Wednesday, January 25, 2012

CSA Week 9 and its Uses

CSA "gargouillou"

"Gargouillou" apparently was originally a humble French peasant dish of potatoes and ham. But it was made famous by Chef Michel Bras, who reinvented it as a composition of dozens (really - often 50 to 60 separate components) of various fresh seasonal vegetables, herbs, and flowers, painstakingly assembled onto a riotously colorful plate. It has been much talked about and much imitated; chefs the world over have used Bras' gargouillou as the inspiration or springboard for countless dishes, like David Kinch's "Into the Vegetable Garden." You can read about it in this New York Times piece, see a slideshow in this Wall Street Journal, catch it in video form here, or, just do a Google image search for "gargouillou." The pictures are so beautiful you can't help but smile.

So when I picked up my most recent share from Little River Market Garden and saw flowering hon tsai tai, perky Caraflex cabbage, "purple haze" carrots, and wispy fresh dill, among other goodies, a very simple take on gargouillous is what came to mind. The cabbage, hon tsai tai leaves and stems, and carrots were quickly blanched in salted boiling water. Last week's dinosaur kale was tossed with olive oil and oven-roasted till crispy and a bit charred. Last week's cutting celery, this week's dill, and the gorgeous yellow flower buds from the hon tsai tai went in raw. A dollop of last week's marcona almond brown butter vinaigrette, and an herbaceous salsa verde, both found their way onto the plate. I also took the blanching liquid from the vegetables, which had picked up some of their flavors and a nice soft green hue, gave it a bit of viscosity with some agar agar, and drizzled it around the plate.

(continued ...)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Harry's Pizzeria - Miami Design District

MGFD Bacon Pizza

When it comes to pizza, there are many styles. There's your basic Neapolitan. There's your hardcore Verace Pizza Napoletana. There's New York-style pizza. There's your more esoteric thin-crusted Lazio style pizza, Sicilian, grandma pizza, New Haven style apizza, Chicago deep dish ... pizza maven Adam Kuban came up with a list of 21 different regional styles, and surely there were many more that were overlooked.

The pizzas at Harry's Pizzeria, the new pizza joint from local hero Michael Schwartz, are precisely none of those. But they are quintessentially in the style of Chef Schwartz and his namesake Michael's Genuine Food & Drink: great flavors, with a focus on local ingredients and in-house preparations.

Almost five years ago (!) Schwartz opened MGF&D in Miami's Design District. It was an instant hit, and for good reason: the menu was accessible but exciting, it focused on local products without being sanctimonious or dogmatic about it, and both the food and the place had a relaxed, unfussy style that was perfectly in tune with the impending economic meltdown. MGF&D immediately became one of the most popular and well-regarded restaurants in town and has continued to hold that status to this date.

Though success came quickly for MGF&D,[1] Chef Schwartz was deliberately slow in building upon it. The expansion bug finally bit in 2010 when he added a second Michael's Genuine in Grand Cayman. This past year has seen several new projects, not only Harry's Pizzeria, named after his son Harrison, but also a consulting gig for Royal Caribbean's 150 Central Park on the Oasis of the Seas cruise ship, and the in-progress takeover of the restaurant and dining operations at the Raleigh Hotel on South Beach.

Harry's Pizzeria

(You can see all my pictures in this Harry's Pizzeria flickr set).

Harry's is the most modest of those projects. The space, right down the street from MGF&D, became available when Jonathan Eismann's Pizza Volante (which was one of my favorite local pizza places) shut down. It already had the same kind of wood-burning oven that was installed at MGF&D, where a pizza of some sort has been a fixture on the menu since they opened. They kept the oven, revamped the rest of the space with a small bar and casual dark wood furniture similar to that at Michael's, got Friends With You to supply some decorations, and opened up for business in late September.

Harry's Pizzeria menu

The menu is a simple affair: a short list of "snacks" and salads, followed by about ten different pizza options. It's typically rounded out by a few specials, usually a soup, a starter, and a pizza of the day. And that's it. If you're not in the mood for a pizza, you'll struggle to find something to make a complete meal.

(continued ...)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

CSA Weeks 7-8 and its Uses

CSA week 8

The lack of posts on this season's CSA crop should not be seen in any way as a reflection on the degree of my happiness with its supplier, Little River Market Garden. Quite to the contrary, we've been getting a wonderful variety of stuff and have been doing our best to use all of it effectively. Sometimes it's really easy. This week brought a gorgeous assortment of tomatoes, fresh arugula, cutting celery, eggplants, turnips, dinosaur kale, bananas, and a papaya.

Now, I'm not one to "fix myself a salad," but when the vegetables are this fresh, and this tasty, even I yield.

CSA salad

No bacon, no eggs, no croutons - just arugula, tomatoes, cutting celery, slivers of last week's radishes, a drizzle of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, coarse salt and freshly cracked pepper, and a dollop of creme fraiche to pull everything together. I recognize this is not terribly interesting as a recipe or a dining experience. But it's a testament to the joy of great produce, grown with care, that this was one of the best things I ate all weekend. Those tomatoes are an emotional experience.

grilled carrots

For something just a bit more involved, I would highly recommend this recipe for Grilled Carrots with Brown Butter Vinaigrette, courtesy of Chef Bryce Gilmore of Austin's Barley Swine. The carrots (from last week's CSA pickup) are first marinated in olive oil spiked with pimentón, fennel, coriander, garlic and thyme, then grilled and dressed in a vinaigrette of browned butter blended with marcona almonds and sherry vinegar. There's a lot of subtle brilliance in this recipe: the carrots take well to the spices, the pimentón and grilling bring out a smoky aspect, while the brown butter and marcona almonds highlight the carrots' nutty flavors. I made just a few variations to the published recipe: I left the fennel seeds whole because I like their pop of flavor, I grilled these larger carrots (halved or quartered as appropriate) for closer to 10 minutes than 6 and covered the grill pan with a lid to steam them at the same time, and I added a bit of the remaining spice-infused oil from the marinade into the dressing to reinforce the flavors.

When prepared this way, the firm but yielding texture of the carrots and the smoky flavors actually calls to mind the experience of eating a grilled steak. This could, if you were inclined to such things, make a fine vegetarian entrée, and indeed you could sub olive oil for the brown butter and make it an entirely vegan - and still very satisfying - dish. Now I'm not ready to try the Vegan Experience, like Serious Eats writer J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is doing for the next month, but if I were, there are worse things I can imagine eating.

Monday, January 16, 2012

City Snapshots - Las Vegas Dining

Our experience at é by Jose Andres was the most exceptional of our recent Las Vegas visit, but it certainly wasn't our only good meal. Some like to deride Vegas, including its culinary options, as phony and Disney-esque. And that's understandable: while many big-name chefs have established outposts in the desert - Thomas Keller, Joel Robuchon, Guy Savoy, Pierre Gagnaire, José Andrés, Masa Takayama, among others - they are satellite operations, with perhaps varying degrees of attention and inspiration.

And yet we've always eaten well in Las Vegas, and not necessarily always on a  high rollers' budget. Indeed, sometimes you have to get off the Strip and back into the real world to find it, but even in the belly of the beast, there is much good eating to be had. Here, then, some briefer snapshots rather than full posts on some other fine meals we had in Las Vegas: Sage, Aburiya Raku, China Poblano, and Lotus of Siam.

On our first night in town we were looking for something easily accessible from our home base at the Cosmopolitan, and Sage, in the Aria resort next door, fit the bill. Like most Vegas venues, it is a second project of an out-of-town chef, in this instance, Chicago's Shawn McClain (Green Zebra, Custom House). On the slow Monday following Christmas weekend, it appeared they had the main dining room closed and were serving only out of the lounge area in front, which was fine by us. With lots of leather settees, dark wood, and soft lighting filtered by pleated lampshades, it was comfortably posh without feeling stuffy. Also nice is that the restaurant is not situated right in the middle of the casino area, and has the feel of a sophisticated, placid refuge from all that hubbub.

(You can see all my pictures in this Sage - Las Vegas flickr set).


It was just as well we were sitting at the bar, because Sage has an excellent cocktail menu featuring both traditional and contemporary concoctions. Their Sazerac, made with Sazerac Rye, Marilyn Manson Absinthe, and Peychaud's Bitters, was as good as any I've had in New Orleans. They carry an extensive absinthe list and are fully equipped for a traditional service, absinthe fountain and all.


Sage's four-course "Signature Tasting Menu," at $79, is a relatively good bargain, even if adding the "Foie Gras Brûlée" for a $10 supplement makes it slightly less so.

foie gras brulee

It's still a good call: this is an excellent, if more than a bit decadent, dish, a rich foie gras mousse topped with crispy burnt sugar crust, a little fruit jam tucked underneath a shower of shaved torchon of foie gras as the final garnish.

Iberico pork loin

The rest of the tasting menu was equally refined, if not quite as exciting. A bacon-wrapped rabbit loin was perfectly cooked, paired with multi-hued roasted baby carrots and herb-flecked, cheese-filled ravioli, but nothing about the dish really jumped out to grab your attention. A pork-on-pork-on-pork composition of Iberico pork loin, pork-stuffed cannelloni, and thin shavings of Creminelli mortadella, served over tender baby eggplant with a dark pan sauce, was every bit as precise with its cooking, with the cannelloni in particular standing out for the lusciously soft but still intensely flavored filling of braised pork shoulder.

This is classy, refined cooking at a very good price point in comparison to many of its neighbors, at least if you go with the tasting menu. Maybe not so much with the regular menu, where appetizer prices hover close to $20 and main courses congregate around $45. If for no other reason, I'd go back just to have a cocktail and another taste of that foie gras brûlée.

3730 Las Vegas Boulevard S, Las Vegas NV (Aria Resort)

Sage (Aria) on Urbanspoon

I've written before about Aburiya Raku and won't do so in great detail again, other than to say that this is easily one of my favorite restaurants in Las Vegas, and if it were in my town I'd be there every week. You can see the photos from our most recent visit in this Aburiya Raku flickr set. A few favorites from this meal:

kanpachi sashimi

Gorgeous kanpachi sashimi off the specials board. The aji was also outstanding.

uni and wakame soup

An unimpressive looking, but deeply satisfying, bowl of uni and wakame soup. A simple combination of dashi, wakame seaweed and a couple pinkish-orange tongues of uni made for a majestic end result. This was umami at its finest: incredible depth of flavor, without any heaviness.

Kobe beef tendon

One of my favorite single bites anywhere: Kobe beef tendon robata. Gelatinous, sticky, crispy on the edges, intensely meaty and rich. Great stuff.

Raku is truly an exceptional restaurant and a highlight of any trip to Las Vegas.

Aburiya Raku
5030 W. Spring Mountain Road, Las Vegas NV

Raku on Urbanspoon

(continued ...)

Monday, January 9, 2012

é by José Andrés - Las Vegas

é by Jose Andres

If Ferran Adrià is thought of by many as the great inventor of contemporary Spanish cuisine, than José Andrés is surely its great ambassador. Where Adrià, chef of the now-closed el Bulli, has dedicated his culinary career to the relentless pursuit of creativity and creation, Andrés (who trained with Adrià at el Bulli) has been equally dedicated to the promotion of both traditional and contemporary Spanish cooking in the U.S., and has perhaps achieved more recognition and success in doing so than any other chef of the past twenty years.

Andrés opened Jaleo, a tapas bar and restaurant offering a wide range of traditional Spanish regional dishes, in Washington DC in 1993. Before the decade had closed, he was recognized as a James Beard Rising Star Chef, followed in 2003 with an award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic. That same year, he opened minibar, which showcased some of the products of the culinary revolution that was overtaking Spain, spearheaded by Adrià and others.

The format of minibar was unique. Described as a "restaurant within a restaurant," physically it was really nothing more than a six-seat sushi bar tucked into a corner of an upper floor of his Café Atlántico restaurant, with a few kitchen tools (circulator, blender, fryer, a couple portable burners) jerry-rigged behind it.[1] The menu of 25+ small dishes, many of which were one- or two-bite "munchies" or "snacks," was undoubtedly inspired by the sprawling tasting menus of el Bulli. So were many of the dishes themselves, some of which had direct antecedents in Adrià's work. But the "minibar" format also brought another intriguing element - interactivity, with two chefs working directly in front of the diners to do the final preparation and plating of the dishes. With only six seats and only two seatings a night, minibar is perennially one of the toughest reservations to score in DC.

Since opening minibar, Andrés has expanded the geographic scope of his ambassadorship, moving into Los Angeles with The Bazaar in 2008, and into Las Vegas in 2010 with a branch of Jaleo along with China Poblano, both in the Cosmopolitan resort. Also tucked away within Jaleo is é: an 8-seat "restaurant within a restaurant" featuring only a set degustation menu, very much along the same lines as minibar. Virtually nothing is done to promote é: there's just a one-page website listing an email address for reservation requests; it's not even listed on the website of the parent company for Andrés' ventures, Think Food Group. But it's definitely worth knowing about.[2]

(You can see all my pictures in this é by José Andrés flickr set).


Unlike minibar, where you're literally sitting in a corner of the main dining area, é gets its own private room within Jaleo. The centerpiece is the kitchen bar, a rounded arc with eight seats circled around an open "kitchen" (though it's really more plating than cooking that goes on here).[3] The effect is decidedly theatrical, and the sense of having stepped into the middle of some sort of performance is enhanced by a space that feels more theater set than dining room, walls lined with card catalog drawers and various knick-knacks. A team of three chefs performs final preparations and plates each of the dishes, which are then handed directly to the diners.[4]

Much of the cooking at é is what got called, until recently, "molecular gastronomy," and now seems to have taken on the sobriquet of "modernist cuisine." In other words, there's liquid nitrogen, and foams, and lots of other textural transformations at work. I'll circle back to the issue of whether, as some might claim, this style of cooking is already passé in light of the advent of what gets called the "New Naturalism."[5] I bring it up here only to note that the interactivity and intimacy has an interesting effect: the ability of the diners to see the preparations, hear the story behind each dish as it's presented, and ask questions of the chefs, creates a connection to the food that might not be otherwise established in the same way. It won't necessarily make a dish taste any better, but I think it demystifies food that some find alienating and inaccessible, without taking away any of the novelty of its presentation.

We visited é in late December and they were serving a special holiday menu loaded with luxury ingredients (and priced quite a bit more than the "regular" menu), so the meal you see here may not be entirely representative. Even so, some of my favorite dishes were those with the humblest components.

gin & tonic

The meal started, as good meals often do, with a cocktail: a "Gin and Tonic," to be precise. With evaporating liquid nitrogen billowing across the workspace, one of the chefs prepared a gin sorbet a la minute, which was then topped with a tonic froth and a grating of fresh citrus zest - a refreshing rearrangement of the traditional drink.


A collection of little snacks followed.

(continued ...)

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Yardbird Southern Table and Bar - Miami Beach


Geography notwithstanding, Miami really isn't part of "The South." Though Florida as a whole is undoubtedly a Southern state, those who live here know that the South really ends somewhere near Palm Beach County's northern border, and Latin America actually begins in Miami, with Broward and Palm Beach constituting something of a demilitarized zone of transplants from the Northeast.

So when word came out that Chef Jeff McInnis, recently departed from the Momofuku-esque Gigi, was going to be cooking regional Southern fare at a new place on South Beach, it was at least something different from the waves upon waves of burger joints and steakhouses. It seemed a far cry from Gigi's Asian-inspired small plates, but McInnis' work before Gigi at the Ritz Carlton South Beach, more Mediterranean than anything else, wouldn't have exactly suggested pork buns either.

Yardbird Southern Table and Bar opened in October 2011 and clearly was on to something; the place was immediately packed, and the crowds haven't stopped coming. Turns out, the chameleon-like McInnis hails from the Florida Panhandle (according to the map I've laid out above, that definitely is the South) and started his cooking career in Charleston, South Carolina, so maybe the food at Yardbird is actually closer to home than initial appearances would suggest.


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

As with Gigi, where McInnis teamed up with experienced restaurateur and club-owner Amir Ben-Zion, Yardbird is a collaboration between the chef and John Kunkel, founder of the rapidly expanding Lime Fresh Mexican Grill chain. They've created a look and feel for the place that is casual and Southern-accented without being entirely hokey: white-washed brick walls and unfinished wood-beamed ceilings, jars of pickled vegetables and blackboard drawings of farm animals as decoration. It's sort of Crate & Barrel meets Cracker Barrel.[1]

The menu likewise plays on traditional tropes of the Southern genre while updating them with some contemporary style. Astute menu deconstructionists will be able to spot several McInnis dishes that got translated from Asian to Southern when he moved restaurants: that short rib meat loaf is a variation on one he did at Gigi; the pepper-spiced watermelon that accompanies the fried chicken used to be a component of a Gigi small plate; there's a fried green tomato BLT that comes from the same family as Gigi's pork belly BLT; the "Sweet Tea-Brined Southern Ribs" bear more than a passing resemblance to what used to be Gigi's "Southern Boy" ribs. Working with flavor profiles that have a more personal connection, the hope is that Yardbird's versions ought to be even better.

(continued ...)

Monday, January 2, 2012

Goes Around ... Comes Around - Gray Lady Edition

It seems somehow a bit petulant to start a new year off on a sour note. And yet ...

While doing a little archive-diving for an in-the-works review, I stumbled across a New York Times review of Gigi, the Midtown den of pork buns and noodles that opened in the summer of 2010. The NYT review begins:

Many restaurants are born when a chef has a concept. Gigi in Miami’s Wynwood district started with a concept in need of a chef. Last year, the restaurant’s owner, Amir Ben-Zion, placed an ad on Craigslist seeking a chef who could turn out "cutting edge, high performance, Asian-inspired and freshly prepared cuisine" that is "affordable, innovative comfort food for the modern, educated, discerning palate."

Which actually sounded kind of familiar. Then I remembered why. Because nearly a half year earlier, I'd written this:

Sakaya (Richard Hales), Chow Down (Joshua Marcus) and American Noodle (Michael Bloise) each started with a chef's own vision, and were very much personal projects. Gigi came about things from the opposite direction: Gigi was a concept in search of a chef to execute it. Amir Ben-Zion, who also runs Bond Street and Miss Yip on South Beach, Sra. Martinez in the Design District, and the Bardot nightclub right down the street from Gigi in Midtown Miami, placed a Craigslist ad looking for a chef about six months before the restaurant's opening. The ad was not lacking for hype: "Its cutting edge, high performance, Asian inspired and freshly prepared cuisine is affordable, innovative comfort food for the modern educated discerning palate."

I guess since Gigi was stealing its concept from New York's Momofuku, a little inter-city turnabout is fair play?