The menu is mostly populated with simple stuff like salads, burgers and pizzas, but keep an eye out for Chef Luis Ramirez's more esoteric specials like the crispy sardines, callos a la Sevilla, or the grilled squid stuffed with chorizo sausage.

7337 Harding Avenue, Miami Beach

Las Vacas Gordas - Devout carnivores will want to pay a visit to an Argentine parrillada while they're here, and Las Vacas Gordas (The Fat Cows) is a worthy shrine. There are about a half-dozen different cuts of steak that they'll throw on the grill. My favorite is the entraña, or skirt steak, served rolled in a gigantic coil, but if you're indecisive you can get the "parrillada para 1" (which will easily feed 2 people not named Kobayashi) which will bring the true variety pack: a sampling of a few different steaks, chorizo, morcilla, mollejas (sweetbreads) and chinchulines (pig intestines) too. Slather it with chimichurri and try not to stand too closely to anyone for the rest of the night: the garlic stink will stay with you a while.

933 Normandy Drive, Miami Beach

Katana - It's far from the best sushi in town. But it's cheap, and it's served on floating boats coursing along a canal that winds around the restaurant. If something looks good, grab the plate off the boat as it floats by. The plates are color-coded for price, and the waitress will add up your stack when you're finished. I have an inexplicable fondness for their salmon nigiri, served with a generous squirt of Kewpie mayo and a shower of slivered onions. Here's a pro tip: if you can, sit directly clockwise from the itamae, so you can grab the freshest dishes as he makes them.

920 71st Street, Miami Beach

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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Art Basel Dining Guide: Off the Beaten Path in Downtown and North Beach

This week has seen no end of Art Basel guides: art fair guides, music guides, party guides, and, yes, food guides, some even in handy Q&A format. I got into the act myself last year. And while many of last year's recommendations will still hold up, I thought I'd take a slightly different approach this time, while expanding a bit on some of last year's list.

See, here's the thing: if you're just getting around to looking at this now, it's going to be too late to snag a table at most of the hot spots in South Beach where Art Basel proper resides, or in the Design District / Midtown / Wynwood enclave where you'll find most of the satellite fairs and local galleries. But! You shouldn't starve, just because you didn't have the foresight to make a reservation or don't want to wait hours for a table. Just expand your horizons a bit, there are good eats to be found elsewhere. May I humbly suggest you explore a couple of Miami's less heralded destinations: Downtown and North Beach?


Downtown Miami has a lot more office buildings than art galleries, but the city is running a free shuttle during Art Basel (11am - 11pm) that will take you between the downtown area and most of the major fairs and hot spots in the Wynwood / Midtown area. So try:

Phuc Yea! - Miami's first contemporary Vietnamese pop-up restaurant is open only for another week, but that's just enough time for you to get in there. They're rolling their own Viet-style porchetta di testa or coming up with creations like "When Elvis Met 'Nam" (seared foie gras, caramelized banana, peanut butter, jalapeño jelly, and nuoc cham caramel on french toast) along with more customary items like spring rolls, banh cuon, and salt n pepper calamari. Read all my thoughts on Phuc Yea! here.

Oodles of Noodles

19 SE 2nd Avenue, Miami

neMesis Urban Bistro - Chef Micah Edelstein's shoebox of a restaurant in the deserted northern outskirts of downtown serves up a very personal vision of global cuisine: shepherd's pie gets crossed with an empanada, "sushi" goes Tuscan with prosciutto, mascarpone and gorgonzola dolce, South African bobotie is served with passion fruit vinaigrette and garam masala pecans. I went in skeptical and came out very pleasantly surprised. There's often strange stuff brewing here - including, one time, a house-made coffee-infused beer - but it's often delicious.

1035 N. Miami Ave., Miami (LegalArt Building)

Little Lotus - this tiny Japanese restaurant is also hard to find, buried inside a nondescript office building, but serves up a nice selection of izakaya classics - lots of meats on sticks, takoyaki, chicken kara age, noodle dishes and rice bowls - along with a standard lineup of sushi items and some Indonesian classics thrown in for good measure. The team includes folks from local izakaya stand-out Yakko-San and Morimoto NY.

25 N. Miami Ave. Suite 107, Miami

Sparky's Roadside BBQ - it may not be competition-level 'cue, but it's better than a lot of BBQ pretenders in Miami, you can get a plate of pulled pork with a couple of sides for $10.50, they've got a super selection of brews, and you won't meet nicer guys in Miami than the ones running this place.

204 N.E. 1st St., Miami

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