Sunday, September 29, 2019

deep thoughts: Boia De - Miami (Buena Vista)


Earlier this week, I got to speak to a seventh grade class at North Broward Preparatory School about food blogging. A food theme runs through their entire curriculum for the year, so while they are writing their own food blogs for English class, they are also learning about food in science class, and tending an on-campus edible garden. It was a lot of fun to pass on a few nuggets of "wisdom" from my own experiences, but what was really great was hearing from the students about their own interests, projects and questions.

Of course, one of them asked "What is your favorite restaurant?" And invariably, this is the question everyone asks every food blogger. It's also a question I always have trouble answering. Because I have lots of favorites! Even if you narrowed it by category I'd still struggle, because so many different restaurants satisfy so many different cravings and moods. (I am voracious, I eat multitudes).

Having said that, I actually do have a favorite right now. And by favorite right now, I mean, if you asked me pretty much any day the past few months, "Where do you want to eat tonight?" the answer would likely be "Well, we could go to Boia De." This is a conversation that occurs frequently in our household. And frequently ends in the same place.


So what is Boia De? Maybe we should start with a related question: "What does "boia de" mean? Somehow, I got it in my head that it's an Italian expression that means "How cool!" But that translation exists only in my imagination. According to chef/owners Luciana Giangrande and Alex Meyer, it loosely translates as "Oh my!" which is much nicer than what turns up on Google Translate, which says something about an executioner?

It's perhaps appropriate that the name "Boia De" is a bit ambiguous, because the restaurant "Boia De" is itself delightfully difficult to typecast by genre. If I were to call it anything, I might go with "Italian-American," but I mean something almost the exact opposite of the checkered-tablecloth, red-sauce and mozz stereotype that phrase typically invokes. Alex and Luci mine Italian cuisine for ideas and ingredients – pastas and polenta and 'nduja and tonnato sauce – but those rub shoulders with green goddess and ranch dressing and and miso and mango. In lesser hands, this would be a recipe for disaster. But Alex and Luci know what they're doing.

(You can see all my pictures in this Boia De flickr set - over multiple visits I've now covered about 90% of the menu, though several items like the pastas change regularly).


Start, for instance, with the baked clams: tender littlenecks tucked under a blanket of spicy, smoky 'nduja sausage and breadcrumbs, torched til they're brown and bubbly, then finished with a squeeze of fresh lemon. They make for a delightful little one-bite surf-n-turf experience.


Or maybe instead a crudo? The hamachi is rich and buttery but delightfully clean and fresh, with splashes of yuzu salsa verde, ringlets of fresno chile, and briny fried capers to cut through the fattiness of the fish. It still feels kind of Italian even though nonna might disagree. Alternatively, you could go with the tuna crudo, which gets matched up in equally unorthodox fashion with a Sicilian pesto and smoky miso eggplant.

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Sunday, September 22, 2019

Cobaya Taymor at Three


For Cobaya Experiment #78, we had an out-of-town chef who came to Miami to immerse himself in the local flavors. For Experiment #79 earlier this month, we had sort of the converse: Ari Taymor, of Santa Monica's Little Prince, brought some Southern California to South Florida for our dinner at Three in Wynwood, where he is doing a stint as "guest chef." Two different approaches: two great meals.

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya Taymor at Three flickr set).

For someone who is still on the front end of his career, Taymor's path has already taken plenty of twists and turns. The California native was fired from his first cooking job, as an extern at Susanne Goin's Lucques, but later made his way into some of San Francisco's best kitchens – Flour + Water, Bar Tartine, as well as a half-year stint at La Chassagnette in Arles, France. Taymor returned to L.A. to open his first restaurant, Alma, in 2012. The tiny, 8-table spot started as a pop-up, and was built and operated on a shoestring. It was also beloved by critics and food media, getting named Bon Appetit's "Best New Restaurant in America" the next year. But success is a fickle mistress, and despite the accolades, the restaurant struggled financially, was beset by litigation, and had trouble filling seats, possibly a victim of the "Nobody goes there any more, it's too crowded" mentality. Taymor has spoken openly about the physical and psychological toll, too, which included an emergency room visit with a bleeding ulcer.[1]

By 2015, Alma in its original incarnation had closed. It resurfaced for a time as a pop-up in the Standard Hotel in West Hollywood, until Taymor decided he didn't want to run a hotel restaurant. So he pivoted once again. Little Prince began as a weekends-only brunch pop-up, inspired by the all-day cafés he saw during a visit to Australia, and a year later, it now has a permanent home in Santa Monica.

Clearly, Taymor is a restless spirit: who comes to Miami in the middle of the summer to cook in someone else's restaurant? But that's exactly what he did, partnering up with Three restaurant in Wynwood to do some special menus, dinners and cooking classes. Our Cobaya group had just made a  visit to Three almost exactly a year ago, where one of my culinary heroes, Norman Van Aken, cooked for us. We made a return visit to see what Ari Taymor was up to.


To start, baked oysters with braised bacon, camouflaged underneath a blanket of frothy, creamy smoked potatoes, red veined sorrel giving a pop of color and tartness.


Next, thinly shaved slivers of Col. Bill Newsom's country ham, plated with curled ribbons of cucumber, juicy melons, creamy burrata, fresh herbs and a pink peppercorn vinaigrette. This was deceptively simple – a riff on prosciutto and melon, after all – but compulsively good eating, balancing salty, sweet, fat, and acid with some vegetal crunch.

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Friday, August 23, 2019

Cobaya Isabela with Chef Jose Ramirez-Ruiz


Sometimes it takes an outsider to see the things you don't always see in yourself.

José Ramirez-Ruiz was a New Yorker through and through. He refined his cooking skills at some of the city's top restaurants – Per Se, Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare, Isa – before going out on his own in 2012 with a pop-up in Williamsburg called "Chez José." Chez José eventually ripened into a full-blown restaurant called Semilla in late 2014. Despite its diminutive size – there was only seating for 18 around a U-shaped counter, and the staff consisted of a grand total of two cooks and two servers – Semilla earned accolades disproportionate to its stature. Pete Wells praised its vegetable-forward tasting menus in a two-star New York Times review in early 2015,[1] Eater's Ryan Sutton issued a glowing four-star review a couple months later, naming Semilla "New York's Next Great Restaurant,"[2] Eater's Bill Addison included it in his "21 Best New Restaurants in America," Bon Appetit included it in its top 10 "Best New Restaurants of 2015," and by that fall, Michelin awarded the restaurant a star.

But Semilla was not built to last – Ramirez-Ruiz's partner Pamela Yung, who handled Semilla's highly regarded breads and desserts, left late the following year, and by March of 2017 the restaurant was closed. In the aftermath, Ramirez-Ruiz found his way down to Miami on a corporate consulting gig. Fortunately for us, he's decided to stick around for a while, and recently has devoted himself full-time to opening a new restaurant – Isabela – in Little Haiti. Earlier this month, we got him to do a dinner with our Cobaya group that provided a preview of what's to come.

(You can see all my pictures from the dinner in this Cobaya Isabela with Chef Jose Ramirez-Ruiz flickr set).

Unlike many out-of-town chefs who have rolled into Miami like emperors visiting the backwards colonies, Ramirez-Ruiz arrived with humility and curiosity:



I am often asked: Why did I move to Miami? Truthfully? It is a complicated answer... but I will say what sold me (and @madreselvamia ) on it was the #10B growing region. A region like no other in the continental USA. A place that owes nothing to the seafood, vegetables or fruits from anywhere else. A place so unique that makes you look no further than your own backyard when trying to find inspiration. A place with so much potential that I even struggle to articulate. A place that often makes me feel like I know nothing about ingredients. A feeling that I can only compare to the way I felt 18 years ago when I first stepped into a profesional kitchen and knew nothing about food. — I will most likely never know how it feels to change careers, but I will say that moving to the 305 is probably as close as I will get to start from 0. All though very challenging, I fucking love it. — Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome. - Arthur Ashe — 📸: mango/lychee, mamey/bitter nut, papaya/lime.
A post shared by Jose Ramirez (@chezjosebk) on

The result is a unique and fresh take on Miami's subtropical "local flora and fauna," as Ramirez-Ruiz puts it. He uses ingredients we're all familiar with – mangoes and papaya and plantains and yuca – but in new and inspired ways we haven't necessary seen before.



While he works on getting Isabela off the ground, a nearby space at Little River Miami played host for our dinner. I've now been here for a few different things – Eat Here Now's Friday lunches, Scott Linquist's Chivo! goat barbacoa – and while it's pretty bare-bones at the moment, the space also has some great potential. Lots of foliage from plant and floral designer Madre Selva, which keeps a studio nearby, helped soften the rough edges.





Ramirez-Ruiz started things off with a round of snacks, all brought out to the tables at once: delicate little mussels swimming in paprika-laced oil with sautéed onions, in the style of the wonderful canned seafood conservas of Spain and Portugal; flat-out delicious green olives stuffed with shrimp paste and warmed in the wood oven; rounds of fresh cheese also roasted in the oven and doused in a lemon vinaigrette, a sort of saganaki minus the flaming tableside presentation; some Wigwam country ham from Edwards Smokehouse;[3] and freshly baked sourdough bread, served with an army-green moringa butter. I've been told that moringa doesn't have a lot of flavor on its own, so maybe there was something else in here, but it had an intriguing, vegetal thing going on that I kept on coming back to for more.


I'd been to Ramirez-Ruiz's pop-up dinners at All Day and Jaguar Sun, and each time he'd served some variation on this dish: a creamy plantain soup, with melting comté cheese and crispy plantain "crunchies." It eats like a crazy hybrid of a Caribbean sopa de platano and a French onion soup, and this was possibly my favorite iteration.

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Sunday, August 4, 2019

a decade of cobaya



It was exactly ten years ago to the day that Steven (a/k/a Chowfather), Steve (a/k/a Blind
Mind) and I hosted our first Cobaya "underground" dinner. Those were interesting times. Following the financial crisis of 2007-08, the food world seemed to be at something of an inflection point. Chefs like David Chang were pulling the chair out from the pretensions of fine dining and replacing it with a hard, backless stool in front of the kitchen counter at Momofuku Ko. Food trucks were a big thing, where aspiring restaurateurs could pursue their dreams without the big capital outlay required for a brick-and-mortar build-out. The hegemony that newspapers exercised over public discourse on restaurants was being undermined from one side by Yelp, and from the other by these things called "blogs" where anyone with some rudimentary knowledge of how to operate a computer could publish their thoughts to the internet. Many would do so with actual thoughtfulness and insight, and often with a side of snark.[1] Instagram didn't even exist yet.

Locally, Michelle Bernstein and Michael Schwartz were the queen and king, respectively, of Miami dining, with bookend Beard Awards to prove it (Michelle won Best Chef: South in 2008, Michael won the same award in 2010).[2] Since then, Michael's opened more restaurants than I can count,[3] while Michelle took a different direction; she recently opened Cafe La Trova on Calle Ocho with cantinero and longtime compadre Julio Cabrera (recently named Tales of the Cocktail's Bartender of the Year), and continues to run a high-end catering operation, but these days you're equally likely to see her on T.V., hosting "Check, Please!" or "SoFlo Taste," as in a restaurant kitchen. Good for her; it's a crazy life. Meanwhile, back in 2009, many of those who are now among Miami dining's most prominent names were still sharpening their knives: to name just a few, Brad Kilgore was working his way through some of Chicago's top kitchens, Zak Stern (a/k/a Zak the Baker) was traipsing around Europe, making cheese, herding goats, and occasionally baking bread at my kids' summer camp, Jose Mendin was still a year away from opening the original PubBelly.

It was a long time ago – longer than the lifespan of most restaurants.

I've told the Cobaya origin story many times when folks ask, "How did you start doing this?", but never written it down. Many of you have probably heard it before. The whole thing started in the valet circle of a Sunny Isles hotel. A couple chefs, Kurtis Jantz and Chad Galiano, had cobbled together a group of "food-focused locals" to be their focus group for a new restaurant concept. They'd found most of us online, probably primarily via Chowhound, which back in the day actually hosted a somewhat lively food discussion on its boards. That was how most of us knew each other as well, though a few of us had met in person. As the Steves and I were waiting for our cars at the end of the evening, we started talking about the then-current trend of "underground dining" groups.

Two questions triggered it: "Why not here?" And then: "Why not us?" And just like that, we decided to do it ourselves. We posted something on a Google message board that I'd used to organize a few other get-togethers,[4] started a website, and posted a mission statement:
The goal here is a very simple one - to get talented chefs to cook great, interesting, creative meals for an audience of adventurous, open-minded diners. That may happen inside a restaurant, it may happen outside of one. It may be a multi-course tasting menu, it may be a family-style whole hog dinner (here's hoping). For those who question the "underground" street cred of this mission, those questions are perfectly legitimate. My answer is, "I don't care." We're not limiting ourselves to meals cooked in abandoned warehouses in secret locations disclosed the day before the dinner; we're also not limiting ourselves to white tablecloths and silverware changed between every course. We're very open-minded that way: all that matters is if the food is good, and we think there's enough similar-minded folks to make that game plan sustainable.
Every invitation comes with a disclaimer: there is no "menu". There are no choices. You'll be eating what the chef chooses to make for the night. If you have food related allergies, strict dietary requirements, religious restrictions; are salt sensitive, vegetarian, pescatarian, or vegan; don't like your meat cooked medium rare, or are pregnant: this meal is probably not for you. Do not expect white-glove service. Don't ask for your sauce on the side. Just come and enjoy.[5]
Truth is, we hadn't quite honed our modus operandi yet – we let everyone know the restaurant that it was going to be at, and a preview menu got posted a couple days in advance – but the basic idea was that the chefs were going to get to cook whatever they wanted and the folks who showed up would get to eat it. We had no idea what kind of reaction it would get, but we wound up with a group of sixteen who wanted in.

On August 4, 2009, we hosted our first "Cobaya" dinner at Talula. Andrea Curto-Randazzo was the chef, along with her then sous chef, Kyle Foster.[6] It is still one of my favorite Cobaya meals, and I still pine for that tripe risotto.

What we found out is that there was actually tremendous demand in Miami for this kind of thing. We announced our next event a couple months later, and got so many responses that we added a second seating for the following night. Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog wound up doing two rounds of seven courses for 36 diners in a penthouse suite in Midtown Miami. I brought Frod Jr., who was 12 years old at the time, along to one of those, and he still remembers Jeremiah offering him a cigar and a beer as we hung out on the balcony post-service.[7]

Since then, we've put on a total of 77 of these "experiments." We've worked with some of Miami's most highly regarded chefs,[8] an even greater number of skilled and creative but less-celebrated talents, and the occasional visitor from places further afield.[9] We've had Andrew Zimmern join us for a dinner, which wound up being featured on his show "Bizarre Foods America,"[10] and then later cook for us at a couple events we co-hosted with the South Beach Wine and Food Festival. We've eaten with our hands at "kamayan" Filipino feasts in fancy South Beach restaurants, and we've eaten at a backyard farm in Homestead.

We've been served pig's heads, lamb's heads, goat's heads, pig's brains, veal brains, pig skin noodles, lamb's livers, rabbit's livers, beef tendon chicharrones, sweetbreads, duck testicles, mushroom dinuguan, morcilla toast, beef heart tartare, grasshoppers, silkworms, waterbugs, ant eggs, abalone, geoduck, turtle, blowfish, suckling pigs and smoking cows and kangaroo and rabbit and venison and goat, not nearly enough tripe, and enough foie gras to stuff a flock of geese. We haven't actually had guinea pig yet, unless you want to count a guinea hen stuffed with pig (a noble effort). We've had a dinner with truffles for every course, and another where we drank liquors from the 1950's-1970's with every course, and another – Cobayapalooza! – with seven different chefs for each course.


We've had roughly a thousand different people attend our experiments, and now routinely have to deal with the fortunate but nonetheless demanding challenge of receiving 250-350 requests for the 25-35 spots we typically have available for each of these events. We've spent a lot of time and effort trying to find ways to handle those requests fairly and in a way that maximizes the most people's opportunity to join us, while also making sure we can timely fill the spots that we have.[11]

Through it all, we've remained faithful to that mission statement, encapsulated in that first sentence: "The goal here is a very simple one - to get talented chefs to cook great, interesting, creative meals for an audience of adventurous, open-minded diners." I feel very fortunate to have been able to do exactly that for the past ten years, and to meet and eat with so many wonderful people along the way. Thanks for your support.

[1] R.I.P. "Eat Me Daily."

[2] No South Florida chef has won the award since 2010, though I think Miami can still claim as one of its own the wonderful Nina Compton, 2018's winner for her New Orleans restaurant Compere Lapin.

[3] Let me try from memory, without cheating: Michael's Genuine, Harry's Pizza, Ella, Genuine Pizzas in Coconut Grove, Atlanta, and Cleveland (?), Amara at Paraiso, Tigertail & Mary, and Traymore at the Como. (edited to add: I was close. The Atlanta Genuine Pizza closed but there's the original Harry's in the Design District plus Coconut Grove, Aventura, and Dadeland; and it's a Michael's Genuine that recently opened in Cleveland, not a Genuine Pizza. And while I thought Schwartz was no longer affiliated with Fi'lia because of a split with SBE, it's still included on the Genuine Kitchen website?). (edited again to add: so literally a day after I posted this, Schwartz announced he's closing the Dadeland Harry's. I guess I wasn't the only one not paying attention.)

[4] Again reflecting the centrality of Chowhound back then, we called these events "chowdowns," as they did on the other Chowhound regional boards, and I wound up with the idiotic "miamichowdown" email address that I still use for food-related things.

[5] Some of this was unapologetically stolen from an event announcement from Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog, who should probably see if he knows any lawyers he can talk to.

[6] Talula closed the following year, and it is still one of my all-time favorite Miami restaurants. Andrea continues to run Creative Tastes Catering with her chef husband Frank Randazzo. Kyle moved to Denver, where he's chef-owner of Julep. Kyle made some of the best offal dishes I've ever had, and I'm glad he's continuing that work at the Southern-inspired Julep, where the menu includes scrapple fries, chicken tail skewers, and rocky mountain oysters rockefeller. Another name you might recognize from the Talula kitchen: the outstanding pastry chef Antonio Bachour, though I think by the time of our dinner there he'd already moved across the street to work at the W South Beach.

[7] Another great connection from that dinner: the owner of the Midtown Miami condo that hosted our dinner ran a digital design company. One of their web developers was at the event and struck up a friendship with Jeremiah, then began working for him on the side, and ultimately wound up devoting himself full-time to the food business. Steve Santana – a/k/a @SliceDiceCode – now runs Taquiza, making the best tortillas in Miami, with locations in South Beach, North Beach and at The Citadel. I'd like to think that Cobaya can claim at least a small measure of responsibility for advancing Miami's taco game.

[8] A special acknowledgment here needs to go to Michelle Bernstein, who agreed to do a dinner with us back in 2011, when we'd been at it less than two years and hosted less than a dozen of these things.

[9] Sometimes when I look back at the list of experiments, I'm still flabbergasted by the names I see there: Bernstein, Schwartz, Norman Van Aken (a longtime culinary idol of mine), Nina Compton, Andrew Carmellini, Francis Mallmann, Carlo Mirarchi, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, Jeremiah Stone and Fabian Von Hauske, Justin Smillie, Katsuya Fukushima, Alex Talbot. What a thrill it's been to be able to approach these people and just say: "Cook for us."

[10] Zimmern gave a nickname to the sous chef working that dinner at Azul: "Wall Street," for his hair, which he wore slicked back, Gordon Gekko style. "Wall Street" no longer wears his hair slicked back, but found his way to success: Brad Kilgore now heads up Alter, Brava, Kaido and Ember.

[11] It continues to be a perennial problem that people ask for spots and then don't book them, so that we're always left to back-fill from the wait-list. When I hear restaurateurs complain about reservation no-shows, I listen with complete empathy.


Saturday, July 20, 2019

Cobaya Obra with Chef Carlos Garcia


For years, Chef Carlos Garcia ran what was generally regarded as one of the top dining destinations in Latin America in his hometown of Caracas, Venezuela. Between 2013-2016, his restaurant Alto was a regular on the Pellegrino "Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants" list. But Venezuela, wracked by political and economic strife, has been a challenging place to live, much less run a restaurant. Like many others fortunate enough to have the opportunity, Garcia found a second home here in Miami, opening a restaurant in Brickell, Obra Kitchen Table, last year.

Despite everything happening at home, Garcia has managed to keep Alto open while running Obra here – no easy feat amidst protests, government clampdowns, and food shortages. He also helps operate Barriga Llena Corazón Contento (Full Belly Happy Heart), an organization that supplies free meals to children in Venezuela, and Recipes for Change, which teams up local chefs, farmers and others to serve people in need here in South Florida. Somewhere in there, he found time to put on a dinner for Cobaya, gathering thirty diners around the counter at Obra for a seven-course dinner.[1]

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya Obra with Chef Carlos Garcia flickr set).


I really love the layout at Obra, where there's a smattering of tables in front, but the bulk of the seating is at a long, three-sided counter that surrounds the open kitchen, a variation on the sort of horseshoe type counter you would find in old diners like S&S.



Chef Garcia started the meal with some snacks: a puffy arepita topped with sea urchin and guasacaca sauce (a Venezuelan staple that I think of as either a salsa verde bolstered with avocado, or a very loose guacamole), and some feathery, crisp chicharrones for scooping up a cauliflower cream enriched with a generous dollop of trout roe. A great start.


To follow, a whole Japanese eggplant (here's where you can make an entirely appropriate use of the 🍆 emoji), basted in beet juice and red wine before being roasted until it's all supple and silky inside. The menu listed this as "eggplant + goat cheese + red wine," but those toasts were instead topped with foie gras butter – a substitution I fully support. While foie often gets matched up with sweet, fruity flavors, I really enjoy when it gets to play with more savory, vegetal elements.


Chef Garcia called his tostone a "toast/ton," which he then topped with ribbons of fresh raw tuna, avocado, jalapeño, and a spicy guava sauce.

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Friday, July 5, 2019

Cobaya Kamayan at Pao

We've been on a bit of a hiatus at Cobaya for a while, but returned to action last month with a return visit to Pao at the Faena Hotel. Pao had been the site of Experiment #63 a few years ago, when chef Paul Qui and his then chef de cuisine Derek Salkin put together an eight-course menu that had the look and feel of a "fine dining" meal, but which resonated with Filipino flavors: kumamoto oyster kinilaw, foie gras lumpia, maitake mushroom dinuguan, oxtail and beef tongue kare kare.

This time around, Paul and CDC Ben Murray – who joined Pao a few months after that last dinner and has been heading up the Miami restaurant for the past 2 1/2 years – took us even deeper into Filipino territory with a kamayan dinner.[1]

As our guinea pigs arrived, they were brought onto the back terrace at Pao, where one long table underneath a thatched roof pergola had been draped with banana leaves and then laden with our dinner for the evening.

(You can see all my pictures in this Cobaya Kamayan at Pao flickr set).

They described it on the menu like so:
"A Kamayan Dinner is a communal style Filipino feast, composed of colorful arrays of food that are usually served on banana leaves and eaten without utensils."

It was a lot to take in at once. There was sticky, crispy edged lechon, slices of rich wagyu beef, sticky sweet ribs, fat, well-spiced grilled shrimp, tender chicken inasal (typically marinated in calamansi juice and coconut vinegar), flaky grilled loup de mer. There was achara (the Filipino version of papaya salad), kimchi, grilled bok choy, planks of pickled daikon radish. There were crisp fried plantain chips, batons of juicy grilled pineapple, mangoes halved and cross-hatched. There were puffy little pan de sal buns, and more rice than forty people could possibly consume in one sitting. There were sauces – a spicy-sweet nam jim, a salty-tangy toyomansi, a bright garlic and black pepper vinegar.



Instead of an impeccably plated, rigorously calibrated multi-course tasting menu, this was a free-for-all: take a little bit of this, then maybe some of that, try it with this sauce and then the next bite with another. Paul said that Flipinos like eating savory and sweet together, and while that's usually not my thing, in this context it made complete sense.

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Monday, January 21, 2019

best dishes of 2018 - part 3

herbed tostada - Willows Inn
We're already a few weeks deep into 2019, but I'm still writing 2018 on my blog posts. Here's the last round of my personal "best dishes of 2018," which starts at one of my favorite places on earth, then spends the rest of its time back here in sunny South Florida. You can read Part 1 and Part 2 here. Happy New Year, all!

smoked black cod doughnuts - Willows Inn
smoked sockeye salmon - Willows Inn
heirloom wheat bread, crab brain - Willows Inn
fruits and their leaves and kernels - Willows Inn
In late summer we made our third pilgrimage to Blaine Wetzel's Willows Inn on Lummi Island, a tiny speck on the map among the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington State. Our first visit was almost exactly five years earlier, in 2013, and we fell in love – not just with the restaurant, which is wonderful, but with the idyllic, tranquil island itself. This latest meal was our best yet at Willows. (More pictures, of dinner and also of Lummi Island, in this Willows Inn flickr set).

It's unusual for a restaurant to have multiple "signature" dishes, but several from Willows Inn could easily be called that: the "tostada" crafted from a tempura-fried mustard leaf, smeared with an oyster and herb emulsion and festooned with everything fresh and blooming from the garden, a different burst of flavor in every bite; the puffy donuts stuffed with smoked black cod, sprinkled with sea salt and dried seaweed; the perfect smoked salmon, about which I said five years ago: "You realize: this is the best salmon you are ever going to eat in your life." I didn't consider at the time: you can always go back. This time was just maybe even better.

The other dishes pictured here reflect how Wetzel so effectively captures place and time, location and season. During our first two visits, a hearty bread course was one of the highlights, in large part because it came with a ramekin of rich, sticky chicken drippings for dipping. This time, instead of chicken drippings, there was a crab carapace – from nearby waters, of course[1] – filled with bits of warm crabmeat covered in a thick blanket of creamy crab brains, with an intense but clean and pure taste of the sea. Frod Jr. told me months later he was still thinking about how good this was. Yup. Dessert was pretty magical too: an assortment of fruits captured at their peak of ripeness, paired up with something else from the same fruit: peaches and blackberries with ices made from their leaves, plums in a syrup of their kernels, obscenely fresh figs right off the tree with a fig leaf cream.

When I win the lottery – or maybe even if I don't – this is where you'll find me one day.

lobster thermidor - The Surf Club Restaurant
I might have ruffled a few feathers when I said in Eater that the biggest dining surprise of 2018 was how boring the menu was at The Surf Club Restaurant:

The space is gorgeous, the service is outstanding, the execution is precise, but the choices are just ... so ... dull. I get the whole “throwback” theme, and it provides some highlights (the Oysters Rockefeller are second only to Galatoire’s IMO, and I thought the Lobster Thermidor was great), and I like going there. But when I heard we were getting a Thomas Keller restaurant, and when he brought in a creative, talented chef like Manuel Echeverri, who was doing great things at Bazaar Mar, to run the kitchen – well, I was hoping for something more.

The truth is, I have ambivalent feelings about the Surf Club. I've thoroughly enjoyed my three visits there; just not so much for the food, which has been good, but not particularly memorable. I expected more things like the Lobster Thermidor, an Escoffier classic which frankly I'd never had a particularly good example of until this one. Instead of the typical stodgy spackle mounded into a lobster shell, this version held some surprises: a ragout of lobster meat and vegetables plus a thin sheet of crispy puff pastry concealed under a burnished blanket of cream and cheese, the perfume of tarragon wafting from within, all serving as the bed for a precisely cooked lobster tail, some preserved morels providing a rich, woodsy counterpoint which acted as a bridge for the aromatic red Burg that wine director Zach Gossard generously poured for me. More like this, please.

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