Sunday, September 29, 2019

deep thoughts: Boia De | Buena Vista (Miami)

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.

(continued ...)

Salads are another great place to start, especially the "Luci's chopped salad," an homage to the legendary Nancy's chopped salad that Nancy Silverton serves at Pizzeria Mozza in L.A. It's simple and perfect: crisp cold radicchio and greens, cannellini beans, dried tomatoes, peperoncini, shards of provolone cheese, and a sharp, tangy dressing that ripples its way through every bite. I know someone who orders two every time they visit. But that's not to sell short the green goddess salad with soft lettuces, radishes, fine herbs and crispy shallots, or for that matter the grilled broccolini with ranch dressing, wilted bitter greens and a generous shower of shaved bottarga.

Their beef tartare won't win any beauty contests, but I'll take flavor over Instagram-friendliness every time. They start with a richly flavored hanger steak, chopped fine enough so you're not distracted by any connective tissue, not so fine that it loses all texture. It's then draped with a silky, creamy tonnato sauce, crispy golden bread crumbs redolent of garlic and shallot, plump capers, and snipped chives. Grilled Sullivan Street Bakery bread is an ideal vehicle for scooping it all up. There's another meaty smaller plate on the menu, pork toro with a sticky, dark pork and fennel jus, and while I liked the deep porcine flavor here, the toughness of the pork made it a bit of a workout.

You can make a meal of small plates like these – a very good meal – but then you'd miss out on the pastas. That would be a mistake. This section of the menu seems to be the most malleable, as several of these dishes have come and gone since Boia De opened in late June. But they have all been outstanding, starting with the tortellini in brodo, with pillows of foie gras stuffed pasta bobbing in a deeply flavored, limpid duck consomme. This was one of the best things I've eaten all year. But sorry, it's off the menu.

When the foie gras tortellini made their exit, these sweet corn agnolotti took their place, helping ease the loss. It's another great dish, the sweetness of the corn matched by strands of sweet snow crab, tweaked up with Meyer lemon, the herbaceous licorice note of tarragon adding a bright final touch.

Another favorite that has had more staying power, existing in that peculiarly Italian territory between soup, stew and pasta dish, combines cannellini beans, steamed clams, maltagliati, guanciale, and an umami-loaded parmesan broth. And as we all came out of our hidey-holes after prepping for Hurricane Dorian earlier this month, I was happy to find Boia De open and serving delicious speck and mascarpone ravioli with a cherry tomato pomodoro and generous dollops of stracciatella.

So far everything you've seen here is sub-$20. There are just a few things on the menu that cross that price point, including these crispy potato skins with more of that stracciatella, sieved hard boiled egg, and a couple really generous dollops of caviar. This may come as a surprise, but they are just a bit better than those you'll find at T.G.I. Friday's.[1] Lamb ribs fra diavolo are a recent addition, and a good one – napped with a spicy sauce, sitting atop creamy yogurt spiked with urfa biber pepper, and garnished with fat tangy pickles. Otherwise, this is the last remaining unexplored territory of the menu for me, where a grouper with crispy artichokes and lemon beurre blanc, and the occasional large format steak, still lurk.

Desserts include a yuzu panna cotta garnished with crisp coconut tuiles and seasonal fruit – pictured here, juicy "neighborhood mangoes" from back in July, more recently with guava.

Not as seasonal or local but just as delicious is the dark chocolate budino topped with a layer of caramel and candied hazelnuts. Or, you can go with some ice creams made specially for Boia De by local maven Frice Cream, including vin santo and cantucci, amarena cherry, and young ginger.

Even if the food were only OK, I might go to Boia De just for the wines, selected by Bianca Sanon, whose taste is impeccable and whose smile can light up a room. It's not a list designed for trophy-hunters, but rather for pleasure-seekers and adventurists, focusing on lively, natural, low-intervention wines that are a great match for Alex and Luci's food. Bianca's suggestions have played a huge role in turning Mrs. F into a complete wine hipster, now she's all "pet-nat" this and "skin contact" that all the time. Bianca's passion, enthusiasm and friendliness are equaled by the entire crew at Boia De – it's just a happy place to visit.

Before opening Boia De, Luci and Alex had run the much-loved La Pollita food truck, serving great tacos and Miami's best fried chicken sandwich, but this is their first full-blown restaurant. I cannot think of a more successful Miami debut. Our first visit was ten days after their opening, and the place was operating at a very high level, and has been steadily consistent on every visit since (and there have been several). But that should probably not come as a surprise for a couple who met working the kitchen at The Nomad in New York, and whose collective resumés also include Carbone and Scarpetta (Luci) as well as Eleven Madison Park and Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo's Animal and Son of a Gun in L.A. (Alex).

The venue for all this may surprise some: right between a medical clinic and a laundromat in a modest old strip mall in Buena Vista, just south of Little Haiti. Despite the tony Design District lying just a mile further south, this is not what many would call a prestige location. But with the assistance of designer Paula Lemme, a childhood friend of Luci's, they've done a great job taking the bones of a prior restaurant – what used to be Seven Seas Restaurant & Fish Market – and turning them into a cozy, funky and comfortable spot, with half of its 24 seats running along a counter facing the bar and kitchen prep area.[2] It's utterly charming, even when a/c condensation occasionally drips down your back while sitting at that counter.

What's been gratifying to see is how well the restaurant has been received. Sure, it's only 24 seats, but almost all of them are filled every time I've visited, whether on a weekend or middle of the week. There should be a lesson here for aspiring chefs and restaurateurs: you don't necessarily need a million dollar build-out in a hot neighborhood to find an audience in Miami. Maybe start with 700 square feet in an oddball space, make some great food, and see what happens.

Boia De is pretty much exactly what I want from a restaurant: creative food made with care from good ingredients, interesting wines, a friendly staff, at a fair price point that's still manageable as a casual mid-week meal. How cool!

Boia De!
5205 NE 2nd Avenue, Miami, Florida
(closed Tuesdays; reservations via Resy)

[1] This would make a great tagline: "Slightly better than T.G.I. Friday's!"

[2] Other local contributions come by way of the beautiful plateware supplied by DK Pots a/k/a Danielle Kaufmann, wife of Proper Sausage's Freddy Kaufmann.

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