Monday, January 28, 2013

Hey Man Nice Shot - Part 3

So all of a sudden restaurant photography - or the prohibition thereof - is a hot topic. At least the New York Times would have us believe that, according to a piece published last week: "Restaurants Turn Camera Shy." The article describes a "growing backlash" against in-restaurant food photography, citing bans imposed at places such as Momofuku Ko and Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare.

If this doesn't quite sound like breaking news to you - that's because it isn't. In fact, David Chang's ban on pictures at Ko already made the news cycle at least once before - nearly five years ago. Brooklyn Fare's no-photo policy (and no notes, and no cell-phones!) likewise has been around for at least a couple years.

People taking pictures in restaurants isn't anything new. Chefs and other diners being annoyed by people taking pictures in restaurants also isn't anything new. And while I can empathize with the sentiment, there are any number of other restaurant behaviors I find equally if not more annoying: loud cell-phone talking, sloppy drunkenness, heavy petting, lousy tipping.

So if you're going to do it, you ought to at least do it in a way that's least intrusive and offensive to your fellow diners, and also try to get the best shot possible, right? The NYT piece prompted a few good guidelines on that front: "How to Take a Picture in a Restaurant Without Looking Like a Jerk;" "Everyone: Taking Food Pictures in Restaurants is Not that Complicated;" and "Restaurant Food Photography: Is It Possible to Do It Well?" hit on most of the high points. To summarize: no flash; no tripods; no weird filters; no pictures of other people in the dining room; take your shots quickly; learn how to use your camera; don't clutter the table with equipment; and "Above all else, try not to be a dick."

I mentioned a couple weeks ago that I'd been given the opportunity to try out a Sony NEX-5R camera as part of a Sony / Flavorpill campaign. I've been using it a couple weeks now, and am finding it to be a great tool to fulfill most of these commandments. Its body is actually about a centimeter shorter than an iPhone and not much wider, other than the grip on the right-hand side. Though it won't fit in your pocket with the lens attached, it is still significantly less of a space-hog than a DSLR. But it still has virtually all of the capabilities of a DSLR: full manual control, very solid picture quality, good low-light performance, the flexibility of interchangeable lenses. You'll be able to see the results soon at the Sony Store - details to follow shortly.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Momi Ramen - Miami

This idea of doing one thing, and doing it extremely well, is not often seen in Miami, at least not in the restaurant world. Miami is the land of the "Pan-Asian" eatery, full of places serving up Korean-Thai-Japanese-Vietnamese amalgams aimed to please all palates. It's the home of the Thai/Sushi joint, a merger inexplicable from a culinary basis, but mind-bogglingly ubiquitous around these parts. So many Miami restaurants try to be everything to everyone, and wind up doing precisely nothing very well.

You can't get sushi at Momi Ramen. Nor will you find tempura or teriyaki, pork buns or pad thai. Chef and owner Jeffrey Chen just wants to make ramen. And that's pretty much all that's on the menu at his restaurant, with about 25 seats and a glassed-in kitchen all tucked into an old house in the Brickell area off Miami Avenue.[1]

Though the ramen "trend" could be close to celebrating its tenth birthday in New York, it had been slow to make its way south to Miami. There have always been a few places where you could get a bowl of the hearty noodle soup - Hiro's Yakko-San offers a few different types, as does Su Shin Izakaya. And more recently, a few of the "next generation" Asian places have tried their hand at it - Gigi and Pubbelly both have their versions, Makoto actually does a very nice Taiwan style ramen with ground beef and a chile-infused broth, more recently Bloom and Shokudo trotted out their own takes. But none of these places claims to be a ramen specialist.[2]

Momi is something different entirely. Chen makes his own noodles several times daily. He makes a rich tonkotsu broth that takes most of a day and night to prepare. And each day he serves about a half-dozen variations on the theme of noodles and broth, assembled from a very short list of carefully chosen ingredients.[3]

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

If you want variety, even among ramen styles, this is not the place to go. Indeed, rather than expanding the menu since Momi opened about a month ago, it's been pared back. Though the choices change a bit every time I've been in, that hearty tonkotsu broth, a slow-simmered pork bone stock that gets a creamy, lip-sticking, almost gravy-like consistency from the marrow in the bones and the conversion of collagen to gelatin, is at the heart of almost all the bowls offered at Momi.

If you ask me? That's just fine. Because there is a level of craftsmanship and attention to detail at Momi that has few peers in Miami - at any type of restaurant.

(continued ...)

Friday, January 18, 2013

Publican Pizzeria Pop-Up

If you were following Paul Kahan's career trajectory from a distance, you might think it was in a downward spiral: fifteen years ago he opened Blackbird, one of the top high-end restaurants in Chicago. Since then, he's opened a more casual small-plates tapas place, then a beer hall, then a taqueria, and most recently, a butcher shop. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. While his projects have been increasingly casual, they are all incredibly successful, and you will eat very well at any of them. As Michael Schwartz, the host for Chef Kahan's pop-up dinner at Harry's Pizzeria Tuesday night, said, if you went to Chicago and only ate at Kahan's restaurants, you would get an excellent cross-section of Chicago's culinary universe.

For the past year, Schwartz has been bringing some of the country's best chefs to Miami's doorstep to cook for an evening at Harry's. On our last visit to Chicago, Kahan's Blackbird and The Publican were two of our favorite meals, so when I saw his name on the upcoming schedule, I made sure to secure a spot.

Though the cooking at these Harry's "pop-ups" is always reflective of the visiting chef, the format of the dinners tends to follow the same pattern: an assortment of passed appetizers to start, including some variation on a pizza; and three or four courses all served family-style, usually taking advantage of Harry's wood-burning oven. Kahan's menu followed suit:

(You can see all my pictures in this Publican Pizzeria flickr set; pictures were taken with my new Sony NEX-5R, courtesy of Sony).

Things got off to a good start with a "fettunta" (the Tuscan version of what gets called "bruschetta" in the U.S.) topped with a creamy chicken liver mousse, tangy satsuma, and spicy, sweet and sour onions "agridulce," all providing great contrast to the rich liver shmear.

Chef Kahan went local style with a crudo of cobia, topped with kohlrabi and mint salsa verde. The mint nicely highlighted the freshness of the fish.

While the bacon-wrapped, chorizo-stuffed dates may be the "signature dish" at Avec, an argument could be made for the "deluxe focaccia," topped with taleggio and ricotta cheese, and just a whisper of truffle oil.

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Sunday, January 13, 2013

Hey Man Nice Shot - Part 2

Nearly four years ago when I started this blog, I thought about - and wrote about - my ambivalent feelings towards food photography. At that point, I was decidedly outside the camp of the "douchebags taking pictures of their food." Not that I had any problem with other people doing it, if done discreetly - indeed, I've always thoroughly enjoyed viewing the work product of talented photographers like A Life Worth Eating and Ulterior Epicure and Chuck Eats and Doc Sconz. I just knew I wasn't in that group and wasn't sure, even if I had such skills, that I wanted to be.

Four years later, I still feel like a complete hack of a photographer, but I'm a less reluctant one. I still don't particularly love taking pictures during a meal, but I'm grateful for having done so after the fact, to have something tangible by which to memorialize and in some ways relive the experience. There is truth to the saying that "We eat first with our eyes."

But for every gorgeous picture that captures the beauty and savor of a great dish, there are a dozen blurry, overexposed, flash-saturated, Instagram-filtered abominations that are the opposite of appetizing. I don't want to be one of those. So, if for no other reason than to honor the work of the chefs whose dishes I photograph, I have tried to improve my skills. I've learned what some of the different controls on my camera do. I bought a decent point-and-shoot with a larger sensor and a brighter lens that can shoot better in low-light situations. I even started to figure out how to use a real DSLR, when Frod Jr. got one for his birthday and generously loaned it out to me from time to time.

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Monday, January 7, 2013

The Tyranny of Choice

Poor Corby Kummer. As the food writer for a national magazine, he is stuck with the dreadful fate of being forced to endure meals (presumably on the publisher's dime) that most people will never have the chance to experience, meals which even many who can afford them can not obtain access to. Sometimes they go on for so long! And they serve so many courses! And the waiters - sometimes they don't perfectly cater to his every whim, or they're distant, or kind of awkward! But the worst thing of all is that these chefs - the ones who most people recognize to be at the very pinnacle of their craft - they just don't listen! They don't care if he wants his steak medium-well, or if he wants his sauce on the side, or if he'd rather have the tuna instead of the halibut in that next course. Those ... those tyrants!

That is the underlying theme of his latest piece in Vanity Fair: "Tyranny - It's What's for Dinner."

Is it the #firstworldproblems nature of the gripe that rankles me so? Possibly. After all, I understand that not everybody loves tasting menus. Indeed, it's a point of contention even within my own household.[1] But it somehow sounds so much more entitled and precious coming from someone whose job is to write about food. Even more so than that, it's the willful blindness that stuck in my throat after reading it. Kummer fails to consider any reason for these "totalitarian" tasting menus other than chef ego, and is equally dismissive of any possible pleasure for the diner, only seeing "subjugation to the will of the creative genius ... followed, eventually, by stultified stupefaction."

But is Mr. Kummer on to something? Is there really a nefarious and growing trend of tyrannical chefs forcing terrified diners to submit to unwanted, 40-course dinners, like some sort of human gavage? Let's examine the evidence.

(continued ...)

Friday, January 4, 2013

Best Dishes of 2012 (Part 3)

We're coming in for a landing here: Part 1 and Part 2 of my Best Dishes of 2012 were posted earlier this week. This post wraps up the rest of the year, including a trek to Charleston that just squeezed in under the wire, and made for some of the best meals I've had all year.

These retrospectives are always something of a learning experience for me, an opportunity to reflect on what I really enjoyed and why. But I'll save my deeper thoughts on a year in food for another post, and stick with the food porn here. Again, these are listed chronologically, with links to the restaurants and my posts on each of them, as well as excerpts from my comments on the dish.

(You can see all the pictures at once in this Best Dishes of 2012 flickr set)

Bagel with Lox and Whitefish Salad - Josh's Deli (Surfside) (my thoughts on Josh's Deli)

His cured salmon, sliced to order, is beautifully silky, achieving that uneasy feat of tasting like fish without being fishy. We brought home some of each variety to break the fast on Yom Kippur, and while family members all had strong opinions on which they preferred and there was no consensus, everyone had a favorite (for me it’s definitely the pastrami-cured salmon). His whitefish salad, which I initially quibbled with as too chunky, has grown on me, with just enough chopped onion, celery and hard-boiled egg to provide some contrast to the flaky smoked fish without overwhelming it.

Roasted Cauliflower Gelato - Brad Kilgore Dinner at Azul (Miami) (my thoughts on Brad's dinner)

The primary notes of the first dish - cauliflower and caviar - were a riff on the French Laundry's cauliflower panna cotta with beluga caviar. Kilgore's version started with a puddle of a cold, creamy cauliflower and white chocolate "vichysoisse" Next to that was a generous mound of really fine royal osetra caviar, topped with a quenelle of a darkly caramelized roasted cauliflower gelato, mounted with a few crisped florets to reinforce the notion. This was rich upon rich, but it still found its balance. I loved it.

Anatomy of a Suckling Pig - Brad Kilgore Dinner at Azul (Miami) (my thoughts on Brad's dinner)

There were rounds of sticky, intensely porcine tete de cochon, studded with pistachios and topped with crispy pig ear chicharrones. There was a gorgeous, juicy crown roast rubbed with butter and herbs. There were macarons with delicate pistachio cookies sandwiching a whipped bacon filling. There was the pig's liver, soaked in milk before being poached sous vide, tender and surprisingly mild. There was a fine boudin blanc style sausage, finely ground with apples and nuts and stuffed into the intestine. There was a Mediterranean style roulade of one leg, basted in goat feta and layered napoleon-style between lavash. There were rillettes of the other leg, supplemented with wagyu beef fat and rolled in sheets of daikon radish. There were trotters, all wobbly with gelatin and fat, and stuffed with mushroom duxelles. There were at least three different pork jus based sauces in copper sauciers - butterscotch, truffled, foie gras infused.

It was a truly astonishing display, worthy of "La Grande Bouffe." And not just a visual feast by any means: though the macarons and the tete de cochon were really exceptional standouts, each of the components was delicious.

(continued ...)

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Best Dishes of 2012 (Part 2)

Yesterday I kicked off a rundown of my Best Dishes of 2012 (Part 1), a list of 45 of my favorite things to have eaten this past year. We'll pick up where we left off, with dishes listed chronologically, along with a link to the restaurant and my posts on each of them, as well as excerpts from my earlier comments on the dish.

(You can see all the pictures at once in this Best Dishes of 2012 flickr set)

Rabbit Bulgogi - neMesis Urban Bistro (Downtown Miami) (my thoughts on neMesis Cobaya "Dunch")

If there was a standout dish of the meal, it was this: a crispy jasmine rice cake, topped with shredded rabbit "bulgogi," a poached Lake Meadows Naturals Farm duck egg, and frizzled crispy chives, sauced with an orange and five-spice hollandaise. It was an inspired - and delicious - take on the classic eggs benedict, triggered in large part by the surprise availability of rabbits from a farm in upstate Florida. Everything about this worked, and I heard from multiple guests that it ought to become a regular menu feature.

Corn Ravioli - Bourbon Steak (Aventura) (my thoughts on Bourbon Steak)

(This was an appetizer from Bourbon Steak's Miami Spice menu, which was simply one of the most ridiculous dining values you could find in Miami next to the Joe's Stone Crab $5.95 fried chicken. Tender pasta dough was wrapped around a creamy corn purée, topped with plump chanterelle mushrooms, corn powder and butter powder, all drizzled with a browned butter. So many places skimp on their Spice menus; Bourbon's actually gives me a reason to look forward to next summer.)

Papas a la Huancaina - The Bazaar (South Beach) (my thoughts on Bazaar)

Traditionally, this is a simple salad of cold potatoes draped in a creamy, cheesy sauce spiked with aji amarillo peppers. Bazaar's take makes the sauce - here done all foamy and light - the primary component, studs it with vibrantly hued purple Peruvian potatoes, and then adds a unique touch: several fat tongues of sea urchin. This once again violates my personal uni rule, but shows why rules are made to be broken. The rich, creamy uni makes a fantastic pair with the delicately spicy huancaina sauce, complemented by the earthy potatoes for a little substance. This was a great dish.

Black Rossejat - The Bazaar (South Beach) (my thoughts on Bazaar)

But perhaps the single best thing I've eaten at Bazaar is the "Black Rossejat" ($16). Rossejat, a/k/a fideua a/k/a fideos, is a pasta dish prepared in the manner of a paella. The thin, angel-hair like noodles are first toasted in warm olive oil, then simmered in flavorful stock. Bazaar also infuses them with dark, faintly marine-flavored squid ink, and then tops the noodles - tender, but with a hint of crispness at the bottom of the pan - with tender shrimp and dollops of rich aioli. It is an outstanding dish and, relatively speaking anyway, a fantastic value on this menu.

(continued ...)

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Best Dishes of 2012 (Part 1)

I had a couple of my best meals of 2011 during the last week of the year. Unfortunately, I'd posted my "Best Dishes of 2011" recap a week earlier, so none of them made the list. This year I also saved some of the best for last - but I've learned my lesson, and waited for the calendar to roll over before closing the bidding for 2012. And since they got left out last year, the last week of 2011 will be included this time instead.

My "Best Bites of 2010" list included fourteen dishes (even though I called it a Top 10 list). By the next year, the list had expanded to twenty. When I looked back on 2012, I came up with nearly fifty dishes that could be on the list. With a travel itinerary for the past year that included San Francisco, Hawaii, Las Vegas and Charleston,[1] plus many Miami chefs and restaurants stepping up their games, I'm not surprised the list was so long.

Since I've got no editor here, my own use of the red pencil has been minimal: I've "pared" the list for 2012 down to 45, which I'll present here in three posts. These are not ranked, but instead are listed chronologically. I've included links to the restaurants as well as links to my posts on them, together with excerpts of my earlier comments on each.

(You can see all the pictures at once in this Best Dishes of 2012 flickr set)

Here's Part 1:

Chicken Oysters - é by José Andrés (Las Vegas) (my thoughts on é)

One of the joys of cooking a chicken is getting to pick at the best parts. The trilogy of "chef's treats" for me is the liver, the extra skin, and the chicken oysters tucked away along the backbone. This dish got two of the three: a sheet of crispy, well-seasoned chicken skin, with chicken oysters cooked in escabache, topped with a thyme "air." Just a magnificently delicious bite, one of my favorites of the meal.

Chickpea Stewé by José Andrés (Las Vegas) (my thoughts on é)

[A] Chickpea Stew ... was another of my favorites of the night, and again, a dish that relied on no fancy ingredients. The tender "chickpeas" (actually puréed and spherified) floated on a silky, rich jamón ibérico broth (OK, maybe a little fancy), dotted with chorizo oil, parsley oil and olive oil. It was, at heart, a variation on the centuries-old "olla podrida" or "rotten pot," referenced as far back as Don Quixote. It was also a soulfully delicious dish, with a depth and resonance of flavor that belied the delicate presentation.

Kobe Beef Tendon RobataAburiya Raku (Las Vegas) (my thoughts on Raku)

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

MGF&D Bacon Pizza - Harry's Pizzeria (Miami Design District) (my thoughts on Harry's)

Purists who insist that pizza is simply about the perfect balance of dough, cheese and tomato will scoff, but the pizzas at Harry's are mostly about the toppings. That's not necessarily a bad thing, certainly not when you're talking about the MGF&D Bacon Pizza, topped with Michael's house-cured bacon, sliced fingerling potatoes, caramelized onions, gruyere cheese and fresh arugula. It's a perfectly balanced combination in its own way.

Heirloom Tomatoes - Eating House (Coral Gables) (my thoughts on Eating House)

The influences are as much Slow Food as Ideas in Food - lots of local ingredients, lots of creative preparations. A perfect example: local Homestead tomatoes. But instead of a typical salad, Rapicavaoli takes them to Thailand, with lime, ginger, fish sauce, peanuts, fresh herbs, nasturtium flowers, and frozen coconut milk. It's a perfect rendition of the flavors of Thailand in an unexpected format, the frozen coconut milk in particular lending an intriguing icy creaminess to the composition.

(continued ...)