Thursday, December 24, 2015

first thoughts: Pao by Paul Qui in the Faena Hotel - Miami Beach

Of the many big-name Miami restaurant openings of late, the one I've been most curious about is Paul Qui's Pao in the Faena Hotel Miami Beach. I've followed the chef since he was in the kitchen at Austin's Uchi, watched him dominate a season of Top Chef and win a James Beard Award in 2012, then go on to open both a tasting menu format restaurant (Qui) and several ragingly successful food trucks in Austin (East Side King and its sibling Thai-Kun, which was on Bon Appetit's list of best new restaurants of 2014).

Pao is Qui's first venture outside of Austin, and it's a big one: the Faena is perhaps the most ostentatious and over-the-top of many recent ostentatious, over-the-top Miami developments. The billion dollar project includes not only the hotel, where rooms start at $900 a night, but also a Norman Foster-designed condominium where units are selling for an average of $3,000 per square foot (including a $60 million sale to a billionaire hedge fund manager) and the Rem Koolhaas-designed Faena Forum, a multi-disciplinary arts exhibition center.

It is both exciting and, in a way, alienating. In many respects, I simply don't recognize this as the city where I was born and have spent nearly half a century. Faena, and other recent projects like the expansion of the Design District into what seems like a living catalog of the holdings of LVMH, are designed as playgrounds for the über-wealthy, international jet-set; they have little connection to the locals who actually live here.

But if it brings chefs like Qui to Miami, then who am I to complain?

Oddly, despite all the hullabaloo over Faena, details on Qui's restaurant have been somewhat hard to come by, even as it opened at the beginning of this week. I heard the food would be "modern Asian" with "Filipino, Spanish, Japanese and French flavors;" I heard a lot more about the $6 million Damien Hirst gold-leafed unicorn sculpture ("Golden Myth") that is the centerpiece of the dining room. But that's OK: so many restaurants put out so much pre-opening hype these days that I grow tired of hearing about them before they've even opened. By contrast, I didn't have much of an idea of what to expect heading into Pao. So here's a first look.

(You can see all the pictures from my first visit to Pao – including shots of the menu, which is not yet available online – in this Pao by Paul Qui flickr set).

The menu starts with four choices of fish crudos, along with a "binchotan service" featuring several items that can be grilled tableside over Japanese charcoal. It then moves through about a half-dozen choices of small plates, several rice dishes and a selection of several larger-format plates meant for sharing.

The first item on the menu points toward Qui's Filipino heritage: kinilaw, the Philippines' version of ceviche. Slices of hiramasa (a/k/a buri, yellowtail, amberjack) are bathed in coconut milk and coconut vinegar, garnished with hearts of palm and slivered red onion, and dappled with Spanish olive oil. It's richer, and less acidic, than a typical ceviche, and I found myself wishing the vinegar was turned up a little louder than the coconut milk. The other crudo we tried, a carpaccio of Japanese sea bream, was plated with a puddle of smoked soy sauce and leek oil contained within a ring of kumquat jam that tasted as bright and vibrant as its vivid orange hue. The quality of the fish was excellent, but I was somewhat surprised that of the four crudos offered, none came from local waters and two featured endangered bluefin tuna.[1]

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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

best dishes of 2015: part 3

We're in the home stretch now. Here are the final fifteen of the best things I ate in 2015. Still hungry? Check out part 1 and part 2, and you can also see all the pictures in this Best Dishes of 2015 flickr set. This final group splits time between Miami and Northern California, starting with what was, for me, one of the most unexpectedly exciting – and unfortunately, short-lived – restaurants that opened (and closed) here in 2015.

Once again, despite the title, this makes no claim as being the "best" of anything other than the things I had the good fortune to eat over the past year. There are oodles of intriguing new restaurants just in South Florida that I've not yet made it to, or only started to get to know, much less the broader dining universe out there. These appear in roughly chronological order.

Gordita, Haitian Griots and Pikliz, Cotija, Raw Vegan Verde - Centro Taco (Downtown Miami) (see all my pictures from Centro Taco)

This Mexican-Haitian mash-up was darn near perfect: a crisp, corn-y masa shell filled with tender, burnished-edged fried pork, a tangy, spicy cabbage slaw, a dollop of salsa verde and a sprinkling of cotija cheese. Before my first visit, I was by no means convinced that Miami needed another taco shop. But it can always use more like this. (I guess I was wrong – Centro Taco closed after only a couple months, but Chef Richard Hales is looking to reopen in another spot. I hope that happens soon.)

Cape Canaveral Prawns, Tajin Crust, Grits, Mole Verde, Lime Crema, Huitlacoche - Alter (Wynwood Miami) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Alter)

I found another favorite dish on a visit to Alter in August: the tajin-crusted Cape Canaveral prawns, strewn over a bed of creamy corn grits lashed with stripes of mole verde, lime crema, and huitlacoche. It's a beautiful combination – like a next-generation Mexican shrimp 'n' grits – but what really elevates it is the quality of those prawns, tender and juicy underneath their chile and citrus coating, their heads bursting with oceanic goodness when chewed or squeezed.

Caviar, Smoked Oil Poached Egg, Creme Fraiche; Celtuce, Just Dug Potatoes, Comté, Burnt Hay, Tarragon; Musk Melon, Coconut, Lemon Flavors - Coi (San Francisco) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Coi)

Here are three dishes from a meal at Daniel Patterson's restaurant Coi, shortly after the chef announced that he would stepping out of the kitchen at the end of the year. He's bringing in a wonderful chef to take over – Matthew Kirkley, who served me a great meal at Chicago's L2O late last year – but I'm glad to have had a chance to experience Patterson's cooking at Coi. From Patterson's book:
Coi is part of a well-established tradition of restaurants that serve expensive tasting menus. We are mindful of that history, but there are some aspects of an haute cuisine dining experience that feel more symbolic than heartfelt, like building the menu around a procession of luxury ingredients. Products like truffles and caviar are expensive, but they aren't hard to find or challenging to prepare. They don't carry any particular emotional value for me, just the wan connotation of a bygone era when waiters wore white gloves. Nothing wrong with that, it's just not how I cook.
Well, sometimes exceptions can be made. I, for one, would never turn down this mound of caviar, served over a poached egg yolk nestled next to some silky creme fraiche sprinkled with chives. Again there's another little surprise: the gooey yolk has been imbued with the flavor of the smoked oil in which it was poached, the combination of roe and smoke bringing to mind the grill-smoked caviar served by Victor Arguinzoniz at Etxebarri.

Another dish from the Coi "greatest hits" collection. The primary ingredient is celtuce, featured both in thickly sliced discs and thin ribbons of its stalk. It has the hearty snap of a broccoli stem, and a delicately bittersweet flavor somewhere in the neighborhood of lettuce, celery and asparagus. Freshly dug potatoes are cooked until just tender, and crowned with caps of nutty, buttery melted comté cheese. These sit over an oil blackened with powdered burnt hay. Those black and charred aromas are brought back to green and fresh by a few wispy leaves of tarragon. "Coi" is an archaic French word meaning "quiet," and Patterson's cooking voice can be quiet, subtle, understated. Sometimes you have to listen closely. If you do so, in this dish maybe you'll hear something that sounds like a field of grass blown by the wind, with all these variations on the vegetal tastes of the pasture.

Then the next bite soothes. Gorgeously fragrant, sweet cubes of musk melon swim in a soup of their juices, intermingled with lemon flavors (something herbaceous here: lemon verbena?) and topped with a scoop of coconut sorbet. It's simple. And stunning.

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Monday, December 21, 2015

best dishes of 2015: part 2

Last week I kicked off part 1 of my "Best Dishes of 2015." It started with a dessert at the new Vagabond Restaurant on Biscayne Boulevard, one of my favorite new Miami restaurants, and ended with a brunch at Oakland's Boot and Shoe Service. Today, we pick up with another of my favorite additions to Miami's dining lineup, on the same stretch of Biscayne Boulevard as Vagabond, and spend some more time in Miami before a brief excursion to Chicago. Again, these are not "ranked" but listed in rough chronological order, and despite the title, make no pretense of really being the "best" of anything – only my personal favorites from a year of good eating in 2015.

Rice with Shrimp PasteCake Thai Kitchen (Miami MiMo District) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Cake Thai Kitchen)

I've often bemoaned the cookie-cutter nature of most Thai restaurants in Miami. Cake Thai Kitchen is something different: chef Phuket Thongsodchareondee, who previously worked at Makoto, serves fresh, vibrant Bangkok style street food unlike what you'll find pretty much anywhere else in town. I'll mention two dishes, since my favorite (the rice with shrimp paste) is no longer on the menu.

Let's start by talking about their pad thai (top center). This is a dish I usually order for the kids. I've never experienced one I liked, usually finding it sticky, sweet and insipid. Cake's version is revelatory: smoky crushed dried chilies, tangy tamarind, funky dried shrimp, briny head-on tiger prawns, savory ground peanuts, crisp fresh bean sprouts all jockeying for attention. Several of the components are nestled into corners of the container, requiring some last-minute DIY assembly. Toss it all together: now, the dish makes sense.

The rice with shrimp paste (top right) is another DIY project, and another favorite of mine. The low-tide funk of shrimp paste permeates the rice, which you toss with cubes of rich, salty-sweet pork belly, shredded omelet, crisp dried shrimp, bits of tart green mango, slivered raw shallots, fresh chilies, and a squeeze of lime. It's a great dish.

Royal Red Shrimp, Florida Seaweeds, Beef Tendon, Chicken Jus; Elderflower, Reduced Whey, Cucumber, Tomatillo – Cobaya Chang at Vagabond (Miami MiMo District) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from our Cobaya dinner with Chef Alex Chang)

Foraging is not exactly a new thing – the influence of Rene Redzepi's Noma has turned chefs around the world into hunters and gatherers – but it's still not found its way into many Miami restaurant kitchens. Chang is looking to change that: here, he dusts royal red shrimp with dried seaweeds (foraged from along Key Biscayne) to bump up those oceanic flavors. The shrimp were served over a verdant sea purslane purée (another foraged ingredient), together with speckled lettuce leaves, crispy puffed beef tendon for a bit of crunch, and a reduced chicken jus for just a hint of richness. This was another great dish.

I've been pretty consistently wowed by the desserts at Vagabond (Chang doesn't have a pastry chef and does the desserts himself), and this was no exception: a creamy ice cream of reduced whey infused with elderflowers, together with a bright green cucumber granita, a sweet, tangy, just slightly vegetal tomatillo jam, and a sprinkle of elderflowers over the top. This is the kind of dessert I love: bright and refreshing, not too heavy, not too sweet, with a great contrast of textures.

Kanpachi SushiMyumi (Wynwood Miami) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Myumi)

Myumi is not your typical sushi bar. In fact, it's a truck – a converted FedEx delivery truck, stationed in a lot in Wynwood when I visited (it's since hooked up with the Wynwood Yard project and is working on a brick-and-mortar location) – serving an omakase only sushi menu. Myumi's rice was quite good: it holds together without being gummy or clumpy, preserving the distinct feel of each individual grain. And the fish is very good by Miami standards. I was particularly struck by the silver-skinned, pink-fleshed kanpachi (amberjack), dabbed with spicy, zesty yuzu kosho, which had a certain "snap" to the flesh.

Spaghetti VongolegastroPod (Wynwood Miami) (see all my pictures from gastroPod)

After dinner at Myumi, I popped next door to the gastroPod and had a chaser that turned out to be another of the best things I'd eat all year: Chef Jeremiah's version of spaghetti vongole. This is a product of his "Noodlehead" concept, a lineup of a few different kinds of fresh noodles that can be paired with an assortment of sauces, broths and other accompaniments. The "vongole" was a sort of Italian / Chinese hybrid, featuring briny fresh chopped clams in an XO-like paste of spicy chiles and fresh herbs.

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Thursday, December 17, 2015

best dishes of 2015: part 1

With the calendar winding to its end, that means it's list season. Not Santa's list; I'm referring to the annual tradition of "best" lists among food writers. Locally, we already have "2015's Best Dishes" lists from the Miami Herald and Miami New Times, plus "Best New Restaurants" lists from both as well (Herald; New Times). In the larger universe, the New York Times' Pete Wells has his "Top Ten Dishes" and "Top New York Restaurants," Eater has Robert Sietsema's "15 Best Dishes of 2015," The Guardian has an intriguing survey of several chefs' and food writers' "favourite meals this year," and Alex Balk has an – unusual – "Top 5 Memorable Meals" list over at The Awl (#2: "Two cough drops, Hoyt-Schermerhorn stop").

Before we all get full on lists, here's mine. Unrestrained by page limits or editorial discretion, this one goes to 45 (or something around there – we'll see), which is actually down from last year's 60. I must have become more discriminating in the past year. Some of these dishes come from ultra high end tasting menus; others are from simple, bare-bones joints. Geographically, more than half were home-grown here in South Florida, with most of the rest coming from multiple trips to the Bay Area this past year. Yes, the title of the post says "best," but such superlatives are of course meaningless; it's just a list of some personal favorites that stood out over a year of good eating. Here goes Part 1, which starts with a dessert (these appear in roughly chronological order):

Pistachio Cake, Fennel Panna Cotta, Roasted White Chocolate – Vagabond Restaurant (Miami MiMo District) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Vagabond)

Vagabond closes strong. The pistachio cake is among the best desserts I've had in Miami. The emerald green cake is pulled apart and crumbled over a fennel panna cotta, then draped with crumbles of roasted white chocolate and ribbons of candied fennel. There are such vivid, bright flavors here, and an interplay of textures that keeps you coming back for another bite. I'm not usually big on desserts, but this was excellent.

Smoked Mullet DinnerTed Peters Smoked Fish (St. Petersburg) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Ted Peters)

The picture does not quite convey the size of this gorgeous whole split fish, the skin and exposed flesh burnished golden-brown from the smoke, which perfumes but doesn't overwhelm. This, for me, is a happy meal: sitting on a picnic bench, picking sweet, smoky meat away from a fish carcass until all that's left is a pile of bones and a shell of shiny skin. If  a whole fish is too fiddly for you, the smoked fish spread is a generous serving for only $7.99 and is served with about a sleeve's worth of Saltines – but you may still want to get a side of that potato salad, liberally punctuated with bits of bacon.

The 4 Selection - Fodder & Shine (Tampa) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from Fodder & Shine)

Maybe the best of the things we ate at Fodder & Shine were the vegetables, available either as side dishes, or a choice of four to make a meal. Lima beans, cooked down into a thick stew with onions and old sour, had a depth of flavor that belied their homely appearance. Beets roasted with cane syrup highlighted the root's natural sugars without being cloying. Greens braised with bacon were tender, smoky, salty and sweet. And possibly my favorite were the turnips and cabbage braised in butter, giving the humble vegetables a texture like rich velvet. From early reviews, the restaurant is getting a bit of grief for its prices, but the $15 we spent on this vegetable plate may be one of the best dining investments I will make all year.

Cauliflower, Harissa, Iberico Bellota, Roasted Pork Broth - Proof Pizza & Pasta (Wynwood Miami) (read my thoughts and see all my pictures from our Cobaya dinner at Proof)

This course was, for me, unexpectedly one of the best dishes of the night, and one of the most flavorful I've had in recent memory. A couple varieties of cauliflower florets were nestled over a creamy purée and draped with a slice of silky, salty, nutty jamón ibérico de bellota, given a jolt of heat from harissa and an enveloping richness from a dollop of roasted pork broth. I'm a firm believer that vegetable-centric dishes need not be austere (or vegetarian for that matter), and this was a great example.

Carolina Gold Rice Pudding, Honey Tangerine, Pork Skin "Churro" - gastroPod with Husk's Chef Travis Grimes (Wynwood Miami) (see all my pictures from gastroPod 2.0)

The "Charleston Ice Cream" served at Sean Brock's restaurant McCrady's – a simple dish of bay leaf infused Carolina Gold rice, perfectly cooked, garnished with a few fresh greens – was one of the best things I ate in 2012. So I'm not surprised to see this dessert, from that same great grain, from a collaboration between the chef de cuisine at Brock's second Charleston restaurant, Husk, and Chef Jeremiah of the gastroPod, on the list this year. This pudding tasted first of the grain, then of the sweet cream binding it together, with a sweet-tart contrast from honey tangerine segments and an airy, crisp pork skin "churro" to top things off.

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Saturday, December 12, 2015

Cobaya Niu with Chef Deme Lomas

Much of the talk in the Miami restaurant world these days is of all the big name chefs coming into town. I'm excited about some of them too, but it's the places like Niu Kitchen that really resonate with me: small, local restaurants with a distinct focus and vision. Niu Kitchen was opened about a year and a half ago by Chef Deme Lomas and partners Karina Iglesias and Adam Hughes. The compact restaurant, shoehorned into a downtown spot next to Miami Dade College that's about twelve feet wide, serves a tight menu of Lomas' modernized takes on the flavors of the Catalan region of Spain. I've been a fan since my first visit last July.

A couple weeks ago, we squeezed thirty guinea pigs in there for a Cobaya dinner and let Chef Lomas do his thing. He went entirely off-menu for us, but still created dishes that were faithful to his idiom. It was a really enjoyable dinner. Here's what we had:

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

To start things off, a cup of golden creamed leek soup, topped with a drizzle of olive oil, a spray of crispy fried julienned leeks, and a little dollop of herring roe. Simple, but richly flavored.

A plump seared scallop, with a burnished crusty edge on one side, served over silky cauliflower purée with cubes of a pomegranate gel. I defer to SteveBM in matters involving scallops (one of his favorite things when done right; one that will draw his scorn if not): he liked it a lot. I concur.

One of the things I admired about Lomas' cooking was his confidence: he didn't try to cram twenty components onto the plate, instead composing most of his dishes from only two or three primary flavors. Another good example: this plate of baby artichokes, served over a black truffle aioli and topped with curled ribbons of bresoala (or maybe, as the Spaniards call their version of air-dried beef, cecina). Artichoke is notoriously difficult to pair with wine, but this worked some magic with the nutty, oxidized flavors of the Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia Rioja Blanco I'd brought.

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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

best thing i ate last week: duck leg confit at Alter

The best thing I ate last week could easily have been the Japanese wagyu beef shabu shabu at N by Naoe which I wrote about yesterday. But as good as that was, this was still better: the duck leg confit from the lunch menu at Alter.

The duck meat is pulled off the bone and served over a pearl onion kimchi that's given an extra jolt of flavor from little "sweety drop" peppers. These bright red, teardrop-shaped chiles are simultaneously fruity and spicy, and remind me of the Brazilian biquinho peppers which Chef Micah Edelstein of the late Nemesis Urban Bistro turned me on to a few years ago. Additions of a cashew condiment and black garlic tweak the umami dial. A sheet of drisp dehydrated cabbage mimics the usual crispy skin (Hey Brad - where'd the duck skin go?). Perky pea shoots add some contrasting freshness. This was a great dish.

It can also be part of one of the best value meals in town: Alter serves a 3-course, $29 lunch which may be the most effective use of $29 you can make in Miami; even better, you can also upgrade that to a $48, 5-course lunch tasting menu. (You can see all my pictures from a recent lunch visit at the end of this Alter - Miami (Wynwood) flickr set).

Monday, December 7, 2015

first thoughts: N by Naoe Shabu Shabu - Brickell Key, Miami

It was nearly seven years ago that I first found my way into Naoe. Back then, I had no clue what to expect, having heard nothing about the place other than its short blurb on OpenTable. The restaurant turned out to be something of a portal to Japan located in an unassuming strip mall in Sunny Isles Beach, in which Chef Kevin Cory served a bento box of kaiseki style delicacies followed by a procession of what was, at the time, the best sushi I'd ever experienced.

Since then – as Kevin recently reminded me – I was the first to write about Naoe after its move to Brickell Key three years later, and also one of the first visitors to his side venture, N by Naoe, which he opened last year alongside Naoe in an adjoining space. N by Naoe did a pretty remarkable $80 lunch service similar to the opening salvos of a Naoe dinner, presented in a multi-tiered bento box. Alas, that is what you call a "niche market."

So N by Naoe has been repurposed. Now N by Naoe does shabu shabu.

(You can see all my pictures in this N by Naoe Shabu Shabu flickr set).

"Shabu shabu" is the Japanese onomatopoeic equivalent of "swish swish" – and more specifically, refers to the sound that thin slices of beef make as they are quickly cooked via a brief splash in hot water. "Beef cooked in hot water" doesn't sound like the most exciting meal in the world; but when you start with silky, obscenely marbled Japanese beef, and combine it with beautiful fresh vegetables in a flavorful stock, you get something magical.

It starts with water: water which comes from a well on a tiny hilltop property in Kanazawa, Japan owned by Kevin Cory's family.[1] The water is warmed on a tableside burner, and a strip of dried seaweed is added to make a kombu dashi. It's simple, but kombu is loaded with glutamates (the stuff in MSG that makes everything taste better). A couple of dipping sauces – nutty sesame, and bright citrusy ponzu – are also arranged at each diner's place setting. After a few minutes of simmering, the kombu is removed, and a platter piled with vegetables is brought to the table.

For us, there were several different kinds of mushrooms – brown buttons, oysters, wood ear, enoki – as well as napa cabbage, chrysanthemum leaves, and blocks of tofu. You toss some vegetables into the pot – some of the heartier mushrooms, and the firmer bits of the cabbage can take a while, and add their flavor to the broth, while the frilly cabbage leaves and delicate chrysanthemum may need less than a minute.

Then the centerpiece is brought to the table: wagyu from Miyazaki Prefecture, thin slices of ribeye with incredible speckled fat marbling that runs through the entire steak. You have probably heard of "Kobe beef" – in fact, you have probably heard many things called "Kobe beef" that are not in fact "Kobe beef," since "Kobe beef" can only come from Kobe, Japan, and I'm pretty sure that places like Prime 112 are not paying for Japanese beef to put into hot dogs and hamburgers, even if they're sold for $25-30; but I digress. I mention this because the beef N by Naoe uses is not called "Kobe beef" because it comes from Miyazaki Prefecture, not Hyogo Prefecture where Kobe is located. But – unlike those ridiculous hot dogs and hamburgers that call themselves "Kobe beef" – this is every bit its equal. This particular sample carries an "A5" grading with a BMS or "Beef Marbling Score" of 8 on the 1-12 scale used in Japan, and was one of the most luscious steaks I've ever tasted.[2]

You take a slice of that beef. You swish it a couple times through the broth ("shabu-shabu").[3] You swipe it through one of the dipping sauces. You eat. You pluck some of the vegetables and tofu out of the pot and do the same.[4] Repeat. And repeat again, until you and your dining companion are anxiously eyeing the last slice of beef on the platter.

It's so rich that really, that one platter is enough – but sometimes enough isn't quite enough. If you understand what I mean, then you'll be glad to know that you have the option to add on an additional half-order or full order of beef. The fixed price per person for the shabu shabu is $60 per person; an additional order of beef can be had for $72, or a half-order for one person can be had for half the price.

Around the time you are closing in on that last slice of beef, the server will deliver a bowl of perfectly cooked rice. Then the pot will be scooped up and its contents buffeted with some chopped scallions and served to you as a restorative soup. It's surprisingly flavorful, imbued with the concentrated essences of the beef and vegetables which have been cooked in the broth. The one-two of rice and soup is a traditional Japanese coda to a meal that fills up and then calms your belly.

A simple bowl of fresh fruit – here, a couple different kinds of grapefruit – closes out the meal.

This is an elemental meal that depends almost entirely on its ingredients; after all, the cooking itself is being done by unskilled amateurs. But with the outstanding quality of the beef, and those gorgeous fresh vegetables, it works. It's also a lot of fun.

N by Naoe
661 Brickell Key Drive, Miami, Florida
(reservations exclusively through SeatMe 5:15-10:45pm Su-Tu, Th-Sat, and lunch 12-6pm for parties of 8 to 16)

N By Naoe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

[1] Kidding.

[2] For further explanation of the Japanese grading system, read up at the Japan Meat Information Service Center. The letter grade is based on yield; the number grade is based on quality, including marbling as well as both the texture and color of the meat and fat.

[3] Long communal chopsticks are supplied for action involving the big pot, unless you're dining with an uncouth lout who uses the communal chopsticks to feed himself. Steve insisted this is how you show dominance in shabu shabu. I think he confused it with sumo wrestling.

[4] Pro tip: though the recommended pairing is the sesame sauce with the beef, and the ponzu with the vegetables, both Steve and I preferred to reverse it.  The citrus in the ponzu nicely cuts through the fattiness of the beef, while the creamy, nutty sesame sauce adds a bit of richness to the vegetables.

Monday, November 30, 2015

best thing i ate last week: cod confit a la catalana at Cobaya Niu

Sometimes I will read a dish description and have no clue how it could possibly taste good. This was one of those. The chef was Deme Lomas, the spot was Niu Kitchen, which was playing host to our 58th Cobaya dinner on Monday night. The dish was cod with dry figs, roasted onions, mustard and honey. Why would anyone put all those sweet things with a piece of fish?

Shows what I know. Here, the residual saltiness of the rehydrated bacalao, all unctuous and shiny, was balanced against the sweetness of the figs and honey; the zing of mustard for a bit of contrast, a nest of golden caramelized onions as a bridge between savory and sweet. The combination of salt cod and honey actually has a long history in Catalan cooking, which is Chef Lomas' focus at Niu Kitchen. Here's Colman Andrews in his book "Catalan Cuisine: Europe's Last Great Culinary Secret":
I remember a game I used to play with friends, in younger years, of trying to invent the most unlikely or revolting-sounding food combinations possible – things, I recall, like raw oysters with chocolate sauce and pineapple-clam cake. This dish, I imagine, must sound a bit like one of those to many readers – or at least like some mindless nouvelle (or nova) excess. In fact, though, salt cod with honey is neither nouvelle nor revolting. It's an old Catalan mountain dish, first mentioned in print in the seventeenth century and said to have been an invention of necessity – the union of two easily stored, well-preserved ingredients, eaten together simply to provide a kind of calorie-loading, essential for survival in cold climates during the cropless winter months.
The most exciting dishes can be those you don't expect to work. This one was the best thing I ate last week.

Friday, November 27, 2015

best thing i ate last week: pork braised in milk at Eating House

As I groggily arise, still digesting last night's Thanksgiving feast (while simultaneously plotting what to do with the leftovers), it occurs to me that I'm still a week behind on "best thing i ate last week." So let's catch up.

Sometimes for no good reason, restaurants fall off your radar screen. That had happened to me with Eating House. Though I've always had good meals there, somehow more than a year had passed without a visit. I've been back in twice in the past couple months, and it's been better than ever. The old "standards" are still around – the tomatoes with coconut ice, the chicken and "foiffles" – but much is new as well, including roughly half the menu now being taken over by vegetable-centered dishes.

(You can see all my pictures from the restaurant in this Eating House 2.0 flickr set).

Many of these have been very good, like the burnt cabbage with fried garlic and egg vinaigrette, and the red wine risotto with bitter radicchio, pistachios and dried black olives. But the star of my last visit was a pork dish.

The starting point is maiale al latte: pork braised in milk, an old school Italian dish that is about as traif as you can get, which yields fork-tender meat in a rich brown sauce of pork juices and fat emulsified in reduced milk that is almost like a porcine dulce de leche. But then chef Giorgio Rapicavoli does a few things his nonna wouldn't do. He adds crumbles of raw cauliflower, which sounds odd but works, the squeaky texture and fresh, vegetal flavor providing some contrast against all that richness. He adds meaty seared mushrooms and petals of charred onion, upping the umami quotient. He sprinkles it with charred vegetable ash, an intensified iteration of the caramelization that produces the sauce.

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Sunday, November 22, 2015

best thing i ate last week: Guillermo's Taco de Chicalada from Taquiza

Before I fall a full week behind, a quick "B.T.I.A.L.W." Competition was fierce, as everyone came strong for P.I.G. 6 last Sunday, but my single favorite bite of the day was "Guillermo's Taco de Chicaladas" from Chef Steve Santana of Taquiza. I learned from masa master Steve that "Guillermo" is Izzy's Oyster chef Will Crandall; I learned from a commenter here that "chicaladas" are the tasty little bits of pork from the bottom of the pot. Topped with a roughly chopped salsa and folded into a perfect two-bite sized taquito speckled with chiles de arbol, this was a perfect little package.

Runners-up: the chitlins and chorizo paella from Edge's Chef Aaron Brooks; the miso butterscotch laquered pork belly with black olive crumble and smoked banana purée from Alter's Bradley Kilgore. And there were plenty more great things too (you can see most of them in this P.I.G. 6 flickr set and read a recap here).

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Cobaya del Cielo with Chef Juan Manuel Barientos

There are few places in the United States where you can have as varied a sampling of Latin American flavors as in Miami. And yet there are only a handful of such restaurants here that strive to operate on the higher end of the dining spectrum. Decades ago Douglas Rodriguez did it with Yuca and then Ola, and more recently, Gaston Acurio's branch of La Mar in Brickell raises the bar for Peruvian food. But these types of places are still the exceptions.

Add El Cielo to the mix. Its chef is Juan Manuel Barrientos, a 31-year old who looks like he could be half that age, but whose flagship in Bogotá, Colombia has already been recognized in the S. Pellegrino "Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants" list. His ambitious tasting menus mix traditional Colombian ingredients with modernist methods and dramatic presentations. Earlier this year, he opened another iteration here in Miami, which a couple weeks ago played host to our 57th "Cobaya" dinner.

Here's how it went:

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya del Cielo flickr set).

After a bit of a head fake to start (we had our guinea pigs meet at a small café around the corner from the restaurant's location inside the Brickell on the River condo, where they were given a little snack for the walk over), we had cocktails out on the patio before being led inside to the dining room.

Things get kind of weird quickly. The meal starts with what Chef "JuanMa" calls "chocotherapy": liquid chocolate that is poured over the diners' hands, meant to be rubbed into one's skin and then licked off. It's messy, it's goofy, but it also gets everybody laughing and it smells great too.

That's followed by another cocktail, a "mistela" of aguardiente and passion fruit (which would probably have been better if served colder) and a snack he called "Follow the Stars" made up of a crisp sheet of nori topped with toasted sesame seeds, citrus curd and candied slivers of carambola (a/k/a star fruit). This uncannily reminded me of a snack I'd had five years ago at El Bulli, a nori cracker filled with tart lemon and sesame.

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Thursday, November 19, 2015

P.I.G. 6 [Pork Is Good] - a celebration of all things pig orchestrated by Chef Jeremiah

I'm not usually a big fan of the typical food events where a bunch of restaurants set up stations and everyone lines up to taste a bunch of tepid – usually boring – bites. "P.I.G." (i.e., "Pork Is Good"), which Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog of the gastroPod has now orchestrated for six years running, defies those generally low expectations. In fact, it's one of my favorite Miami food events of the year.

This all started back in 2009 when Jeremiah rounded up a small group of people at Harvey's by the Bay (a bar in an American Legion outpost which backs on to Biscayne Bay) and served them some chicharrones, smoked pork butt char siu bao, and a whole pig rolled porchetta style and roasted in a caja china (all the pics here; you can also see pics from P.I.G. #2, P.I.G. #4, and P.I.G. #5 – I clearly didn't read the Book of Armaments for the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch since I missed #3).

In the years since then, he's made it a collaborative thing, rounding up some of the best chefs in town and some from more far-flung locales, all to riff like on the theme of pig like some culinary supergroup. This year featured some of my favorite folks: Roel Alcudia (now consulting at Fooq's), Aaron Brooks from Edge, Will Crandall from Izzy's, Todd Erickson from Haven, Kurtis Jantz of the Trump Miami, Bradley Kilgore from Alter, Brian Mullins from Ms. Cheezious, Mike Pirolo from Macchialina and Bazi, Patrick Rebholz from Quality Meats, Steve Santana from Taquiza, and James Strine from Café Boulud in Palm Beach, plus special appearances by charcuterie wizards Craig Deihl from Charleston's Cypress and Kyle Foster (Colt & Gray and Rebel in Denver, and formerly Talula here in Miami), plus desserts from Josh Gripper of The Dutch and Giselle Pinto from Sugar Yummy Mama.

Somehow, this event just has good karma: the weather always holds up, there's always a crowd but it never feels crowded, there's no lineups with everyone elbowing each other to get to the food, the drinks flow freely, the chefs all bring their "A" game, and everyone has a good time. In more than three hours I still didn't make my way around to try everything, but here are some highlights (you can see all my pictures in this P.I.G. 6 flickr set):

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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

best thing i ate last week: "Amazon's Tree of Life" at Cobaya del Cielo

It was a runner-up a few months when I first tried it; it will get top billing this week. Juan Manuel Barrientos is the chef of El Cielo, a highly regarded restaurant in Colombia which last year opened a branch in Miami. JuanMa's creative, theatrical style fit well with our Cobaya thing, so we asked him to host a dinner for us.

We usually ask chefs to go completely off-menu, but I can understand why he'd include a staple from the restaurant, which he calls "Amazon's Tree of Life." Visually it's a stunner: an undulating copper frame mounted to a stone, supporting a flatbread whose surface is pocked with bubbles, almost perfectly duplicating the appearance of a baobab tree. And it's delicious too, the chewy, crusty, cheesy bread meant to be torn and dipped into a a bowl with a creamy coconut sauce dusted on top with a black squid ink powder. It was the best thing I ate last week.

(You can see all the pictures from the dinner in this Cobaya del Cielo flickr set).

Monday, November 2, 2015

best thing i ate last week: pork schnitzel at Cypress Tavern

Sometimes, change is good. A month ago news broke that chef Roel Alcudia was parting ways with The Cypress Room, which he had joined as chef de cuisine when Michael Schwartz opened the place a couple years ago. That wasn't the only change: after a bit of revamping, last week the Cypress Room became Cypress Tavern. It's not a complete gut job by any means: chef Bradley Herron, who has a long tenure with the Schwartz empire, is now manning the kitchen, and maybe 1/3 to 1/2 of the menu will still look pretty familiar. The lovely aqua banquettes are still there, but the starched white tablecloths are gone. As the new "Tavern" in the name suggests, it's been simplified and un-fussified, and happily, the prices have been notched down too.

I was in there Saturday night for dinner, and enjoyed it so much I was back for brunch the next morning. (You can see all my pictures in this Cypress Tavern flickr set). There was much that was good, but my favorite was a new menu item that's pretty reflective of the new style: a delightfully crisp, juicy pork schnitzel, served over a bed of braised cabbage and a puddle of creamy mustard sauce.

Runner-up: the bucatini carbonara, topped with a poached egg and an avalanche of shaved parmigiano reggiano, which I had the next morning for brunch. Sometimes this is how I like to get my bacon, eggs and toast.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

calendar highlights: Taco & Tequila Showdown 11.8.15; P.I.G 11.15.15

You may already know that in addition to the infrequent restaurant reviews, Food For Thought also features "The Calendar" – a list of upcoming dining events that may be of interest to food-minded people. Here are a couple highlights coming up soon on the calendar:

Taco & Tequila Showdown at the Vagabond on Monday November 8 (6pm-9pm). Presented by MIAbites and The Liquid Projects, the event will pair 12 chefs creating signature tacos with 12 bartenders creating signature tequila cocktails. If you don't get into the Cobaya dinner that night, this might be a good Plan B: about half the chef participants are Cobaya alumni. Tickets ($65) available at Eventbrite.

P.I.G. 6 in Wynwood on Sunday, November 15 (3pm-7pm). This shindig in celebration of the pig, orchestrated by Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog of the gastroPod, is always one of my favorites every year. Participants this year include Kyle Foster of Denver's Colt & Gray (and before that, my beloved Talula), Craig Deihl of Charleston's Cypress, plus locals Giorgio Rapicavoli of Eating House, Steve Santana of Taquiza, Todd Erickson of Haven and HuaHua's, Roel Alcudia (formerly Cypress Room), Brian Mullins of Ms. Cheezious, Aaron Brooks of Edge, Brad Kilgore of Alter, James Strine of Café Boulud, and Mike Pirolo of Macchialina and Bazi. Tickets ($50) available through Tock.

By the way: these types of events always get put on the FFT calendar but are usually not the subject of a post – I've tried to use blog posts only for actual content. But if you, dear reader, find these type of posts useful (or conversely, annoying), please speak up. Thanks.

Monday, October 26, 2015

best thing i ate last week: chirashi style squid ink noodles at gastroPod

Some of the most interesting meals I've had in Miami have come out of a truck or shipping container – the various reincarnations of Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog's gastroPod. Its latest iteration – a shipping container stationed on a lot in Wynwood – took a temporary hiatus for a few months on account of permitting issues, but returned this past week. A friend orchestrated a little "welcome back" dinner, and Chef Jeremiah orchestrated the menu, which included ember-cooked, tempura-fried, porcini-dusted sweet potatoes, fancy musubi with "center cut" spam, crispy nori and fish roe, and a salad featuring absinthe-cured salmon belly, among other things.

But my favorite was a pasta course of jet-black squid ink noodles tossed with braised octopus and the octopus' braising liquid, served chirashi style with ama ebi, uni, and ikura cured with sake and soy. The Italian-Japanese hybrid was the best thing I ate last week.

(You can see all my pictures from the dinner in this gastroPod 2.5 flickr set).

Runners-up: the lobster poutine at recently-opened Izzy's Fish and Oyster; the secretive,Texas meets Mexico (but not Tex-Mex) BBQ at Barbacoa (I'm not at liberty to disclose the details); the eggplant-stuffed manti dumplings in a creamy yogurt sauce at Byblos.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

best thing i ate last week: soft scrambled eggs at Vagabond

It doesn't sound like much the way it's listed on the menu: "soft scrambled eggs, fines herbes, pecorino, evoo." It looks like even less: a shallow plate of runny eggs that might have been scooped up from some budget hotel's breakfast buffet.

Don't be fooled. This, from the brunch menu at Alex Chang's Vagabond, is luxurious stuff. The eggs are warmed through but still virtually liquid, barely forming any curds. The texture is like silk, the flavor rich and pure. A few more grace notes: a tangle of fresh herbs, a dusting of salty pecorino cheese, a drizzle of good olive oil to sort of round everything out.

I just loved this. It was the best thing I ate all week. And it's only $7. (Pro tip: Vagabond's home made English muffins make a good vehicle for scooping).

Monday, October 19, 2015

Cobaya Seagrape with Chefs Jason Schaan and Tony Velazquez

It's hard for me to believe that it was more than four years ago that one of my favorite chefs, Michelle Bernstein, agreed to do a Cobaya dinner with us. Not that the folks who had done the eleven dinners before her were slouches, but here was one of Miami's most celebrated chefs: a James Beard award winner running one of the top restaurants in town. This, for us, was the big leagues.

Even now, with more than forty more "experiments" under our collective belts (which may be set to a wider notch these days), that dinner in the atrium of the Melin Building still stands out as one of the most memorable – not just for the food (which was excellent) but for Michelle's eagerness to do it and the grace with which it was executed.

But for Experiment #56, though we were in Seagrape, the restaurant in the Thompson Hotel that Bernstein opened last year, it would not be her dinner. Rather, the spotlight was on Jason Schaan, the hotel executive sous chef, and Tony Velazquez, the restaurant's chef de cuisine. Schaan goes way back with Michelle: he worked the line when she was at Azul and made his way up to CDC at Michy's (and was also in the kitchen for that Cobaya dinner back in 201). Velazquez is a recent addition to the team, but another Cobaya veteran, having worked at 1500° when they did Experiment #27.

The menu Schaan and Velazquez put together was a fitting match to the mid-century modern style of the venue, balancing classical elegance with some contemporary flourishes.

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya Seagrape flickr set; unfortunately the lighting situation was far from ideal and my pictures are pretty awful).

Once we were all settled into a private dining area next to the main dining room, a trio of canapes started things off. A puffy gougère, draped with a sheet of translucent lardo, concealed a molten core of gooey, mushroom-y L'Explorateur cheese. Tender ribbons of Maine lobster were draped over toast slathered with salted butter, given fresh crunch by shaved radishes and briny pop by a dollop of trout caviar. Rich Masami wagyu beef belly tartare, perked up with some chorizo, was mounded onto a round of brioche, drizzled with bearnaise sabayon, and topped with a fried quail egg.

I love a good vitello tonnato, the classic Italian dish that combines cold, thinly sliced veal with a caper-flecked mayo gone piscine with the addition of canned tuna. I know, it seems like it would be awful, but for reasons I can't quite explain, it all works. So I was intrigued to see Jason and Tony do a variation with brussels sprouts, with that funky, fishy quality amplified by a shaving of bottarga over the top.

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Friday, October 16, 2015

best thing i ate last week: pasta "vongole" at Cobaya Seagrape

A bit behind schedule here, as it's already Friday, but better late than never. Last Tuesday we held our 56th Cobaya dinner, this time with chefs Jason Schaan and Tony Velazquez at Michelle Bernstein's Seagrape in the Thompson Hotel on Miami Beach. A full update will be coming shortly, but here let me just talk about my favorite dish of the night: their pasta vongole. This was no garden variety linguine and clam sauce. Here was hand rolled garganelli nestled among a couple different kinds of clams (manila clams and venus clams), batons of salsify and roasted mushrooms, a tangle of sea beans, with a generous knob of silky, oceanic uni butter mounted on top as it was served. It was a great mix of surf and earth, and the best thing I ate last week.