Monday, November 25, 2019

some thoughts on growing a Beard (Award)

There's been some griping from some quarters – OK, from me, among others – about how Miami has been under-represented in the annual ritual of bestowing James Beard Awards. On one hand, maybe it's silly to pay any attention at all – that argument's been made pretty eloquently very recently by Ghee's Niven Patel, who always has such a good perspective on such things. But the reality is that most chefs like to be recognized for their hard work, and a Beard Award happens to be one recognition that is still regarded as valuable currency by many in the industry and in the dining public.

Much can be questioned about the Beard Awards: that the voting process, standards, and accountability remain rather opaque, that some of the regional categories tend to disproportionately favor certain cities,[1] that the awards tend to go to chefs who have been around the block a few times over fresh new talent, and have historically been predominantly white and male. But that's not my purpose here, and I'll acknowledge that the Foundation has been taking steps to try to address all those issues.

Rather, my purpose is to consider what we, as South Florida diners, can do about it. And here's a simple thing: submit a nomination form. The link is right here – James Beard Foundation - The 2020 James Beard Awards – and anyone can create an account and submit a nomination, up until December 2.

Now, let me immediately make clear that I am not suggesting any sort of balloting campaign for anyone in particular. The awards are not popularity contests and the number of nominations submitted has nothing to do with whether someone is selected. Rather, what I'm suggesting is that if there is someplace or someone that you think is deserving of recognition, you should create an account, make your submission, and maybe most important, explain why you're doing so (each submission has a box for "Why are you recommending this chef/restaurant?").

I do think these are very good times for Miami dining, and that there are many people doing great things who deserve recognition for it. And I'm concerned that one of the reasons that's not as well seen from the national perspective is that there isn't a robust enough discussion of what's happening here. So FWIW, here are my nominations (which will be submitted to the Beard Foundation without pictures, those are just for your entertainment):

Best Chef South

Niven Patel (Ghee, Erba)

Niven Patel’s Ghee is not just a “great Indian restaurant.” It’s not just a “great Miami restaurant.” It’s a GREAT RESTAURANT. Period. If there is one place in Miami that I think would stand out in any city in the U.S., this is it. But at the same time, part of what makes Ghee so special is how closely it’s tied to South Florida - all the way down to sourcing a significant portion of the menu from Niven’s family’s backyard farm in Homestead.

Traditional Indian dishes like bhel puri, pakora, chicken tikka masala and saag paneer serve as inspiration but not a straitjacket, because the menu is equally inspired by South Florida’s local products – the bhel puri is topped with fresh local wahoo, the pakoras feature calabaza or taro leaf Niven grows himself, the tikka masala is enriched with local heirloom tomatoes, the saag paneer uses backyard kale. In season, a whole section of the menu is devoted to “Rancho Patel” local fruits and vegetables. Niven’s taken the farm-to-table ethos of his former alma mater, Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink (where he was Chef de Cuisine for 3 years from 2013-2016 under Best Chef South 2010 winner Michael Schwartz) to a new level and introduced it to the vibrant, deep flavors of Indian cuisine. I love the bright flavors, fresh products, and how the menu is always in constant motion, in sync with the seasons.

The three-course family-style tasting menu (which features an assortment of dishes for each “course”) is one of the best $55 meals you will find anywhere. There is not a person I’ve recommended Ghee to or taken there that hasn’t left happy.

(continued ...)

Brad Kilgore (Alter, Brava, Kaido, Ember)

Brad Kilgore’s Alter, which opened in 2015, has upended a lot of preconceptions about Miami dining. Many - myself included, to be honest - didn’t see Miami as a place where a tasting menu format could succeed. But Brad, who worked in some of Chicago’s top kitchens – L2O, Alinea, Boka – before coming to Miami, has found a way to do it that resonates with both locals and visitors. Brad’s cooking is finessed, but the atmosphere at Alter is more in keeping with its “warehouse district converted to arts district” Wynwood neighborhood. There’s a great balance in his cooking between boldness and delicacy in flavors, and between richness and lightness in textures. The “signature” dish at Alter is his “soft egg,” suspended in a light-as-air scallop espuma studded with truffle pearls, gruyere crisps and a floater of Florida caviar. But that same balance shows in a dish like his grouper done with a silky, umami-loaded shoyu hollandaise, served with black rice, delicate sea lettuces and wispy cucumber ribbons.

Alter was a semifinalist for “Best New Restaurant” in 2016, and Brad was a semifinalist for “Rising Star Chef” in both 2016 and 2017, and a finalist for Best Chef South in 2018 and a semifinalist in 2019. He deserves the recognition of Best Chef South.

Michael Beltran (Ariete, Chug’s, Navé)

Michael Beltran hasn’t been on the Beard Awards’ radar yet. He ought to be. Beltran opened his first restaurant, Ariete, in 2016, after working with some of Miami’s best: Norman Van Aken (Best Chef Southeast 1997, Who’s Who of Food & Beverage 2003, and nominee for Best New Restaurant (1996) and Outstanding Restaurant (2005) for Norman’s Coral Gables) at Tuyo, and Michael Schwartz (Best Chef South 2010) at Cypress Room. It has become one of Miami’s best restaurants, an expression of the city, of Beltran’s Cuban heritage, and of the things he’s learned from his mentors.

Beltran has a fondness for the classics, usually with a bit of a twist – venison tartare bound with a black garlic aioli paired with pickled mushrooms, beef bourguignon with beef tongue and veal heart, outstanding house-made charcuterie. His seared foie gras with sour orange temptation caramel, plantains and cacao nibs is a pitch perfect ode to Van Aken’s “Down Island French Toast.” But Mike also serves a fantastic frita cubana as a bar snack (or an appetizer) and a caveman style pastrami-spiced short rib with a shaved vegetable salad. Where Ariete has really come into its own, though, is when local flavors and ingredients serve as the inspiration: dishes like tamal en cazuela with local mushrooms, or a fantastic salad of heirloom local beans, castelfranco raddichio and starfruit, or turnips glazed in guarapo with bacon and raisins. There may not be anyone doing a better job right now of capturing and finding new ways of presenting Miami’s many flavors.

Deme Lomas (Niu Kitchen, Arson)

Deme Lomas was a two-time semifinalist for Best Chef South in 2016-2017. He deserves to be on that list. A visit to Niu Kitchen is one of the most reliably good eating experiences you can have in Miami. Deme’s cooking at Niu embodies the interplay of tradition and creativity that makes Catalan cuisine so exciting. So you can get pa amb tomaquet that is every bit as good as you’ll find anywhere in Spain, or you can get a cold tomato soup with mustard ice cream that will surprise you with how delicious that combination turns out to be. Something as simple as exquiexada is a revelation of intense, complementary flavors, while a rice with rabbit confit and escargot will have you scraping your spoon against the cast iron pan for all the last crusty bits. Deme’s cooking is soulful but not stodgy, adventurous but not alienating.

Outstanding Baker

Zak Stern (Zak the Baker)

For a time, Zak the Baker was Miami’s best kept baking secret – supplying breads for Miami’s top restaurants out of a makeshift kitchen. The secret’s out now, and Zak’s baked goods can now be found all over town, including Whole Foods. Through it all, he’s kept a focus on quality and community. When he first opened the retail bakery and café, he had a vision of it as a place where Miami’s haredi (orthodox Jews) and hipsters would hang out together. I thought he was crazy. He was right. Where they find common ground is with his great naturally leavened sourdough breads, flaky croissants, airy bourekas, fluffy babkas, and now, he’s trying his hand with bagels. After having sampled several, I think we’re going to be experiencing a bagel renaissance in Miami.

Outstanding Pastry Chef

Antonio Bachour (Bachour)

It is incomprehensible to me how Antonio Bachour has only once been named a semifinalist for Outstanding Pastry Chef (in 2016, while at the St. Regis Bal Harbour). Since he was last named for the award, he opened Bachour Bakery + Bistro in Miami’s Brickell neighborhood, then moved on from that to a larger space – named Bachour – in Coral Gables, as well as spots inside the Time Out Market and Citadel food halls. His technique is impeccable, his attention to detail is rigid, his flavors are vivid, his presentations are gorgeous. It's some of the finest pastry work I've seen.

He was named one of the “Top Ten Pastry Chefs in America” by the Institute of Culinary Education, “Best Pastry Chef” in 2018 by Best Chefs, he’s published four books, and travels around the world giving pastry masterclasses. Bachour is a talent on a national, even international level.

Best New Restaurant

Boia De

I don’t usually have “favorite” restaurants. But for the past several months I’ve had an easy answer when asked what my “favorite new restaurant” is: Alex Meyer and Luciana Giangrandi’s Boia De in Miami’s Little Haiti / Buena Vista neighborhood. Luci and Alex have impressive resumés: they met working the kitchen at The Nomad in New York, and between them have spent time at Eleven Madison Park, Carbone, Scarpetta, Animal and Son of a Gun. This is their first venture on their own, aside from a delightful taco truck called La Pollita which they ran while getting ready to open Boia De.

I’ve written more about Boia De here: deep thoughts - Boia De. TL/DR:

It’s “Italian-American” but in almost exactly the opposite sense as the typical red-sauce, checkered-tablecloth kind of place. Think baked littleneck clams with ‘nduja and lemon, hamachi crudo with yuzu salsa verde and fried capers, a chopped salad inspired by Nancy Silverton’s famous version at Mozza, and some fantastic pastas – foie gras tortellini in duck brodo, sweet corn agnolotti with crab, maltagliati with clams, beans and guanciale in a parmesan broth.

It’s a modest (24 seats in a “transitional” neighborhood) but also ambitious place, which 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.

Outstanding Bar Program

Broken Shaker

Broken Shaker has been a two-time semifinalist for the Outstanding Bar Program award, in 2013 and 2014. Since that time, it’s twice been recognized by the industry’s Tales of the Cocktail Awards as the “Best American Hotel Bar,” in 2015 and 2018, and the Bar Lab team behind Shaker – Elad Zvi and Gabe Orta – have opened Broken Shakers in Chicago, New York and LA.

There’s a good reason for their success: Elad and Gabe do a masterful job of creating places you want to be, and things you want to drink. The original Broken Shaker in the Freehand, formerly the Indian Creek Hotel, is like an idealized vision of a Miami backyard party, if your neighbor happened to mix some of the best cocktails in the country. It’s hard to ever pick favorites because the lineup changes month to month, and season to season – part of what makes it so fun.

Sweet Liberty

Sweet Liberty has never garnered any recognition from the Beard Awards – which is kind of surprising for a place that has been recognized at Tales of the Cocktail for three years running (2016 Best New American Cocktail Bar, 2017 Best American High Volume Cocktail Bar, and 2018 Best American Bar Team). Sweet Liberty has stayed strong after the untimely passing a year ago of its co-owner, Miami cocktail pioneer John Lermayer, and continues to offer one of the most interesting but unpretentious cocktail programs I’ve seen anywhere.

Outstanding Wine Program

Boia De

The times that South Florida has received attention in this category, it’s been places with dusty, encyclopedic wine lists: The Forge (2018 semifinalist), Bern’s Steak House (2015 semifinalist), The Biltmore (2011 semifinalist). Boia De isn’t that kind of place: there’s maybe 75 wines on the list, which still strikes me as a good selection for a place with only 24 seats. 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 the food at Boia De (which is my nominee for Best New Restaurant).

Those wines are selected by Bianca Sanon, who ran the wine program for Brooklyn’s Semilla before coming to Miami and connecting with Alex Meyer and Luciana Giangrandi for Boia De. Her taste is impeccable and her knowledge is deep. Every bottle on this list has a story and she can tell it. Plus, Bianca's passion, enthusiasm and friendliness are equaled by the entire crew at Boia De. Every bottle we’ve opened there has been an adventure, a learning experience, and a pleasure. It’s exactly what I want from a wine program.

Outstanding Chef

Michael Schwartz (Michael's Genuine, Amara at Paraiso, Tigertail + Mary and more)

Michael Schwartz was the 2010 Best Chef South winner – the last time a chef from South Florida received that honor. In 2014 he was selected as a semifinalist for the Outstanding Chef award. Since that time, his flagship – Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink – celebrated its tenth anniversary, and he’s opened several successful new restaurants, including Amara at Paraiso, Tigertail + Mary, a second Michael’s Genuine in Cleveland, and more.

The opening of Michael’s Genuine was a watershed moment for Miami dining, bringing the farm-to-table ethos to the forefront with food that was thoughtful and ingredient driven but never precious or fussy. It remains one of Miami’s most popular, successful and busy restaurants, in a city where places tend to come and go. It’s seen its Design District neighborhood completely transformed over the past few years, and Genuine's popularity at a time that there wasn’t much other reason to come there has played a huge role in that transformation.

Amara at Paraiso shows that you actually can have great food and great views at the same place (something perversely difficult to find in Miami). The menu draws inspiration from the many Latin American flavors that have found a home in South Florida: seafood towers stacked with ceviches, stone crabs and oysters; crispy, puffy, chewy yuca cheese puffs inspired by Colombian pan de queso; empanadas, banana leaf wrapped fish, meat or seafood parilladas with an assortment of things grilled over wood fire, all with wall-to-wall views of Biscayne Bay. It’s a perfect way to experience Miami.

Tigertail + Mary, his latest, has become an immediate fixture in Coconut Grove, managing to feel both new and fresh and like it’s always been a part of the neighborhood at the same time. It’s a place where people want to be, with food they want to eat:[2] local yellowjack crudo with tomatillo and smoked trout roe, delicious lamb meatballs with smoked yogurt, roasted swordfish with caponata, lots of vegetables.

But Michael’s contributions go beyond his own restaurants: what’s also notable is how many of his alumni have gone on to do great things. Two of my nominees for Best Chef South – Niven Patel and Michael Beltran – spent formative time in Michael’s restaurants. Several others have gone on to great success: Tim Piazza, who is opening Erba with Patel; Sam Gorenstein, who started My Ceviche; Devin Braddock, now pastry chef for Ariete, Dallas Wynne, now pastry chef at Stubborn Seed, Joshua Elliott, who is now executive chef at Toro in Boston; Matt Hinckley, who runs Hinckley’s Fancy Meats in Orlando. That is a legacy worth recognizing.

(edited to add):

Rising Star Chef

(I forgot about Rising Star Chef category! I also have no idea how old anyone is and if they qualify for the under-30 threshold, because everyone seems so young to me!)

Val and Nando Chang (ItamaeB-Side)

Valerie and Nando Chang were semifinalists for the Rising Star Chef award last year, and their work at Itamae and now B-Side in the 1-800-Lucky food hall, shows why. Their take on a Nikkei style sushi bar manages to consistently surprise and please at the same time. One time it may be a tiradito of salmon, napped with a creamy, mildly spicy huancaina sauce, topped with a blanket of fresh parmesan, a sprinkling of crispy quinoa, and a dusting of togarashi spice mix, which is unexpected, weird and wonderful. Another time it may be a "tiradito del mar" with ribbons of fatty raw hamachi and firmer octopus, nuggets of crispy fried corvina jalea, plus avocado, choclo and cancha, all awash in a leche de tigre which got its start as chupe, the rich, creamy, intensely oceanic Peruvian seafood stew, with some pockets of sarza criolla for one more element of piquant contrast. Many Peruvian restaurants, in South Florida anyway, take this sort of Lego-like approach, where dishes and their components come in a seemingly infinite variety of interchangeable combinations. But none are doing it with more interesting and delicious results than Itamae.

Karla Hoyos (The Bazaar)

In early 2018, Hoyos took over the reins at José Andrés' Bazaar in South Beach without the place missing a beat. No doubt, time she spent at some of Spain's top restaurants – Martin Berasategui and Rekondo, among others – helped, along with an education from the Culinary Institute of Mexico in Veracruz and several years as executive chef of a restaurant management company. While running one of Miami's top kitchens for one of the country's top chefs, she's also made herself a valuable part of the local culinary community, participating in food events at local farms, in collaborative dinners, and events like Cochon 555. But maybe even more significant is the work she's done to support World Central Kitchen, the charitable organization founded by Andrés that has been instrumental in feeding communities disrupted by natural disasters. She met Andrés when she joined WCK in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria for a six-day stint that turned into a month-and-a-half stay. A year later she was in the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian, helping turn out hundreds of thousands of meals. More info here in Edible South Florida and Miami New Times.

Ben Murray (Pao)

Since late 2016, Ben Murray has run the kitchen as chef de cuisine at Pao, the restaurant Paul Qui opened in the Faena Hotel a year earlier. It is one of Miami's most singular dining experiences, a high-end restaurant using top-quality ingredients in a menu that draws heavily on Filipino and Japanese flavors. Ben puts his own touch on the menu with dishes like his wagyu carpaccio with warm bone marrow vinaigrette, truffled comté karokkes and yuzu kosho, his "perfect bites" like a tempura fried anchovy with chorizo butter and tomato jam over milk bread, or a Japanese potato karroke topped with trout roe and lemon creme fraiche. Ben's also hosted a series of "Chef Collective" dinners at Pao working with top chefs from Miami and around the world. I think he's one of Miami's top young talents.

[1] Go ahead, ask me about New Orleans and the Best Chefs South category.

[2] I see I used this line already for Broken Shaker, clearly the editor's asleep at the wheel. It's OK, it's really true of both these spots, and they're separate nominations anyway.

1 comment:

  1. This is really great. I had similar thoughts when Bon Appetit magazine made their list of 100 best new restaurants and there was not a single one from Florida. They had actually made a snarky comment when asked about it. There are so many gems in Miami, esp if you stray away from the beach and, more importantly, the chefs here are really invested in the community. Thanks for writing this.