Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Best Dishes of 2014 - Part 3

We're in the home stretch. Here is Part 3 of my favorite dishes of the past year. This last set includes several more welcome additions to the Miami dining universe: N by Naoe, Oolite, L'Echon Brasserie, Mignonette, Proof, Seagrape, plus dishes from chefs Diego Oka, Danny Grant and Brad Kilgore. There's also a few items from visits to the Northeast (Toronto, Boston, Maine and Quebec) and a couple great meals in Chicago a couple months ago. In case you missed it: Part 1 and Part 2. You can also see all the pictures in this Best Dishes of 2014 flickr set.

Bento Box – N by Naoe (Brickell Key, Miami) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from N by Naoe)

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.

So what's inside? This day: a battera roll of madai (sea bream) and pickled kombu with fried canistel (a/k/a eggfruit); tender braised pork jowl with mustard and miso, with boniato, white asparagus and local green beans; house-made jackfruit seed tofu topped with Hokkaido uni, with junsai (a/k/a water shield, a sort of slippery aquatic plant); a bit of Maine lobster with avocado and pea shoots; grilled black-bellied rosefish (a local deepwater fish in the scorpionfish family) with key lime; the same fish in a different preparation, simmered, with roasted eggplant and okra; sashimi of snowy grouper with komochi kombu (herring roe that have been laid on seaweed) and delightfully sticky aori ika (big fin squid) pressed with nori. Also, in typical Japanese fashion, a rice bowl (studded with bamboo shoots), pickles (eggplant and kombu), and soup (corn miso with slivers of daikon radish and leek).

Snapper Crudo – Oolite (Miami Beach) (see all my pictures from Oolite)

I was crushed when Kris Wessel closed his beloved Red Light a few years ago. He wrote a beautiful menu for Florida Cookery in the James Hotel, but didn't stay long in the kitchen. Then this summer he resurfaced at Oolite, a new spot off Lincoln Road with a pronounced focus on healthy eating. There are still some old Red Light classics – Wessel's fantastic New Orleans style BBQ shrimp, and his smoked, guanabana glazed ribs – and some great new things too.

One of my favorites in the latter category is Oolite's snapper crudo:  lean, sweet pinkish-white slivers of local fish, bathed in ginger-infused citrus juices, and garnished with floral, sweet lychees or rambutans and chewy green pumpkin seeds.

Raie a la Grenoblaise, Cervelles de Veau MeuniereL'Echon Brasserie (Miami Beach) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from L'Echon)

You can go old-school [at L'Echon]: there are seafood platters, pâté de campagne, steak tartare, moules and frites. Or you can find things more unconventional: hamachi crudo with black garlic soy, crushed tomatoes and olives, pan-roasted veal brains with brown butter and blue crab tartar sauce, a tartine topped with foie gras and nutella. There's also plenty in between, like this skate wing a la grenobloise, prepared with brown butter, capers, slivered grapes, and dried cranberries over a celeriac puree.

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Monday, December 29, 2014

Best Dishes of 2014 - Part 2

Picking up where we left off in our Best Dishes of 2014 – Part 1, here are the next twenty. The end of Part 1 coincided with the last days of our two week, twentieth anniversary trip to Japan. Part 2 here starts in Los Angeles, where I took Frod Jr. during his spring break for a quick college tour. I've never spent much time in LA and never particularly wanted to – I've always envisioned it as embodying some of Miami's worst features, on steroids. But I'll say this: there's some good eating there.

This set also includes a few great new additions to the Miami  restaurant landscape – BlackBrick, Zak the Baker and Niu Kitchen – and some outstanding one-off dishes from the increasingly deep pool of local talent, including Jeremiah Bullfrog, Timon Balloo, Brad Kilgore, Conor Hanlon and Giorgio Rapicavoli.

Jeremiah and I happened to be in NYC at the same time in June, and lucked into a last-minute seating at Atera – which was one of the best meals I had all year.

(You can see all the dishes in my Best Dishes of 2014 flickr set).

Chicken Gizzards with Beets and Endive, Agnolotti Alla VaccinaraBestia (Los Angeles) (see all my pictures from Bestia)

There are some combinations that sound so absurd that they have to either be fantastic or complete train wrecks. Needless to say, when I see them on a menu I'm drawn to them. The pan-roasted chicken gizzards with roasted beets, Belgian endive and capra sarda cheese at Bestia is a perfect example. There's nothing about this that makes sense, and yet it works beautifully, a compelling combination of assertive, often bitter flavors and substantial textures that I thorougly enjoyed.

The agnolotti at Bestia was not quite as far out there, but still was another bold – and delicious – dish: glossy pillows of pasta filled with silky braised oxtail, dyed the color of dark chocolate with cacao mixed into the pasta, and napped with a lush butter sauce speckled with pine nuts and currants.

Country Ham, Hushpuppies and Honey ButterSon of a Gun (Los Angeles) (see all my pictures from Son of a Gun)

Son of a Gun is the seafood-focused second restaurant of Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, who opened their first restaurant, Animal, to much acclaim in 2008 (South Florida connection: they went to culinary school in Fort Lauderdale and worked for Michelle Bernstein at the Strand before heading out to LA). We ate a lot of good things at lunch there – hamachi crudo with tart apples and crunchy sprouts topped with a kalbi vinaigrette, their brilliant little lobster roll – but  the surprise hit was a platter of salty-sweet Broadbent country ham served with a pile of hot, crispy hushpuppies and a swath of creamy honey butter. Wrap a slice of ham around a hushpuppy; swipe through the honey butter; and smile.

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Friday, December 26, 2014

Best Dishes of 2014 - Part 1

Sixty dishes? Really?

Well, it's been a really good year. 2014 started with a snowed-in fairy tale of a weekend in New York City. In February, Mrs. F and I celebrated our twentieth anniversary with a two-week trip to Japan that was every bit as thrilling as I had hoped, and then some. The next month, college visits for Frod Jr. over spring break provided a good excuse to visit Los Angeles for the first time in ages. Then the summer included a quick return to New York as well as visits to Toronto, Boston, Maine and Quebec. A brief Chicago jaunt in October served up a couple of my best meals of the year.

In between all of that, my hometown Miami has had a great year too. Several new restaurants have quickly become favorites, a new generation of young talent is starting to emerge, and established chefs have added to their repertoires. This may have been as good a year for Miami's food scene as there has been in the five years since I started writing this blog.

These dishes are presented in the order I ate them (this first batch is pretty Japan-intensive); you can see a full set of pictures in my Best Dishes of 2014 flickr set.

Whole-Roasted Chicken for TwoThe NoMad (New York) (see all my pictures from NoMad)

We arrived in New York just after New Years Day as a massive snowstorm was overtaking the city. Safely ensconced in the NoMad Hotel, we scurried around the corner for oysters and a carta di musica at the John Dory before settling in for drinks at the NoMad bar and then dinner at Daniel Humm's restaurant. The NoMad chicken is famous, and justifiably so: it is among the best birds I've ever eaten. The gorgeously burnished skin holds a layer of foie gras, brioche and truffle stuffing which perfumes the tender breast meat. The legs are made into a rich ragout with morels, a soft egg, and a tangy hollandaise. We awoke the next morning to an eery silence: not a single car on Broadway, all the streets still blanketed with snow. I can't imagine a better way to start the new year.

Ikura15 East (New York) (see my pictures from 15 East)

As a sort of warm-up for our upcoming Japan trip, we spent one of our nights in New York at 15 East for an omakase sushi fest with Chef Masato Shimitzu. It may not get the same attention as the astronomically priced Masa or fashionable upstarts like Sushi Nakazawa, but it was one of the best sushi experiences we've had outside of Japan. All the fish was excellent, but the standout was the ikura, glistening like jewels, enhanced but not overwhelmed by a dashi, soy and mirin cure.

Egg Salad and Mojama on Matzo; Mussels EscabecheEstela (New York) (see all my pictures from Estela)

For the past year, everyone in New York has been going nuts over Estela. From the outside, it was hard to tell exactly why. The dishes drawing raves sounded, and often looked, so plain. But having paid a visit, I now understand that Chef Ignacio Mattos likes to deliberately conceal the restaurant's charms. Descriptions are minimalist; his plating style is often almost aggressively unphotogenic (to say nothing of the dim, candlelit dining room). And yet his food is unique and delicious, in a trend-less way that is a welcome respite from the cookie-cutter approach you see in many restaurants around the country these days. We especially liked his rich, creamy egg salad served over crisp matzo garnished with a generous shaving of dried, salt-cured tuna; and the mussels escabeche served with a garden of herbs and vegetables over olive-oil drenched toast.

Pastrami TartareJosh's Deli (Surfside) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from dinner at Josh's)

I unabashedly love what Joshua Marcus is doing at Josh's Deli. He cures his own corned beef, smokes his own salmon, bakes his own bagels; but despite the anachronistic focus on all house-made everything, this is not just a nostalgia trip. Classics share space with esoterica like "Jewban" sandwiches and zucchini latkes topped with tzatziki and salmon roe. On and off this past year he's rolled out a dinner menu that was very much in the same spirit. The best thing I had was this pastrami tartare, topped with a raw quail egg, bound with an oyster caesar dressing, and presented with a crisp bagel chip for scooping.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

How Does My Garden Grow?

The primary focus here at FFT has always been restaurant dining – but sporadically I've indulged in missives inspired by my CSA subscription with Little River Cooperative, and even the occasional backyard planter box tomato. This October, we plunged in a bit deeper. As part of a landscaping project at the house, we installed a raised vegetable bed in the backyard, and also filled in a defunct little kidney-shaped "pond" with soil and planted it with greens and herbs.[1]

I make no claim to having a green thumb; indeed, if I don't kill a plant within a month I feel like I've accomplished something. But despite my very limited experience, this little garden has been a source of a disproportionate amount of joy the past few months.

We started at the beginning of October with this:

Today, it looks like this:

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

I've been giving something of a weekly play-by-play on Twitter and Instagram, but if you've not been following along there, here's a rough recap of the past few months for Farmer Frod.

The raised bed started with a couple tomato plants, some herbs (mint, basil, sage, lavender, oregano), a couple broccoli plants, and was seeded with radishes and carrots. A couple weeks later I supplemented these with a few more tomatoes (Sungold, Black Krim, Purple Russian, Homestead, and Gold Medal) a zucchini plant (romanesco costata, to be precise), a Tuscan kale, a couple shishito peppers, and a jalapeño, all bought from Little River, The other bed also started with some herbs (chocolate mint, opal basil, a couple different parsleys, tarragon, thyme), a few Swiss chard plants, and was seeded with lettuces, kale and mustard greens.

To give you a good idea of just how much of a novice I am: when these little seedlings started sprouting up a few days later, I called my landscaper in a panic, having no clue whether they were vegetables or weeds.

The radishes and greens came in incredibly quickly, and in a month some were ready to harvest.

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Monday, December 22, 2014

Cobaya Diego at La Mar

It was big news when Gaston Acurio – Peru's most famous and celebrated chef – decided to open a restaurant in Miami. But Acurio has literally dozens of restaurants around the world; he's clearly not cooking in all of them at the same time. At Miami's La Mar, the executive chef responsibilities fall to Diego Oka. In an Edible South Florida piece last year, I recounted Diego's introduction to Acurio as a nervous 16 year old peeking around the corner of a supermarket aisle. He was invited to visit Acurio's restaurant the next day, and pretty much never left. After working with Acurio in Peru, he opened La Mar Cebicheria Peruana in San Francisco with him, then came to Miami to open our own version of La Mar.

Perhaps unlike many other U.S. cities (including San Francisco), Peruvian cuisine is nothing new here. In fact, South Florida already had over 200 Peruvian restaurants when I last counted, as La Mar was opening. But there are few, if any, places, that show the same creativity and attention to ingredients as are on display at La Mar. We got a preview of what Diego could do when he went off-menu at our Cobayapalooza dinner in July, and were eager to see more.

Last week a small group of guinea pigs assembled on the patio behind La Mar in the Mandarin Oriental, overlooking the lights of downtown Brickell across a sliver of Biscayne Bay. After some Pisco Sours to set the mood, Diego served up seven courses that were simultaneously creative and grounded in Peruvian flavors.[1]

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya Diego flickr set – apologies for the wonky artificial lighting, but the dark outdoor setting left me with no choice).

The menu started with a tiradito – a dish reflective of the mingling of local and Japanese food traditions that leads many to call Peruvian food the original "fusion cuisine" (indeed, el jefe Gaston Acurio recently published a book called "500 Years of Fusion"). Typically prepared with sashimi-style slices of raw fish that are then bathed in a ceviche-style citrus and chile bath, Diego's version here used slices of raw scallop, tongues of uni and brilliant orange salmon roe, all napped with a creamy rocoto chile leche de tigre.

Another modern iteration of a traditional Peruvian dish followed: a potato causa made with luridly hued purple potatoes, paired with blocks of seared tuna, a green mango chalaca sauce and crispy sweet potato strings.

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