Tuesday, May 31, 2016

best thing i ate last week: abalone at Aubergine + Alter dinner

A few months ago during a west coast jaunt, I had a really outstanding meal at Aubergine, Justin Cogley's restaurant in L'Auberge Carmel. One of the most interesting things was that in moments it could be hyper-local, while in others its makes (very good) use of product from literally clear across the globe. On the one hand, there's abalone farmed in Monterey Bay waters about five miles from the restaurant. On the other, there's densely marbled A5 wagyu beef from Hokkaido, Japan, about 5,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean.

Cogley brought both items with him when he came to do a collaboration dinner with Bradley Kilgore at his Wynwood restaurant, Alter. The good news is, they travel well. My favorite was the abalone: cooked so its flesh is springy but not tough, with a pure taste of the sea. Garnished with Carmel seaweeds and wispy lettuces, it swims in a sort of warm tea steeped with dried mushrooms, offering the depth and clarity of flavor of a well-made dashi. The dish was every bit as good as I recall it being in situ.

Honorable mentions to Brad's dish of venus clams with oseta caviar and potatoes over a yogurt purée, garnished with paper-like sheets of slow-cooked onion; to an outstanding dessert from Aubergine pastry chef Ron Mendoza which combined a candy cap mushroom mousse with fermented banana and shards of crisp chocolate; and to the plump, juicy pork shu mai at a late Saturday afternoon lunch at BlackBrick.

Monday, May 23, 2016

best thing i ate last week: parrillada at Los Fuegos

Months ago, I made my first visit to the new Faena Hotel, to try out Chef Paul Qui's restaurant, Pao (some first thoughts on Pao here). I was equally intrigued by its sibling at the Faena, Francis Mallmann's Los Fuegos, but hadn't made my way back. Mallmann, if you're unfamiliar, is a larger-than-life character who runs several restaurants in Argentina, and literally wrote the book which has inspired a new wave of interest in open-fire cooking. (For a good introduction, this episode of Chef's Table featuring him is highly recommended).

I pass up 99% of the freebie meal offers I get via FFT, but an invite to a Sunday asado at Los Fuegos was too good to pass up. So full disclosure and all, but hopefully I've built up enough credibility that you'll believe me when I tell you this was great stuff. Our afternoon junket took us through most of the Sunday menu, which is typically a $75 affair with several choices among three-plus courses. On special occasions (Father's Day is coming up ...) it will likely be more expansive, more expensive, and more family style, like what we were served.

There were lots of highlights – the wood oven baked empanadas, the grilled sweetbreads given a black-edged hard sear and a squeeze of burnt lemon, the bubbling provoleta with crusty bread – but the centerpiece was the parrillada, and the real standouts for me, the crisp-edged, tender-fleshed lechoncito, and the oozy, rich morcilla sausage.

(You can see all my pictures in this Los Fuegos by Francis Mallmann flickr set.)

I'll be back on my own dime soon.

Runner-up: the ultra-crispy Korean fried chicken, served in a puddle of kimchi-spiced yogurt, at Talde Miami Beach.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Aubergine @ Alter - May 24, 2016

I have not yet written about my dinner at Chef Justin Cogley's Aubergine in Carmel, California a few months ago, but it has stood out as one of the best meals I've had all year (see all the pics here). I've also only sparingly mentioned the series of collaboration dinners that local Chef Bradley Kilgore has been doing at his restaurant Alter in Wynwood. They've hosted two, and both times they've ended up in the "best thing i ate last week" report, and have been among the best meals I've had in Miami this year.

So you can probably guess that I was pretty excited to learn that the next Alter collaborative dinner will put chefs Cogley and Kilgore together at Alter. It's next Tuesday, May 24, and will feature an 8-course dinner created by the chefs in collaboration for $180 per person. I have it on good authority that Chef Cogley will be bringing with him a couple of the best things I ate at his restaurant a few months ago: some Monterey Bay abalone, sourced from waters within a couple miles of the restaurant; and the fantastic A5 wagyu beef that he sources from Japan. Aubergine pastry chef Ron Mendoza is coming too, and his desserts at Aubergine were also among the best I've had all year.

TL;DR - this event is highly recommended, and spots are still available.

Get your seats here.

Also – don't sleep on Duck Duck Goose, the avian version of Chef Jeremiah's great P.I.G. party, coming up on June 4. More info here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

best thing i ate last week: magurozuke nigiri at Myumi

Last summer, I wrote some "first thoughts" about Myumi – a food truck doing an omakase-only sushi service out of a lot in Wynwood. I came away impressed: fish, rice, knife-work, garnishes were all quite good, and indeed if I had any complaint, it was only that they could be a tad heavy-handed with the embellishments, hiding the quality of the base components. By Miami sushi standards, I rated it quite highly; for sushi coming from a food truck, it was downright exceptional.

Since I last wrote about Myumi, the truck moved a few blocks to Wynwood Yard, where it now shares space with a funky outdoor bar, Mortar & Pistil, a vegetable garden, as well as a few other food trucks. The sushi is still every bit as good as my initial experience, and now you can  stroll a few steps and grab a cocktail or a beer (I highly recommend the locally made M.I.A. Megamix pale ale) to accompany your meal, and finish it with some frilly shaved ice cream from Mr. Bing.

The ten rounds that made up our omakase selection had about a 2/3 overlap with my earlier visit. This time around, my favorite bite among many good ones was the magurozuke, the glistening tranche of lean tuna marinated, if my taste buds are on target, in a blend of shoyu, mirin and dashi, and topped with a dab of fresh wasabi.

You can see the rest of the pictures from this meal towards the bottom of this Myumi - Miami (Wynwood) flickr set.

Monday, May 16, 2016

first thoughts: Dragonfly Izakaya | Doral

Nearly a year ago, I posted some thoughts prompted by an Eater "Future Week" feature on the future of Miami dining. One of the things I predicted was that we would start seeing more independent restaurants in less trendy neighborhoods: places like Doral and Kendall, with lower rents, lots of potential customers, and not much competition other than chains. I'll confess that as a Miami Beach resident, I don't get out that way very often (honestly, I'd usually rather chew off one of my own limbs than drive on SR-836 West). But I braved the westward traffic last week to pay a visit to Dragonfly Izakaya, which opened last month.[1] The menu, which promised seafood from Tsukiji Market and robata-grilled "neck to tail" yakitori, had lots of the right words on it.

(You can see all my pictures in this Dragonfly Izakaya and Fish Market flickr set.)

It's a big venue, with a long and busy indoor/outdoor bar, seating for probably about 100, and an open kitchen with a robata grill and sushi bar. At the entrance is a small space that's slated for use as a fish market, though it's not yet up and running. Dragonfly's a good-looking room, which incorporates Japanese elements into the design – big sake barrels, wooden planks over the robata grill with the menu written in kanji – but not in a completely over-the-top Epcot kind of way.

We started at the bar, which during happy hour features $7 cocktails (including a nice pre-batched Old Fashioned) and several sub-$10 snacks, including a solid rendition of chicken karaage for $5 (that's not the entire portion – someone ate half of it before I got there). After the happy hour clock wound down, we shifted our way over to the sushi bar to sample through the rest of the menu.

We started with a round from the robata grill. The selection was not as broad as the menu promised: a "Neck-to-Tail Tasting Menu" listed several of the more exotic chicken bits, but some of my favorites were not yet available: bonjiri (chicken butt, from the end of the tailbone), seseri (neck, with lots of nice crispy skin) and tsukune (ground chicken meatballs, not sure why these would be so difficult to drum up). But we still did OK – pictured here and working clockwise from top left, eryngii (king oyster mushrooms) doused with butter and lemon, reba (chicken liver) swiped with tare, kawa (crisp, fatty chicken skin), and shio saba (salted mackerel). In the bottom left corner is one of my favorites, okonomiyaki, a sort of savory Japanese pancake studded with cabbage and seafood, then bedecked with Kewpie mayo, okonomi sauce, aonori, beni shoga (red pickled ginger), and wispy bonito flakes. Off-screen: tontoro, grilled pork cheek, served with a nutty sesame oil dipping sauce.

Of these, the highlights were the saba – it was powerfully salty, but the mackerel was tender, oily and fishy in a welcome way – and the okonimiyaki, a treat that's difficult to find here in Miami. The chicken items were good, but lacked that fantastic balance of juicy and crisp that I've experienced at yakitoris in Japan (though that's setting the bar pretty high).

We followed with a round of nigiri: here, from back to front and left to right, hamachi (yellowtail), saba (mackerel), hotate (scallop), ika (squid), ikura (salmon roe), and mirugai (geoduck). Off-screen: ama ebi (sweet shrimp), served in the customary fashion accompanied by their fried heads. Again, the offerings on hand were a bit shy of what was listed on the menu: no o-toro, uni or aji. no kinmedai or aji from Tsukiji market. But from what we sampled, the fish was of pretty good quality – I especially enjoyed the firm snap of the mirugai. The rice was a bit cold, stiff and underseasoned for my taste. The chef also sent over a tuna kobashi for us to sample, with ruby-hued cubes of fish given a riveting dash of kimchi spice and a savory hit of toasted sesame oil, served with slivered avocado and airy rice crackers for some DIY Japanese nachos.

(continued ...)

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

travelogue: a weekend of eating in Cartagena

Let me just betray my own ignorance immediately: when a good friend said he was getting married in Cartagena, I had absolutely no expectations of the city whatsoever. I was going for the wedding, and didn't really give much thought to what else the destination might hold. I booked a flight (direct out of Fort Lauderdale on JetBlue, and quite cheap, I should note) and started looking for a hotel near the church where the ceremony would be. And as I was searching on Google Maps, those little pictures of the spots you're clicking started popping up – and like a dummy, I realized, "Oh. This place actually looks really nice!"

The heart of Cartagena, the Old Town, is a walled city overlooking the Caribbean coast which has long been attractive to empire builders, tomb raiders, slave traders and pirates. Its winding streets are lined with Spanish colonial buildings and dotted with plazas and churches that date back to the 16th century. About half of those buildings are beautifully preserved; the other half are in a state of often remarkable decay, the kind of ruin porn that draws people to Cuba and Detroit. (With its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, all the facades must be kept intact, though owners will often adapt and re-purpose the interiors).

It is about as picturesque a place as I have ever seen, yet still has the feel of a lived-in city and not some sort of Potemkin village. I was completely charmed by it.

We only had a weekend to explore, and a wedding to celebrate and related events to attend, but in between the festivities, here's what we did while in Cartagena:

(All the places we visited, and many more, are bookmarked in this Cartagena Google Map; you can also see all my pictures from around the city in this Cartagena, Colombia flickr set).

Our home base was the Hotel Quadrifolio, which was two blocks from the chapel in the heart of the Old Town. It's an eight-room boutique hotel in a beautifully restored old 17th century residence. As we checked in – while sitting in what was more of a living room than a lobby, and sipping on delightfully cold, slushy mojitos – we flipped through a picture book with before-and-after shots of the restoration. The transformation is remarkable.

The rooms are all situated around a central courtyard lined with arched passageways. A small indigo-tiled pool is nestled in back. Despite the tropical heat, the A/C in our room blasted at arctic levels, while the bathroom was open-air, with a small garden next to the shower. The decor throughout the property seamlessly merges the contemporary and the pre-Columbian. It was a glorious place.[1]

(There are more pictures of the hotel in this Hotel Quadrifolio flickr set.)

Hotel Quadrifolio
Calle del Cuartel (Cra. 5) No. 36-118, Cartagena de Indias, Colombia
+575 664 6053

We dropped our bags and went exploring the town, running into several other wedding attendees along the way. Though it's less than a mile from one side of the Old Town to the other, we would see something new every time we wandered the criss-crossing streets: an impeccably preserved church here, a beautiful but crumbling facade a block away.

And everywhere there were fruit vendors, with carts stacked with mangoes, papayas, coconuts, pineapples, and other more exotic specimens: maracuya (passionfruit), lulo, tomate de arbol, guava, granadilla and more.

Though we knew there would be food at a reception for the wedding guests that night, I was feeling peckish around mid-afternoon, and we stopped off for our first bite at La Cevicheria. We chose it primarily because it was open in mid-afternoon, and most places in town close at 3pm until dinner service (I get the sense that siesta is still taken pretty seriously here). I learned later that this is on the W.W.B.D. ("What Would Bourdain Do?") list for Cartagena, and I can see why.

Maybe I was especially hungry. Maybe the charm of the town makes everything taste better. Maybe it was their good A/C or their cold beer.[2] But this octopus ceviche, was, in the moment, one of the best ceviches I'd ever had. The octopus hit that satisfying equilibrium between tender and chewy, speckled with diced onions and peppers, all awash in a citrusy marinade stained dark brown by the octopus' pigment. You can also adjust the heat level yourself with a bottle of a really outstanding orange-hued hot sauce that our server was good enough to clue us in on.

La Cevicheria's ceviches are served with saltines for scooping, but for a worthwhile upgrade, get an order of their tostones, the plantains flattened wafer-thin and fried until shattering crisp.

(There are a few more pictures in this La Cevicheria flickr set.)

La Cevicheria
Calle Stuart 714, Cartagena de Indias, Colombia
+57 5 660 1492

(continued ...)

Friday, May 6, 2016

Duck Duck Goose! June 4 in Wynwood

I've repeatedly said here that P.I.G., the annual porcine production hosted by Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog, is one of my favorite Miami food events of the year. (Most recently last November for P.I.G. #6.) Well, now the P.I.G. is spreading its wings.

On June 4, Chef Jeremiah's gastroPod will play the host of "Duck Duck Goose." Whereas P.I.G. is a celebration of all things pig-related, this one is for the birds: a great lineup of guest chefs cooking locally pastured poultry, including ducks from Lake Meadows Farm. Expect a flock of ducks, hopefully some geese, and lots of live fire cooking over embers. So what's with all the birds? Says Jeremiah: "After seven years of cooking pig, we thought it might be sustainable to switch up farm animals."

The chefs include some P.I.G. regulars and some new additions: Brad Kilgore of Alter, Will Crandall of Izzy's Fish and Oyster, James Strine of Café Boulud, Patrick Rebholz of Quality Meats, Cake from Cake Thai Kitchen, Gabriel Ask from the Faena, Aaron Brooks of Edge Steak, Steve Santana of Taquiza, Brian Mullins of Ms. Cheezious, Babe Froman Fine Sausages, and John Lermayer, mixologist from Sweet Liberty.

The deets:

When: June 4, 2016 from 5pm-9pm
Where: gastroPod, 168 NW 26th Street, Miami (Wynwood)
Tickets: $59 - get 'em through Eventbrite

It's the same basic idea - get some great chefs together to all cook good things with tasty animals - but Jeremiah says Duck Duck Goose will have a somewhat different feel from the P.I.G. fests: "PIG is more of  a Rock n Roll and Whiskey vibe. With DDG, the aim is towards Champagne and Bossa Nova." So imagine something like this:

But with a duck, and a different soundtrack. Sounds good to me.