Monday, July 28, 2014

Cobayapalooza at Shikany

Typically, we use our Cobaya dinners as a way of turning a spotlight on a particular chef, to give them free reign to craft a menu that gives voice to their creative impulses or personal culinary obsessions. But collaboration has its rewards too, and we've long hoped to do a dinner that would bring together several local chefs to cook a meal.

That opportunity finally presented itself through the generosity of chef Michael Shikany, who opened the kitchen of his new restaurant in Wynwood – Shikany – to several other chefs for a "Cobayapalooza" dinner on July 16. Shikany and his pastry chef Jill Montinola were joined by Diego Oka of La Mar Miami, David Sears of SushiSamba Coral Gables, Mathias Gervias of the Setai, Danny Grant of 1826 Restaurant and Lounge, and Timon Balloo of Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill and Bocce Bar, who collectively put together a nine-course menu loosely organized around the great La Boîte spice blends made by Lior Lev Sercarz (each dish used a different La Boîte custom blend).

The restaurant was an ideal setting for the event, with room for nearly fifty guinea pigs in the stylish dining room, as well as for all the chefs and their crews in a bright, wide open kitchen. It was a great opportunity to highlight both an ambitious new restaurant, and a number of other talented young chefs working in Miami – several of them fairly new faces.

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

Course 1 (Galil N. 13) Fresh Diver Scallop Crudo
Michael Shikany

Shikany started things off with a diver scallop crudo, thin ribbons of the shellfish topped with diced strawberries, pickled watermelon rind, and white truffle oil, and plated with a swoop of black garlic aioli, a powdered creme fraiche sorbet, dots of hibiscus gel and still more items I've lost track of. A lot of flavors, a lot of techniques; but also a really good, fresh, plump, sweet scallop as the centerpiece of it all.

Course 2 (Coquelicot N. 24) Oysters & Salmon
David Sears

Next up, David Sears of SushiSamba, who served a round of tender salmon topped with a crust of poppy seeds and spices (almost an "everything bagel" kind of thing going on here), accompanied by a tangled salad of sorts of oysters, pickled onions and sweet cherry tomatoes, accompanied by generous dollops of jet black sturgeon caviar and cool creme fraiche.

Course 3 (Luberon N. 4) Wild Quahog
Michael Shikany

Back to Shikany for the next course, a sort of cross between sashimi and ceviche featuring – among other things – a fat quahog clam, ribbons of madai (Japanese sea bream), assorted seaweeds, cubes of tofu and purple Okinawa potato, dabs of puréed sweet potato, tiny caviar of "Coke syrup," an herbaceous green emulsion, and a little squirt bottle of a spicy soy sauce to apply in DIY fashion. I think the perfumey, lavender-forward Luberon spice blend was making its appearance in the dabs of translucent fluid gel interspersed around the fish.

Course 4 (Vadouvan N. 28) Yellowtail Snapper
Diego Oka

Diego Oka's yellowtail dish was, for me, one of the most intriguing of the night. While ceviche tends to get all the attention these days, there's an incredible diversity to Peruvian cooking, which his dish highlighted. The fish was served over a curry-spiced, chocolate-dusted potato stew, which had a fascinating, nubby texture and great depth of flavor.A translucent quinoa crisp, peanut butter powder and a sauce of huacatay (Peruvian black mint, with a zing sort of between typical mint and basil) completed the dish.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Big Things at Little River CSA

For the past few years I've subscribed to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) vegetable share through Little River Market Garden, and periodically (OK, sporadically) posted about it here. Muriel Olivares operates a flourishing, but small, "urban farm" from a couple lots in residential neighborhoods in North Miami which produce several dozen varieties of vegetables and fruits. Though it's self-evident from the primary subject matter of this blog that I enjoy dining out, I always get excited when our Fall-Spring South Florida growing season kicks in, and the weekly pickup from farmer Muriel inspires a bit more home cooking.

For this upcoming season there are several new developments of note. First off, there's a new name: Little River Cooperative, as Muriel has partnered with former intern Tiffany Noe to run the farm, CSA and nursery. It's even got a sharp looking new website. The partnership will enable them to add more growing space, which is also going to mean more CSA shares will be available.

Speaking of which, there will now be an option to choose a large share or small share ($640/$500 for 20 weeks of vegetables), and in addition to the regular Saturday pick up location at the Upper East Side Farmers Market at Legion Park (Biscayne & 64th Street), there will also be a new Thursday afternoon pick up location further south at the Grove Green Market in Coconut Grove.

I've talked before about the kinds of things that elevate a food community. There may be none more important than farmers like Muriel and Tiffany who supply fresh local stuff, produced in a natural, sustainable fashion. Though the season doesn't start for a few more months, now is the time to sign up. To do so, or for some more information, go to the Little River Cooperative website.

Monday, July 14, 2014

first thoughts: L'Echon Brasserie - Miami Beach

First it was an Asian gastropub. Then, Spanish tapas. Sushi. Italian. A steakhouse. I would joke that when the Pubbelly Boys opened a burger joint, they'd be able to declare Miami restaurant "BINGO!"[1]

Instead, they went a different route – their latest project is L'Echon Brasserie, located in the Hilton Cabana hotel, up in the northern reaches of Miami Beach (i.e., 62nd Street). This makes me happy for at least a couple reasons: (1) Miami lacks good casual French restaurants; and (2) North Beach is closer to home for me than the rest of their South Beach outposts.

(You can see all my pictures in this L'Echon Brasserie flickr set).

The hotel, well, looks like a Hilton. And the dining room too is maybe a bit more corporate than other Pubbelly venues, but it still keeps some of the same spirit, and has the added virtue of an outdoor bar backing up to the ocean. The food, meanwhile, is very much in the typical Pubbelly style: it takes the classic French bistro menu as a jumping-off point for some contemporary, usually indulgent, and often pork-centric, variations.

For instance: chicken liver mousse, paired with fried chicken livers? Sometimes I think the Pubbelly style is a bit too heavy-handed, and then I try something like this. Or, pictured at top, the "Pan con L'Echon," a nice little slider of juicy cochinillo topped with pickled shallots and mojo aioli on a brioche bun, and the Croque Monsieur made with salty country ham, melty Gruyere cheese and an oozy bechamel.

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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

first thoughts: Niu Kitchen - Downtown Miami

About a month ago I stumbled across a short blurb on Eater for a "new Catalan-inspired eatery" that had opened in downtown Miami: Niu Kitchen. "A little intriguing," I said. Then several good reports came back from folks who had visited. A couple weekends ago, I finally made made it in to see for myself.

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

Niu Kitchen turns out to be a shoebox-sized restaurant squeezed into a small space in a central but nondescript stretch of downtown Miami, a block south of the Miami-Dade College campus. Seating maybe twenty five, it was clearly decorated on a tight budget but succeeds in feeling both homey and contemporary, with its reclaimed wood paneled walls and exposed bulbs hanging from the ceiling.

It also turns out to not just be "Catalan-inspired," but the actual real deal. Chef Deme Lomas was a chef in Barcelona (I believe this is the place) before making his way to Miami, where he first found work as a line cook at Barceloneta, then joined Niu Kitchen. His menu mixes traditional Catalan dishes like trinxat ($10), a potato and cabbage pancake bearing an uncanny similarity to the classic English "bubble and squeak," topped here with butifarra sausage and pancetta, with more extemporaneous items like his gamba tartare ($13), a mince of translucent, sweet shrimp over diced tomatoes and confited potatoes, presented with the shrimp's head so you can squeeze its juices onto the dish.

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Saturday, July 5, 2014

first thoughts: N by Naoe - Brickell Key, Miami

When Kevin Cory moved his omakase temple, Naoe, from Sunny Isles to Brickell Key two years ago, he also leased an adjoining space which he said was eventually going to be used for lunch service. That day has finally come. And this is a lunch like no other you'll find in Miami.

Let's open the box on N by Naoe. (You can see all my pictures in this N by Naoe flickr set; you can also read my thoughts on Naoe here).

A few minutes after you're seated, a three-tiered bento box is brought to your table. It's unpacked to reveal six compartments, each stocked with several different items – similar in style and quality to the elaborate bento that starts a meal at Naoe.

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first thoughts

Let's be honest: the pace of reviews of Miami restaurants here at food for thought has not exactly been breakneck lately. There are plenty of reasons for that.

The past year particularly, I've written much more often about meals outside of Miami, or special event dinners here in town, than the straightforward Miami restaurant "reviews" that started off being the focus of this blog. This has always been a passion project, and so I tend to write about what makes me passionate. I think many of our local chefs do some of their best work outside the constraints of a regular restaurant menu, so I write about our Cobaya dinners to turn a spotlight on what they are capable of doing. Earlier this year I had the incredibly good fortune to visit Japan for the first time, where I had several outstanding, perspective-altering meals. Four months later, and I've still only written about roughly half of them. The "to-write" list from recent excursions to New York and Los Angeles (and Seattle and Vancouver last summer!) is even longer.

That's not to stay I've lost interest in Miami – not even remotely. But much of my writing on local restaurants of late has either gone into Edible South Florida magazine (you can read all those pieces here), or straight to twitter, with no stops in between. And when I do get around to writing a "review" of a Miami restaurant here, my approach is usually pretty deliberate. (The words "slow" or "lazy" may also come to mind). Call it what you will, it usually takes me a while to figure out what I really want to say about a place – and sometimes, yes, to find places that are worth saying something about. (Though my Miami "to-write" list is already even longer than the out-of-town list, to say nothing of the "to-visit" list.) Still, whether it's intention or inertia, I'm not convinced that restaurants necessarily reveal their true selves in their first few months. Many get better – and plenty get worse. So I usually play the long game.

But the flipside is that plenty of places deserve attention in their first few months, and many of them may need it in order to get over the hump of opening. So I'm experimenting with doing something here I'll call "first thoughts." It's not going to be a full-blown review. It's also, hopefully, anyway, not going to be the typically breathless puff pieces you see on so many other sites (often the by-product of freebie media previews). I know this is hardly a new thing, but it's new for me. We'll see how this works, but right now, expect mostly a "just the facts, ma'am" approach and a good number of pictures. Let's see how this goes, first with N by Naoe.